The Difference Between Pleasure and Happiness
We at LifeEdited talk a lot about happiness. It’s in our tagline: Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy. We see the word splattered across bestseller lists: “The Happiness Project,” “Stumbling on Happiness,” “Delivering Happiness” and so forth. People cannot seem to get enough happy. But what the heck is it? And what is the difference between pleasure and happiness? And why should we care?
To answer these questions, we looked to an expert: Buddhist monk, author of ’The Happiest Person In The World’ and former molecular biologist, Matthieu Ricard. In a Huffington Post article entitled “Why Happiness is Not Pleasure“, he said this of happiness:
Happiness is a state of inner fulfillment, not the gratification of inexhaustible desires for outward things…genuine happiness may be influenced by circumstance, but it isn’t dependent on it. It actually gives us the inner resources to deal better with those circumstances.
Of the difference between pleasure and happiness, he says this:
Happiness is often equated with a maximization of pleasure, and some imagine that true happiness would consist of an interrupted succession of pleasurable experiences….There is no reason to deprive ourselves of the enjoyment of a magnificent landscape, of swimming in the sea or of the scent of a rose, but we must understand that the experience of pleasure is dependent upon circumstance, on a specific location or moment in time. It is unstable by nature, and the sensation it evokes can soon become neutral or even unpleasant.
In other words, pleasure is externally motivated and fleeting, while happiness is internally generated and constant.
Most of us know pleasure. It’s the sensation that drives us to eat a bag of chips even when we know it’s bad for our health; it’s the euphoric feeling of anticipation when waiting overnight to buy the new iPhone even though we know our current phone is perfectly adequate. Our pleasurable sensations are inextricable with the thing–the chips or the phone in this case. The things make us happy.
The trouble with equating pleasure with happiness is when the thing is gone, so too does our happiness. No chips, no happiness. Having last year’s phone can send us into a depression. Check out the movie “The Queen of Versailles” if you want to see the pleasure hunt play itself out to surreal proportions.
Conversely, happiness allows you to enjoy the chips, but not require them; use the phone, but realize it’s just a phone and a new one with slightly more power won’t make you happier in any meaningful way. Focusing on happiness is not better per se, but it’s more reliable.
One litmus test to distinguish pleasure from happiness is something a teacher once told me, “If something is a source of happiness, the more you do of it, the happier you will become.” Do more chips, phones, square feet or bacon (my personal fave) make us happier? Of course not. Sure, these things might be pleasurable, but after a while and in excess they lose their appeal and become “neutral or even unpleasant” as Ricard explains (any buffet-goer can testify to this).
If pleasure doesn’t make us happy, what does? One idea is that it’s experiences, not stuff that makes us happy–in other words internal states rather than objects. One theory promoted by Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness“ asserts there are three main factors that comprise our happiness:
- Set-point. This is essentially our biological level of happiness–it’s our happiness default setting. Some people might be literally hardwired to be less happy than others–or vice versa. This is thought to comprise up to 50% of our overall sense of happiness.
- Circumstances. Our physical circumstances do affect our happiness, but to a much smaller extent than most think (10% or so). Circumstances that can thwart happiness are things like no access to clean water, unsafe homes, etc. Circumstances that probably don’t thwart your happiness are having too large a tablet computer and too wide lapels on your blazer.
- Voluntary Variables. This is our behavior and thoughts. This makes up 40% of our overall happiness and can actually offset the set-point and circumstances.
The voluntary variables are what my teacher would say are the things that, when increased, promote happiness. These are behaviors and actions like generosity, kindness, love, gratitude, etc. The more we live in these states, the more we act in line with them, the happier we become.
How can LifeEdited be so bold as to say that we can help design your life to include more happiness? Full disclosure: We can’t make you happy. Sorry. But our mission to “edit” the things that don’t promote our happiness–the extraneous stuff and space–might help. No, the best designed apartment, most awesome stacking bowl or greatest towel will never, ever make you happy, but this “less, but better” stuff might give you less to think about, affording you more mental space for the stuff–those experiences and voluntary variables–that do.