Pleasure and happiness, the original Frienemies?

I thought they were friends, but it turns out, the reality is, in our bodies it is a battle.

The food industry, the entertainment industry, social media, the fashion industry, even the pharmaceutical industry, wants us to think pleasure and happiness are the same things, that pleasure leads to happiness and the other way around.

But guess what, neuroscience tells a different story.

If you think about it you can probably figure this out yourself. Pleasure and happiness are very different experiences in our bodies.

Pleasure is intense and short term.

Happiness is mellower and is long term.

There are other differences between the two…

We search for pleasure even when we have found it. It is addictive. We often feel we can’t get enough or it wasn’t as good as last time or other peoples experience is better. The grass is always greener with pleasure sometimes during the pleasurable experience but always after.

Pleasure uses the dopamine system which is prone to addiction.

When we find happiness, one the other hand, we stick with it. We quit looking. Happiness breeds contentment. When we have it, it feels good and easy. We are satisfied. We don’t really want more, it is just enough. And, while pleasure is taking, happiness is giving.

Happiness predominantly uses the serotonin system which can get depleted when there is too much dopamine around.

Say what? Did I just say that pleasure depletes the neurotransmitters of happiness? You heard me right!! Pleasure isn’t the friend of happiness. AND, pleasure alone won’t get you there.

So why do we often believe that we can find happiness through things that give us pleasure? That is because of marketing from big corporate. They want us to believe it so we can get addicted to their products.

They are very aware of the pleasure traps on human beings and they capitalize on them – to our detriment.

However, if you become aware of the pleasure traps too then they will cease to have as much power over you and your behavior.

Here they are:

We have evolved survival mechanisms for 100,000 years of being hunters and gatherers that help us be better hunter and gatherers but aren’t particularly suited to our current environment.

So, we have a strong desire and search for high calorie foods that are sweet, salty and fatty. Whiles these were difficult to come by for our ancestors, for us they are readily available at every convenience store drive through or in our own cabinets.

This convenience satisfies our evolutionary need to “conserve energy”. We are constantly looking for getting the pleasure faster and easier. Our technology has accommodated us well.

And, when we find these desired foods with the perfect combination of fat, salt and sugar, we feel a sense of pleasure which we seek to duplicate. Thus looking for that quintessential “perfect bite” which always seems to be in the next item.

But it isn’t just about food. We also have a need to belong to a social group, to be loved and included. These needs are preyed upon by marketers as well. Think social media, gaming, entertainment, fashion. The list goes on. We are told if we purchased this item or that item, we will be accepted, respected, maybe even revered. We are encouraged to make judgments about other people based on their belongings, how they look, how many likes or “friend” they have. These are all pleasure traps too.

There is another one I learned about recently that was uncovered by a study done in which they created “trust fund” rats. Let me explain:

If a rat gets to dig for his food reward, he feels satisfied (as evidenced by his content behavior). On the other hand if a rat is constantly just given a food reward without having to work for it, he starts to get anxious. He doesn’t settle down. He isn’t satisfied.

The researchers explain it is similar for humans, when we have easy access to what we want without having to put out any physical effort, we are left unsatisfied and anxious. And I am guessing unappreciative of what we have.

This suggests that setting a goal for something pleasurable and working to achieve it comes with it’s own rewards that can bring happiness along with pleasure. This is good news. Who wants to forgo all pleasure in order to be happy?

Two secrets to having both pleasure and happiness:

  1. Focus on pleasures you have to work for, that you have to stretch for, that require some personal growth or investment. When you receive them, not only will you get the pleasure but you will also get the empowering rewards of achievement, learning and growth. Appreciation, contentment and happiness can follow that.
  2. When you do achieve pleasure, don’t drop it by getting distracted by the next shiny object. When you are in the pleasure moment, be fully aware of every sensory aspect of it. Appreciate it, relish it. When you get the fullness of the experience you are more likely to be satisfied with it and less likely to be searching for more.

Some magical things about humans are: we can think. We have free will. We don’t have to succumb to the pleasure traps or the marketing messages of pleasure equals happiness.

Knowledge is power.

Now that you know what can steal away your happiness, you can be aware of your own experience and reactions and choose to guide yourself toward long term happiness rather than short term pleasure.

One of my clients recently described a breakthrough that she had that changed everything for her. She realized that she could choose her thoughts. Now this wasn’t an intellectual exercise for her. When she made this realization she immediately put it into practice.

If she observed a thought, she immediately took control and wielded the power to chose. She chose the thought that just passed by, but didn’t cling to it. She would quickly evaluate the usefulness of the thought and very consciously chose a different thought that would be more effective for her goals.

Wow! This is a skilled Thought Warrior. The energy work and meditation practice that she had been doing gave her the mental prowess to put into place the concept that few people master.

I love it that I learn so much from my clients. It is a good day with the student surpasses the master. In my mindful practice, I aspire to have the thought ninja skills that my client exhibits.