Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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  • Gideon Waxfarb

    The ‘subscribe’ popup is fucking annoying. I’m just sayin’.

  • Prabhat Pingreja

    Contradictory. The author first writes “happiness is constant” and later he says “physical circumstances reduce happiness by 10% or so.” This second statement means that happiness is “variable.”

  • Yea i’d argue from extensive personal experience, you cannot sustain any degree of happiness when you are not maintaining a secure environment. So maybe, that 10% is more like 10% of the time you THINK it’s caused by psychical structures it actually is…. but their is no question, when it is, it’s 100% you are miserable. Ever been cold consistently? How about unclean? Things start as small irritations, start to snowball after long amounts of time. Can you rise above the physical world? Sure you *could*, but it’s not something I’d remotely expect from the average person… not even the average “happy” person. That’s monk style enlightenment, and even they are only able to maintain non-existence. If we could be happy in such conditions, we’d have gone extinct millions of years ago. So yea, material possessions are not related to core happiness, but housing, clothes, and a clean environment…. they are 100% in their ability to prevent happiness. To achieve any quality of life, you need still more however, you need self-actualization.

  • WithheldName

    Any opiate addict can tell you that pleasure isn’t happiness. We can charge up our “pleasure circuits” in our bodies…until they overload…but then comes the crash afterward. What goes up must come down. Pleasure is a zero-sum game.

    Freedom, peace, safety, health, belonging, trust, caring, personal meaning, personal expression, learning, and knowledge…these are what matter in life.

    • Enlightened one

      WithheldName Your argument is flawed. I don’t agree with you, let alone this whole article. Pleasure equals happiness and always has. The different contexts these words have been used in this article falsely make them seem different.
      In the case of an opiate addict, pleasure is definitely happiness. Your problem is that you are falsely connecting the pleasure of taking a drug to the depression that comes afterwords. Unfortunately for us, drugs do to us just as much harm as good. A drug addict continually uses the drug because the pleasure they derive at least outweighs its negative effects. Any addict will tell you they despise the depression that comes after a high and that is precisely why they take more of the drug – to get back to that pleasure state. We can define this view, which is know in philosophy as hedonism, to be that things are good if they give us pleasure or if they take away pain. In this sense, retaking the drug will reduce the pain of depression.

      The things you regard as happiness-giving: freedom, peace, safety, health, belonging, trust…etc. can all be broken down to their element of pleasure. Essentially, we desire them because of their inherent pleasure. Everything that is pleasurable is all and only everything that makes you happy and vice versa. Pleasure is simply when something stimulates a release of dopamine in your system. Taking drugs is pleasurable/ makes you happy for as long as dopamine is being released and you ‘feel good’. But this pleasure/ happiness ceases immediately its negative effects kick in.

      This is not really a matter of semantics. Take out the context with which you are using these words and you will see the subconscious biases at work behind them. Biases that you’ve been indoctrinated with. Pleasure and happiness are really just the same thing.

      • Prithvi Singh

        Very flawed argument. Drugs give more depression than pleasure. In fact the phase of depression is much longer than the phase of pleasure. Moreover it is unsustainable. This unsustainablity brings more misery. Why a drug addict take drugs. One reason is to feel that momentary pleasure in otherwise misrrable life and another could be to get out of that depression phase which didn’t come by fate but was anyways brought by the pleasure seeking but misguided drug addict who had poor intellect to judge the long term consequences and was more focused on short term pleasure.

        Warm Regards

  • Art Marr

    Good article, pretty much correct, below is a confirming perspective from affective neuroscience

    This is an argument that takes the interpretation of happiness proposed by the distinguished neuroscientists Kent Berridge and Morton Kringelbach (happiness reflects concurrent increases in dopamine and opioid levels in the brain) and provides the first procedural demonstration of their hypothesis. Since the procedure is simple, innocuous, and easily falsifiable, if it doesn’t work, you will know it fast. My argument is provided in a free little book on the neuropsychology of rest, which was vetted and endorsed by Dr. Berridge. A synopsis of my argument is below and also on pp. 43-45 of the book. The book and Berridge’s article are linked below.

    Below is my argument in a nutshell:

    Individuals who engage in tasks in which they perceive a consistent and high degree of present and anticipated novel and positive outcomes or ‘meaning’ (e.g. sporting events, creative activity, doing productive work) commonly report a feeling of high alertness and arousal that may be construed to be due to the activation of mid-brain dopamine systems. However, a significant subset of these individuals also report a feeling of pleasure that is characteristic of opioid release, but these reports occur only in non-stressed situations when the musculature is relaxed. Since relaxation engages opioid systems in the brain, and because opioid and dopamine systems stimulate each other, the resulting blissful states require the simultaneous engagement of resting protocols and meaningful cognitive states, behaviors that are very easily achieved. In this way, which engages both resting protocols and an active sense of meaning, both dopamine and opioid release can be increased in the brain, and provide a level of deep rest that can effectively mitigate stress and anxiety while producing feeling of satisfaction or happiness.