Pleasure Vs. Happiness


Recently I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the brain, happiness and addiction. It’s been eye-opening. Most people’s defintion, I’ve come to realize, relates to pleasure, but do not have a concept of what long-term happiness is.

What’s the difference? Pleasure is short-term. It’s the dopamine kick we get in anticipation and from using something. Examples of pleasure run the gamut from gambling to sex to food to drugs. In all respects our brains from what one point of view is the brain of an addicts. Think of the card player or slot jockey at a casino. Or maybe the heroin addict. Or the cigarette smoker. Or how about the newest addiction, that of our addiction to our phones. Often times we think we have free will and are choosing to do these things. But neurochemically the picture can be interpreted quite differently. It some respects, without realizing, we are just chasing dopamine hit after dopamine hit, slaves when we think we’re free.

Happiness is different. In fact I don’t even like the word happiness because so many people associate it with pleasure. I prefer the Aristotelian word, eudaemonia, which translates roughly to contentment of the human spirit. This sort of contentment of the spirit is not chased by dopamine hits. (For the record, I don’t have anything inherently against short-term pleasure. I’ve been known to polish off a pint of ice cream and smoke too many cigarettes in my day!) How one reaches eudaemonia is of course different for anyone. I’m almost 40 and I think I’m just fully coming into my own form. But I’ve had to make some changes in my life.

For instance, I have deleted all social media apps from my phone. Also, I’ve started to carry a journal around for the first time in years, and have taken to writing journal entries and poetry, two things I had once loved. I’ve shut off my phone and all other screens when I’m at home for long periods of time and either meditate, write, cook or read. I exercise more, as I’ve gotten more and more into running. And I’m planning on buying a keyboard and learning to play the piano, something I always I’ve always wanted to do.

I tell you all this not because I am a shining example of contentment. I am not. But what I am is aware of how these addictions can come to rule our lives if we are not careful. I’ve brought this way of thinking more and more into my therapy sessions. I think people are often lost on what a happy life looks like, sold a narrative built on consumerism and capitalism that is false and shallow and will take over your soul if you let it.