The Relationship between Happiness and Pleasure

Nov 22, 2018

The Relationship between Happiness and Pleasure

People frequently ask me what’s the difference between happiness and pleasure? Aren’t they the same? I’ve thought about this a lot and my off the cuff answer is “No.” They interrelated, but not the same. Here’s some of my thoughts on why.

Happiness is an emotion; pleasure is about experience – inner and outer - and actions. Happiness can be a result of engaging in what’s pleasurable. Additionally, when we’re feeling happy, it usually registers in our bodies as a pleasurable experience. Also, pleasure is most frequently related to sensory experiences, while with happiness that may not be necessary. Might I say happiness begets pleasure, and pleasure encourages happiness?

What Happiness and Pleasure Have in Common

What happiness and pleasure share in common is that you don’t necessarily have to like everything about a situation to have pleasure or feel happy. For instance, this past Saturday I cleaned out my basement with a friend. Morale and practical support was necessary! We made order from chaos. In the hours spent pitching and sorting I really wasn’t enjoying myself, but now every time I go down there, I feel elated – happy – very pleased! It’s a pleasure to see the space all tidy and orderly, and to be able to find what I need easily. It was so worth the afternoon’s energy output.

Similarly, changing a habit that doesn’t serve you, such as forgoing the slice of chocolate cake, can in the moment feel really hard, but as your body starts to feel lighter and less achy – you’re happy and maybe finding pleasure in doing something consistently; something that feels constructive and truly good for you. To grow and develop is one of the things I call, “a doorway to pleasure”. It’s pleasurable to feel the potential and reality of change; being stretched by our efforts and learning new ways.

Hector and His Pursuit of Happiness

Related to this topic, this fall I came upon a little sleeper of a movie called Hector and His Pursuit of Happiness. I really loved it. Hector is a young, nerdy, disenchanted psychiatrist living in London with his beautiful girlfriend, Clara. From the outside, they appear to have everything one could want, but Hector realizes he’s not happy nor does he have any idea how to help his patients be happy. So, he flings himself out into the world to find out what brings people happiness.

Hector has many harrowing experiences. He tries on some common pursuits he thinks might bring him happiness, but don’t. He meets amazing and unexpected teachers, learns a lot about himself, and returns home from his hero’s journey with peace and joy in his heart.

Hector is a prime example of my principles of pleasure – he took risks and got out of a box that was too comfortable, familiar, and way too small for him. He was open, followed his instincts and curiosity. Through his harrowing experiences he becomes undefended with life, and his heart opens to everything around him.

Now my one critique of the film is that the portion shot in Africa unfortunately presents an all too familiar and negative stereotype of that continent. Africa can be the scenario Hector finds himself in, but it is also so much more, in its vibrant and unique expression of humanity. It doesn’t serve anyone to perpetuate the negative stereotype.

Have You Set a Glass Ceiling on Your Pleasure Capacity?

Another thing pleasure and happiness have in common is you often a set glass ceiling on how much you’re allowed to have. The desire to have pleasure and be happy is a very healthy impulse. But you may feel undeserving or fear standing out too much if you increasingly live in the zone of happiness. This is the case, especially if those around you are really struggling or suffering.

In response to this dilemma I say, “Choose Pleasure – It’s a Radical Act! Those who make the pleasure choice are supporting an evolutionary movement towards ease, sense of safety, relaxation, creativity, and joy – what I call the “hallmarks of pleasure.” Collectively, we need to move out of a mindset of life as suffering and struggle.

When in doubt ask yourself, “What would Hector do?” Fling yourself into the abyss of uncertainly and challenge, to discover with wonder – you’ve landed in the zone of pleasure and happiness.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this relationship between happiness and pleasure. Drop me a note and tell me what you think. 

Next entry: Our Complex Relationship with Pleasure

Previous entry: The Choice of Pleasure

“Loved the “slow medicine of it”

Workshop attendee