Happiness vs pleasure

Happiness vs pleasure

I’m sure my best mate is an alcoholic, I’ve never known anyone so obsessed with getting smashed. He’ll always get drunk whenever we go out and try to bring everyone down with him; shots being ordered, karaoke and staying out until 4 am. I see his hedonistic behaviour as escapism which is prevalent throughout society.

This isn’t to say that I’m a Little Goody Two-Shoes. When growing up in my hometown I used to live for the weekends which were fueled with ecstasy and alcohol. Living in a seaside town full of amusement arcades, I also had a fruit machine addiction. And not to mention 15 years of being addicted to cigarettes.

Still today with fewer vices, I need to make a conscious effort to limit my alcohol consumption. It’s the hangovers I can no longer tolerate, I’ve often thought the euphoria gained from alcohol (or any drug) is happiness stolen from the future. A question I’ve pondered is whether we net out as happiness losers by seeking too much instant gratification.

A book by Robert Lustig ‘The Hacking of the American Mind’ tries to answer this. Lustig’s book looks into why we have more sources of pleasure available than ever before, yet we are increasingly sick and unhappy.

“Pleasure is the slippery slope to tolerance and addiction, while happiness is the key to long life”

Dr. Robert Lustig

What’s the difference?

Happiness and pleasure are different emotions but are often confused as one and the same thing. Advertisers are selling pleasure and tricking us into thinking it’s happiness we’re buying.

Pleasure is short-lived and explosive, it’s why the good feeling of buying something new doesn’t last. Whereas, happiness is a slow-burn and lingers long-term.

Pleasure is something you always want more of and can be obtained from substances, whereas happiness cannot. And it’s the hormones; dopamine (pleasure) and serotonin (happiness) that really set these emotions apart. The one word that best describes pleasure is “reward” and for happiness, it’s “contentment”.

“The more pleasure we seek, the more unhappy we get”

Dr. Robert Lustig

We live in a world obsessed with pleasure

Reward is how we get things done, if we didn’t like food and sex, we would never eat or reproduce. But our reward system has been hijacked by big business. We’re all dopamine addicts, petrified of boredom and living in a world obsessed with instant gratification.

We react instantly and obediently to our smartphone notifications like lab rats in some kind of warped social experiment. Every TV commercial, internet ad and billboard is selling pleasure. Pleasure sells, pleasure is sexy, pleasure is euphoric …you can’t get enough of pleasure.

Society’s pleasure-driven pastimes

While there has been ever-present pleasure induced activities throughout history, there has been a recent explosion with the ubiquitous influence of the internet. Nearly all of the top pleasures listed below have been amplified because of the always-on and instantaneous nature of the internet.

happiness vs pleasure - social media

Mobile phones and social media are the most distracting dopamine givers ever invented. It’s the reason you can’t pay attention when watching a movie, walking down the street or when you’re out with your friends. It’s no longer a secret, Silicon Valley insiders have come out and stated that social media companies are deliberately addicting users to their products for financial gain. Yet the frequent checking of smartphones, waiting for something to change has been linked to anxiety and depression.

happiness vs pleasure - substance abuse

The UK is the substance abuse capital of Europe. In order of popularity; alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy are the current drugs of choice. The UK also tops the European charts when it comes to opioid abuse with Britain’s love affair of opioids going back to Victorian times.

In the mid-19th Century, it was possible to walk into a chemist and buy opium and cocaine. Often used to treat coughs and other ailments, none other than her Majesty Queen Victoria was a regular consumer of opioids and cocaine.

happiness vs pleasure - food

Food and especially sugary foods activate the brain’s pleasure system. Eating food for some people has now become a hobby, “foodies” as they’re known are people who enjoy food for pleasure. Life must really devoid meaning if eating food is classified as a pastime.

The Romans, the Ottomans and the Spanish all made their chefs into celebrities soon before their empires collapsed, is this a sign of what’s to come?

happiness vs pleasure - news

What is the purpose of the news? If there’s lunatic axe murder living in my neighbourhood then I want to know about it. The news, however, is rarely useful and should be considered as perverted entertainment. The dopamine release received from every news alert is laced with cortisol as you become more stressed and depressed as you start to believe the skies are falling in.

happiness vs pleasure - shopping

Shopping is what keeps the wheels moving in society. With so many modern-day jobs void of purpose, the only way most of us contribute is by shopping. Who would be buying the latest iPhone, Ikea wardrobe or fast fashion trend if capitalism didn’t create so many pointless jobs? You can’t beat the dopamine rush you get from buying something new. It can only be beaten by that next new thing Amazon is recommending you buy with 5-star review (mostly fake) and next-day delivery.

happiness vs pleasure - tv

Although it’s been prevalent with sports for some time, binge-watching content is a recent phenonium since the advent of on-demand TV. I used to be a massive football fan, my weekends would be ruined if my team didn’t win. The pleasure surge from when your team scores a goal explains why sports can be so addictive and consume so much of our time.

happiness vs pleasure - porn

Not that long ago pornography had to be sourced from the top shelf in a newsagent or going to the x-rated section in your video store. The internet changed all of that. PornHub has more than 1.5 million hours of video which amounts to 173+ years worth of content to stream all for free. 

