Are Happiness and Pleasure the Same Thing?

15 January, 2020
Pleasure and happiness are two very different entities. In fact, certain ways of obtaining pleasure can actually end our happiness.
 

There are as many definitions of happiness as there are people. It’s as if each of us has a very specific profile with a diverse set of elements. Within all that mix, we find pleasure. But what’s the real difference between happiness and pleasure?

How can we define pleasure? It’s a sensation, and a subjective element, that we consider positive and associate with euphoria. On many occasions, it’s produced when we satisfy a need or desire. In other words, we could say that pleasure is closely related to relief but also to ambition.

In addition to this, some define pleasure as the absence of pain. However, many people even find it in pain. In the latter case, we’re talking about sadomasochism.

This association of pleasure with pain is more prevalent than you may think. For example, it’s not uncommon to see pain etched on the face of a winning athlete. Yet, it’s a sensation that’s also mixed with pleasure.

Thus, we could be a little more precise and say that the opposite of pleasure is uncontrolled pain, a pain that the person can’t regulate or stop.

Something similar happens with fear. Many people are able to enjoy this emotion when they know in advance that what will happen won’t have any kind of consequence in real life, such as when they watch a scary movie or ride on a roller coaster. Pleasure is born from “tricking” the brain.

A woman with a lit brain.
 

Happiness

In a lyric penned by the Spanish pop group La Oreja de Van Gogh, we find the idea that putting on a happy face can be just like applying makeup. This is a reflection of today’s society, where, to a large extent, happiness has perhaps become just another commodity. It has a price, and demands that we pretend to be someone we aren’t and behave in a way that often doesn’t reflect how we feel.

It makes you part of a roulette wheel that tries to adapt you to society, but at the same time devalues you. The price you pay is the discomfort of working more hours and accepting bad conditions to pay for tasks that you used to do, and that the community around you used to help with. We’re talking here about making meals, cleaning the house, and looking after children or elderly relatives.

So how can you achieve happiness? Different research tells us that the following aspects are very important:

  • A balanced life.
  • Managing your desires well.
  • Organizing your needs correctly.
  • Meaningful social contact.

Social contact

The last point, that of social contact, also seems to follow a rule: the less expensive it is, the more difficult it is to make it meaningful.

An example of social contact that demands a low investment would be a phone conversation lying on the couch. A social contact that demands a considerable investment would be one in which we have to move around a lot and isolate ourselves in some way.

And yet, the latter, as we said before, can be much more meaningful. It can give you a real state of happiness and change your perspective about your place in this world. It helps you ask what you can give, rather than what you’re going to get. In a nutshell, it changes us from needy people to people who can help meet other people’s needs.

 
A hand with a smily face.

Happiness and pleasure

Perhaps one of the differences between happiness and pleasure is that the latter has a much simpler (more primitive) neural circuit. This means, among other things, that pleasure can be very destructive. For example, addictions.

It’s obvious that pleasure doesn’t really meet the need you’re experiencing. In other words, although lighting up a cigarette can temporarily relieve your anxiety, it can’t solve the problem that caused it.

On the other hand, happiness seems to be linked to what you can do to solve your restlessness and goes beyond simply adapting to your surroundings. It has a lot to do with accepting the conditions you live in.

It’s not so much about living longer or achieving greater reproductive success. It’s also about focusing on how we live and how we reproduce. When we talk about this, we usually add the prefix “meta”. For example, thinking about, and evaluating, the quality of our thinking shapes our metathinking.

Knowing the dangers involved in pleasure, happiness, to a large extent, is often sustained by how we manage that pleasure. On a biological level, we would use the term “liberation and recapture of the associated neurotransmitters”. Thus, the best way to satisfy a need isn’t always the most comfortable, the quickest, or the cheapest.

 

A changing society

Making this change isn’t easy, especially taking into account that there was almost no need for self-imposed limits in the primitive world. It requires a personal evolution, in which you adapt to the way society has evolved.

You live in a society that offers many products at low prices. If you don’t control your desire for pleasure, you may overindulge in food items that you don’t need at all.

In conclusion, whereas happiness used to be intimately linked with pleasure, there’s now a third element: self-control. This self-control prevents you from becoming a prisoner of pleasure and nullifying your chances of achieving happiness.

 
Margot, J.-P. (2007). La felicidad. Praxis Filosófica, (25), 55–80.