Trying to make sense of life and to learn living it happily.

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Happiness vs. Pleasure

One of the dictionary definitions of happiness is "pleasure" (www.dictionary.com) or "a pleasurable experience" (Merriam-Webster online dictionary). A lot of times, we substitute these two concepts one for another. Happiness is defined by feeling pleasure. And conversely, whatever brings us pleasure, makes us happy. It seems that pleasures are the stepping stones to happiness, and we are chasing pleasures believing that we are looking for happiness.

In fact, these two are not at all the same, and in our pursuit of happiness, we have to recognize their difference.

Let's consider everyday examples of what might bring us pleasure. To eat a good meal is a pleasure. To watch a movie. To enter air conditioned building on a hot day. But do these things make us happy? And I mean really happy - not feeling good for a while, but knowing that we are happy individuals? 

The Dalai Lama in his book "The Way to Freedom" writes that pleasure is replacing one kind of suffering by another kind of suffering. For example, you stand for a long time and you are tired, so when you sit down; it's a pleasure. But as you continue sitting down, you will find that you feel uncomfortable, and now you want to stand up, run a little, walk around. If you are hungry, to eat is a pleasure indeed. But if you keep eating past the point where you feel full, it will become unpleasant. When you are hot - you derive pleasure from cooling down. But you get cold in a while, and yearn for warmth. You get the idea. The pleasures we crave are actually the very beginnings of suffering of one kind or another. If we keep doing and doing the things that bring us pleasure, they will not be pleasurable for long. That proves the wisdom that everything is good in moderation only. That also contradicts the notion of lasting happiness. 

The other observation that helps distinguish happiness from pleasure is that pleasure is something that mostly comes from the outside sources. It's the food, the climate, the money, friends, technology etc. that bring us pleasure. And these pleasurable occurrences only bring us pleasure as they happen. As soon as  we do not get the next scheduled meal, enough money, or the friends leave, the pleasure rapidly subsides. Happiness is something that comes from within us. It is a lasting feeling that ideally does not depend on the food, the climate, the money, friends, technology, etc. 

Pleasures are fleeting, while happiness is a sustainable constant within us.

This is not to devalue pleasures. Truly, they are great! (Well, most of the time.) But we have to be able to clearly distinguish between the two ideas, and not mix one for the other. When we've separated the concepts of happiness and pleasure, we become one step closer to understanding what happiness is and what it consists of.


  1. As a joke goes, pigs have lots of pleasure but probably no lasting happiness :) On a serious note, as this post says everything is good in moderation, even good or very good things. Unless you find what makes you happy, you would not be satisfied. For example, you can work very hard all your life, postponing travel and adventures, postponing your happiness until the retirement, when you'll have free time. However, after retirement if you do not have hobby or interest, what are you going to do with all the free time. It can make you completely miserable.

    1. I think your comment is very apt. How many times it feels that we have to endure just a little longer, and then just a little more, until all of a sudden we look in the mirror at that aged person and wonder where the life have gone.

      AARP just released a study on what defines happiness for adults (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/aarp-releases-new-study-on-what-defines-happiness-for-adults-35-2012-06-04). The results of this study support the finding of a U-shape curve of happiness by age. The early 50s is the lowest point from which happiness builds. It seems like early 50s is the time when most of our chores concerning family, carrier and children, are lifted and we finally get a good look in the mirror.
      I hope we will avoid the dip in happiness levels by practicing happiness skills regularly :)

      On a side note, pigs among other animals probably do not have lasting happiness or any kind of happiness, because they cannot conceptualize it. And that's a kind of a happiness in itself. If you don't know that you can be happy or unhappy, then it is not a choice for you. In this case, ignorance is a bliss.

  2. Alex, why would you discount work in itself as a source of fulfillment and delight? I know at least one person who was so consumed with work that he didn't take a vacation on his own volition for 30 years. I wouldn't be sad for him, as he now looks in the mirror, as you say, and sees an aged face. He was a remarkably productive individual and an original thinker who contributed to society and for whom work was not just a way of earning an income, but his life, which he truly enjoyed. I do think people should approach life thoughtfully, and choose activities with purpose. -Julia

    1. Julia ~
      like you say, people should choose what they fill their lives with to feel happy. It is different for everyone. For some, it's family and kids; for some, it's their hobbies; for some, it's their homes, etc, etc.
      Meaningful work is one of these choices. But not everyone feels about it the way you describe. And when you do not enjoy the work as much, it may feel like you are biding you time, waiting for better things to come alone.
      We should always remember that the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives. And it's always our choice!

  3. Aim High! What have you aimed at today? Wash, feed, run run...
    and then tomorrow...? what about 30 years later? What am i to expect then? What about you- Where are you going to?

    1. BioR,
      these are all excellent question. Thinking about them is the reason I started this blog.
      Time is passing, our lives are passing. The only thing for us to do is to figure out what to do not to waste that time, and do it, and enjoy it; be happy while it happens. There is nothing wrong with washing and feeding, in fact, they are essential.
      As long as we do not lament that we've wasted our life when we are older.

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