Let’s be honest here: We’re all confusing pleasure and happiness sometimes.
We’ve all found ourselves dicking around on the internet instead of studying.
We’ve all tried ruining our appetite by snacking on junk food instead of at least something healthy.
And maybe we’ve all been in a relationship that we knew was going bad but couldn’t get ourselves to end. Because the comfort, safety, kisses and caressing touches seemed far more appealing than the uncertainties and stigmatizations of being single.
Sure, some are prone to this more than others. But none of us are able to flawlessly distinguish between where one ends and the other takes over.
(Indeed, there probably is no such fine distinction.)
Just to make sure we’re on the same page here, pleasure is an immediate sensation of enjoyment. Often brought on by sensory stimulus, whether eating an entire bag of chips, watching Netflix all day, abusing alcohol, having sex, or gambling. In other words, an externally triggered instant gratification.
Happiness, on the other hand, is purely internal, and cultivated more slowly and meticulously. Happiness stems from a sense of confidence and purpose. — Two things that I’ve found to be related in quite a few ways.
Paradoxically, happiness comes from feeling good about continually doing the things that might not bring you immediate pleasure, but which you know will bring you… Well, happiness!
With happiness being less attainable, it’s no wonder why so many people seem to be virtually chasing one high of pleasure after another.
By the way, in my opinion, there’s nothing necessarily bad about taking one night of decadent partying, comprising alcohol and sex galore, followed by a day of restitution, comprising chips and Netflix galore.
In fact, I deliberately do this every month. Because I’m only human; because I wanna live my one life to the max every once in a while; and because acute pleasure does not in itself rule out long-term happiness.
However, there’s something wrong about chasing instant gratification to an extent where it substitutes any happiness you might’ve had otherwise. And it seems most of us are far too prone to chase pleasure rather than happiness.
It’s not that it’s any surprise. In the words of Tony Schwartz, “enduring happiness often requires delaying gratification”. In other words, choosing happiness over pleasure IS harder for us.
But one thing is that it’s hard for us to deny ourselves pleasure; another is that it’s treacherously easy to get pleasure and happiness mixed up.
In fact, neuroscientists have even mapped out the hedonic brain circuitry — the part of our brain responsible for rewarding pleasure-seeking — speculating on the “potential interaction of hedonics with eudaimonic networks“.
… Meaning, in other words, that the two areas are difficult to distinguish even from a neuroanatomical standpoint.
(So don’t worry!)
Like with the above example of choosing to stay in a stillborn relationship because it feels better, it can also seem better. Of course we know that eating a burger meal instead of salad isn’t exactly healthy. But that’s not the only way we might confuse pleasure and happiness. Far from it.
And what I’ve found is that the lower one’s confidence, the lower one’s level of awareness. And the lower one’s level of awareness, the harder it is to make the crucial distinction between pleasure and happiness. — Necessarily!
It’s true that certain pivotal factors determining our happiness is beyond our control. For example, the global economy might impact certain local conditions adversely. And, by the way, anything else imaginable from civil war to our internet connection going down.
Other factors, we might be able to influence. Some people seem to be genetically more prone to depression than others. For certain ones, it’s probably out of their hands. But for most people by far, the ability to influence one’s attitude towards the world is far greater than one thinks. It’s all a matter of continually improving thereupon.
And then, continuing in this vein, there is a vastness of factors which we THINK should affect our happiness, but really don’t matter. For example, if you’re letting your happiness depend on whether you have holes in your socks, or whether the other supermarket queue is faster, you seriously need to take your idea of happiness into reevaluation.
(And I’m telling myself this just as much as I’m telling you.)
So, then, how do we get better at making a distinction that probably isn’t even there in the first place?
Good question. Like I said, it has much to do with the aforementioned awareness. And awareness, like any other state of mind, can be trained and nurtured.
You might wanna start by doing the following:
Should you find yourself unable to make a choice because you can’t seem to distinguish between pleasure and happiness, ask yourself: Will this bring me short-term pleasure? Or, will this rather bring me long-term happiness?
Keep this in mind from now on. It will get easier over time.
Cut off as many external sources of pleasure — and, indeed, distraction — as possible. For as long as possible.
Which sources of pleasure and distraction do you have in your life?
Internet? Television? Smartphone? Social media? Junkfood and/or candy? Alcohol? Regular sex?
How many of these do you rely upon for comfort on a daily basis? Are you able to cut them all off? If not, then how many? And which ones?
The only way to find out just how truly happy and stable we are is to abstain. The longer we’re able to feel genuine happiness without the use of external stimulants, the stronger we are.