What Will You Seek In 2019? Pleasure Or Happiness?

“May you have a pleasurable New Year.”

That got your attention. It doesn’t quite sound right, does it? Why do we say, “Have a happy New Year” instead of, “Have a pleasurable New Year”? Or, why do we say, “Hope you’re happy,” instead of saying, “Hope you find pleasure”?

Pleasure versus happiness

Oftentimes, words have meanings far deeper than you realize. This is especially relevant during the holiday season. You might be wondering where this is all going. I promise I’ll get to the point, so bear with me. The other day, I was thinking about the difference between the ideas surrounding the words “happiness” and “pleasure.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines each as:

Happiness: A state of well-being and contentment 

Pleasure: Desire, inclination, a state of gratification, sensual gratification, frivolous amusement, a source of delight or

Let’s look at some examples:

Thanksgiving: The pleasure is in the food, but the happiness is in the gratitude and the time spent with family.

Christmas: The pleasure is in getting the gifts, but the happiness is in giving and, once again, in being with family. Think about it. Most of us adults can buy whatever we want at any time of the year. So what’s the big deal about getting a gift? Gifts are often a pain. You have to sort them, write down a thank you list, dispose of the tons of wrapping paper – and my favorite part – you have to deal with returning half the gifts!

New Year’s: The pleasure is in going out and trying to have an exciting time. You could find pleasure in watching the ball drop in Times Square, you could stay up late and play games ‘til dawn, etc. The happiness is found in reflecting on the memories you’ve stored over the past year with your family and friends.

So then, what’s the difference between pleasure and happiness?

Pleasure is a feeling.
Happiness is a state of mind.

Pleasure is fleeting.
Happiness persists.

Pleasure is cheap and needs to be repeated to have the same effect.
Happiness takes investment and lasts a long time.

Sex is pleasure.
A great marriage is happiness.

Ice cream is pleasure.
Being healthy is happiness.

Making money, closing a big deal, and getting promoted are all pleasure.
Doing something meaningful is happiness.

Both pleasure and happiness are located in different parts in the mind

Pleasure is reflexive. It originates in the area of the brain that is often called primitive—the midbrain. A lot of the stimuli and reflexes occur before they get sent up for higher processing.

On the other hand, higher thought, decision-making, and happiness all come from the frontal lobe. This is the area of the brain that is the most different from humans and other mammals, even primates. Why is our frontal lobe so much more developed? Well, we were built to do more than simply react. We were made not only to live by instincts, but to think, decide, choose, and seek happiness.

How can we apply the idea of “choosing and seeking happiness” to our lives?

Well, one way is to put time and effort into something important to you. This is called commitment. When you commit to something, it becomes more meaningful to you because you’ve invested in it. And, with your investment, you’ve designated value to it.

You’ve heard the idea of, “you get what you put into it,” right? It’s true. Here are some examples.

Running: Have you ever trained for a race? Let’s take a marathon for example. You might train for four or five months in order to build up to running 26.2 miles. It’s a big accomplishment. The feeling that people have after finishing a marathon is happiness even though, physically, they feel totally miserable. The happiness experienced after accomplishing so physically and mentally demanding is something the runner will always remember – and it happens to be the opposite of pleasure. Because, remember, pleasure is fleeting. It’s not associated with pain. It doesn’t like effort.

Friendship: Why do some people remain friends for their entire lives, and why do others drift apart even if they were once the best of friends? Commitment. Time. Effort. Friendship isn’t only about the fun times (i.e. pleasure), but also about being vulnerable, being there for the other, and allowing your friend to help you. It’s true that friendships often start out with fun and pleasure, but close, lasting friendships develop over time and with sharing. Deep relationships develop once you allow yourself to be vulnerable with your friend, which takes trust, which typically only comes with time. Once again, you have to invest and commit. Pleasure may take shape as a great ski trip, but real friendship often comes from deep conversation. Talking isn’t always the most exciting activity or associated with pleasure, but it’s tremendously important for happiness.

Marriage: At first, you choose your dates and then your spouse based on how they look, and how they make you feel. Do they laugh at your jokes? Do they admire you and stroke your ego? But looks fade. Life happens, and you have to start sharing a lot of work. (See section below.) Sex becomes less frequent.

My advice? Choose wisely but commit no matter what. If you’re always thinking about how you made the wrong choice, about how you wish you had married girlfriend number-whatever, or worse yet, you’ve begun looking for a replacement, I assure you that you will never be happy, and you will definitely not have a meaningful relationship. If, on the other hand, you decide to invest in your spouse, then support them, and you will see how they, in turn, will support you. As you support each other, you will grow together, and then hopefully you will grow old together. One of the happiest and most secure feelings you can have is to know that you have someone special just to yourself for an entire lifetime.

Children: For those of you that have children, how did you feel when they graduated from eighth grade? High school? College? Professional school? I bet you felt proud. I bet you felt happy. Did you feel that way during the sleepless nights? During all the fights throughout their teenage years? During all the arguments over homework and their boyfriend or girlfriend? People most often say the most meaningful, most important, and the happiest component of their entire lives are their children, and they mean it, even though the years of work wouldn’t even come close to being described as “pleasurable.”

Mentorship: Have you ever mentored someone in school, sports, music, or life? Have you ever been a Big Brother or a Big Sister? This requires a huge commitment, but also comes with a huge reward. The reward doesn’t come quickly and it doesn’t come easily, but when it does, it’s worth all the pain. Once again, pleasure is rarely associated with obtaining long-term happiness.

My point is this: Don’t chase pleasure.

To live your life chasing pleasure is like acting like a drug addict. Deliberately choose—using your frontal lobe—happiness. To do that, you have to be willing to take the time and effort to commit to whatever you decide is important. Spouse, kids, church, health, etc. When you do this, you will find meaning, contentment, and most importantly, happiness. The holidays are a perfect time to reflect and plan out how you can be happier.

Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC
Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC

Dr. Hahn graduated from Loma Linda University in 1994. He is currently the director of the Cardiovascular Fellowship Training Program at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering Ohio.

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