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May 26, 2023

Mistaking Happiness For Pleasure

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Let’s outline a very important difference between happiness and pleasure. We must understand this difference because at the end of the day, the common goal we share in our lives is to experience more moments of authentic joy and happiness. However, if we go about pursuing it in the wrong way we may actually be doing more harm than good.

One of humanity’s fatal flaws is that evolutionarily we were designed to seek instant gratification. As James Clear describes in “Atomic Habits”, what is immediately rewarded is repeated and everything else is avoided. In other words, our unconscious pattern is to do things that make us feel good in the moment, which often conflicts with what makes us feel good later. 

To state it another way, our hardwiring for instant gratification creates a short circuit where we engage in things that are pleasurable in the moment but don’t deliver the sustained benefits we’d rather see over the long term.

This is a short circuit - When something feels pleasurable it means that we are experiencing the benefits of doing it in the moment. Here are a few examples of how pleasure can lead us astray: 

We overindulge in a meal, enjoying the taste of good food only to feel sick to our stomach later that night. 

It’s the desire to have sex with a person that feels good in the moment but later complicates things in a relationship or damages your own self-respect. 

We scroll on social media to find little moments of unexpected entertainment and then regret how we wasted our time doing something meaningless.

Ultimately, pleasure can be hollow but it’s enticing nonetheless because our brains crave it. 

In comparing happiness to pleasure I do want to make this addition. You can feel happiness alongside pleasure in a moment. The difference though is that pleasure is only concerned with the present moment and happiness considers much more than that. It’s a reflection of how your activity relates with your core values, facilitates your growth and development into who you want to be, and supports your overall happiness and well-being in lasting ways. Examples of happiness include:

Getting word that you passed an exam you studied hard for, opening a door to a new profession you’re excited about.

Spending quality time with a person who plays an important role in your life.

Feeling gratitude for your life and everything that you have in it.

So if you can be more discerning between the two, happiness and pleasure, pursue happiness. It will lead to a much more enriching life where you feel good about who you are and how you’re filling your life with genuine joy.

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