The gladiatorial games

The gladiatorial games

It’s widely understood that the gladiatorial games were used by the Roman Empire as a distraction mechanism and for social control; an unhappy and unruly Roman mob was a force that no Roman emperor dared take on. Some believe that modern-day sports and entertainment is just another way to hoodwink our attention by the “powers that be”.

While I don’t believe there’s a grand conspiracy, it’s undeniable that a society filled with pleasure induced entertainment options creates a more docile and obedient population, less likely to revolt.

You only need to look at the general population in their smartphone-zombified-state to know this is true. Perhaps if there was no Premier League to discuss or endless Instagram feeds to scroll then people would start to question the growing inequality and their diminishing autonomy.

“Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it’s the sand of the coliseum.”


Spend less time on passive pleasure and more on activities

The moral of the story isn’t to say all pleasure is bad and we should go and live like monks on a silent retreat. Dr. Robert Lustig goes on to say in his book:

“You can, and should, have both pleasure and happiness in your lives. One will make the other that much sweeter. There are moments in life when you can experience both simultaneously (attending a wedding, going on a great vacation, having a child, or finishing a job well done at work).”

The problem is, our lives have become hijacked, instant gratification is now at your fingertips 24-hours a day. The technology we have in our pockets is amazing but when it becomes all-consuming are we really better off? Doing less or avoiding some of society’s most peddled pleasure induced pastimes is obviously a good thing while also doing more of the activities that stimulate serotonin (happiness). There are many to choose from but some that spring to my mind include:

Paying attention more, I’m not the only one that only truly enjoys reading a book or watching a film when I’m on a plane where there are fewer distractions. Multi-tasking is a myth, your conscious mind will get stressed when flitting between tasks.

Mobile phones are a menace, I know how distracting these bundles are silicone can be with dating app, WhatsApp and email notification begging for your attention. We live in an amazing time, however, all these competing distractions mean we net out as happiness losers. Put your phone in another room and watch a film, go to the cinema or meditate on the sofa.

Increase happiness by getting more sunshine

Getting out into the sun more. There have been a few awful recommendations from health scientists in my lifetime. Some of the worst include; eating fat makes you fat, eating cholesterol increases cholesterol and wear sunblock /stay out of the sun. Yes, if you’re fair-skinned you shouldn’t overdo it and there is too much of a good thing, however, the benefits far outstrip the risks.

It’s not your imagination when you feel glum in the cloudy wintertime. Exposure to sunlight increased the brain’s release of serotonin (the happiness hormone). So make the most of the day when the sun decides to show it’s face!

Increase happiness by playing

Playing a sport instead of watching it and generally being active versus passive. Whatever your age, there’s strong scientific evidence that being active can help you lead a happier and healthier life. Research shows that physical activity can boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reducing your risk of stress, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. (*source NHS)

Increase happiness by learning more

Learning something new, whether through gaining knowledge from a book or leaning a new skill. Only Homo sapiens are trying to understand where they came from. We are learning machines that are designed to progress and improve and we gain a tremendous amount of self-satisfaction when we improve as a human being.

Increase happiness by creating

Creating something/anything! Maybe that’s cooking something from scratch, how much more do you appreciate a curry when you’ve cooked it yourself compared to Deliveroo? Modern-day work has become so abstract with email and pointless meetings, we live in a world where we create digital nothingness.

This lack of being creative and producing nothing becomes soul-destroying. When you consider what we humans needed to survive, art isn’t high on the list, however, it’s a core human trait. One hypothesis suggests that Homo sapiens survived, while Neanderthals died out because of our ability to create art. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that we’re creative creatures and to nullify that by doing nothing other than stare at screens isn’t good for the human soul.

Increase happiness by socialising

Socialising in a group setting, meeting with friends/family, sporting activity or anything that springs to mind. Ever since the invention of television, there has been a widespread and dramatic reduction in the amount of time people spend socialising with each other, getting involved in local events and engaging in interactive hobbies.

Obviously, since TV there’s been the Internet which has compounded this effect. We are becoming more and more insular, even talking is becoming a taboo with instant messaging becoming the prefered way to converse. We are social animals, so get out and socialise – everyone feels better for it.

Happiness vs pleasure summary

That’s all I have to write about happiness vs pleasure, I’ve enjoyed reading and thinking about the topic especially Robert Lustig’s book mentioned in this post. Please leave any comments or feedback below – I’d love to hear from you. What pleasure pastimes are an issue for you and what makes you happy?

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3 thoughts on “Happiness vs pleasure

  1. An excellent read – had never really thought about the difference between pleasure and happiness. Too much of a good thing and all that? I’m currently not addicted to anything although I do possess such a nature (video games springs to mind!) Possibly some years back, I was addicted to reading and learning everything about FIRE, which was probably a good thing!?

    1. Thanks, weenie 🙂 Reading a good book and learning, in general, are great happiness activities; a couple of my favourites too … no need to worry about dopamine-fueled addiction! 🙂

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