Pleasure and happiness are two words which are so recklessly flung into daily conversations, articles, etc., yet, rarely in those fleeting circumstances is any extensive thought given as to the true meaning of each. While an infinite number of philosophers, psychologists and other ever-inquisitive individuals have attempted over the years to define pleasure and happiness, still, to this day, an accurate (and universally agreeable) depiction of both eludes us.
Let us begin at examining the current definitions of both. Merriam-Webster (n.d.) defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment; a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” Merriam-Webster (n.d.) defines pleasure as “a state of gratification; sensual gratification; frivolous amusement; a source of delight or joy.” Further, Merriam-Webster (n.d.) defines gratification as “a reward; source of satisfaction or pleasure.” Given these, albeit overly simplistic, definitions, one might surmise that happiness is the actual emotional state, while pleasure is the byproduct of an experience. In this, we see a striking resemblance to Aristotle’s characterization of pleasure as it relates to happiness, in that he saw happiness as a “condition of the soul” and pleasure as a byproduct of activity (Kraut, 2012). As we initially see, happiness and pleasure are often interconnected, one happening with the other and vice versa. But are they really one and the same?
For a deeper psychological examination, Dr. Margaret Paul provides an excellent breakdown of remarkable differences which exist between these two often misconstrued words and feelings. Paul (n.d.) explains that pleasure is, as Aristotle theorizes, a response to something external and that happiness does occur in the presence of this momentary pleasure, confusing us to believe that pleasure is happiness, and thus happiness is also pleasure. This may explain why so many individuals struggle in being able to truly find happiness. By relying on happiness to come to us only from pleasurable circumstances, in essence, we become one of Pavlov’s dogs, classically conditioned to find happiness only when it comes to us externally. If we think about the pleasure addicts experience, we see how spot-on Paul (n.d.) really is. If pleasure is defined as a response to external gratification – sex, drugs, shopping, etc. – it only makes sense that we would continue seeking those experiences to achieve what we believe is happiness. However, the problem with this is pleasure is temporary. It is something we must find in other sources. Paul (n.d.) so astutely then suggests that “happiness and joy are the natural result of operating out of the spiritual values of caring, compassion and kindness.”
Understanding emotions and definitions is only half the battle. We must also look at how society and, in particular, how differences in society have changed our understanding of these two words. Today, we live in a world which thrives on instant gratification. With the advent of the internet and social media, we are able to get what when we want it; thus, driving the pleasure momentum home. Society has become accustomed to achieving happiness from pleasure on a daily basis – the clearance sale online with JCrew, our winning bid on eBay. In many ways, we have become pleasure junkies, who, at the end of the day, are anything but happy. Obviously, there is quite a bit of danger in continuously seeking happiness from pleasurable events, skewing our understanding of what happiness really is. Further, we are passing this misunderstanding down to future generations. Today, children are also growing exceedingly accustomed to this instant pleasure as well, learning that happiness comes from their new iPhone, the latest video game that was released, and the newest line of clothing.
Because of our need to find happiness only in pleasurable circumstances, specifically circumstances which cost us considerable amounts of money, we have added a great deal of stress to our lives. This added stress causes us to need “happiness” even more, and so we continue on with the vicious pleasure cycle, purchasing and wanting and depending more and more to keep our high, crashing harder and harder each time, making one wonder, at this rate, will happiness ever truly exist again? By constantly relying on outside sources for pleasure and happiness, we have lost a very intimate connection – the connection with ourselves. Losing this connection makes it virtually impossible for us to find happiness within because we have no relationship with our “within.”
Looking further at how changes in society have reshaped our understanding and definition of these two emotions, let us ponder the effect of economic wealth and happiness. It is believed that poor people are generally happier than those who are more fortunate (Sterry, 2009). The reason for this is, as Sterry (2009) points out is, “they were below the poverty before, and they’re below the poverty level now.” We might surmise that those who don’t have the financial wherewithal to engage in the more dangerous (and addictive) pleasurable experiences, seek pleasure from more simplistic events and, thus, find happiness easier. To that end, the silver lining to our greed is that, in many ways, it drove us into our latest recession, and this less than optimal economic time has forced us to have no choice but to once again begin to find happiness in the more simple things in life, perhaps bringing us back to a time where we might have once actually understood what true happiness is.
After examining these two words, delving deeper into their possibilities, we see how remarkably similar and how utterly different they both are, and how changes in life, in society, have shaped (and warped) our perceptions of both over time. Happiness is, as Aristotle believed, something which comes from a deeper part of our being, something from within. Happiness is a stronger, more important, and much more satisfying emotion. It is something which we only need to look inward to find. This isn’t to say that pleasure is bad and shouldn’t be sought out or enjoyed when it comes to us, no. The real message in examining these words and emotions is to understand that experiencing pleasure is fine, so long as we don’t make it a requirement for being happy.
Gratification. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster online. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gratification
Happiness. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster online. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/happiness
Kraut, R. (2012). Aristotle’s ethics. In E. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/#Ple
Kringelbach, M. L., & Berridge, K. C. (2010). The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure. Social Research, 77(2), 659-678.
Matthieu, R. (2010, October 21). Why pleasure is not happiness. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matthieu-ricard/pleasure-happiness-difference_b_771048.html
Paul, M. (n.d.). Article: Happiness versus pleasure. Retrieved from http://www.naturalhealthweb.com/articles/Paul15.html
Pleasure. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster online. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pleasure
Sterry, D. (2009, February 6). Poor people happier than rich people for the first time in history. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-henry-sterry/poor-people-happier-than_b_164772.html