Pleasure and Purpose: The Ingredients to Happiness

· October 22, 2018

Participating in activities that provide us with pleasure and purpose can increase our happiness. In fact, scientists agree that both pleasure and purpose are two fundamental ingredients to happiness. 

But first we need to answer an important question: what is happiness? To a large extent, feeling happy depends on what we do and how we think. We can’t be happy without doing things that make us happy. We also can’t have a negative mindset.

“There’s only happiness when there’s virtue and serious effort because life isn’t a game.”

-Aristotle-

What is happiness?

When someone’s happy, life has to be going well for them. But what exactly is happiness? This is an important question because the different ways we can define happiness affect how we would improve our level of happiness. Professor Paul Dolan believes he has the answer to this question.

Paul Dolan is an internationally known expert on happiness, behavior, and public policies. He’s a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics. He’s been a visiting researcher at Princeton University on Professor Daniel Kahneman’s team.

A woman experiencing happiness.


According to Dolan, happiness are experiences of pleasure and purpose that take place over time. Life goes well when you’re feeling happy. According to philosopher Jeremy Bentham, pleasure is the only good thing and pain is the only bad thing. However, some specialists prefer terms like “enjoyment” and “suffering”.

Generally speaking, we could categorize ourselves based on the different ways we feel. Happy people have more positive than negative feelings. Using Bentham’s language, they usually feel pleasure and not a lot of pain.

So, the more frequent and intense your different sensations of pleasure, the happier you’ll be. However, there are other sensations that are important apart from pleasure and pain: purpose and lack of meaning.

The principles of pleasure and purpose

We can understand pleasure and purpose as abbreviations for a wide range of positive and negative emotions. These emotions include fullness, meaning, and usefulness. On the other hand, their negative counterparts include boredom and futility.

If we think about work or studies, we’ll realize that these activities can give us meaning or purpose in our lives. Other times we may not feel this way. However, both the good and bad feelings matter as much of those feelings of pleasure and pain.

Writing a book is a great example of doing something that seems to give us a purpose in life. Drinking a beer with friends makes us feel happy, it gives us a sense of pleasure. These are two different sensations but they both provide us with happiness.

So, to be truly happy you must feel both pleasure and purpose. You can be happy or miserable depending on the different combinations of purpose and pleasure you have in your life. The point is that we need to feel both emotions: pleasure and purpose. This is what Paul Dolan calls the principle of pleasure and purpose.

Negative emotions can be positive

This principle explains the human motivation to seek pleasure and purpose. It explains why we want to avoid pain and a lack of meaning. It also helps to explain why certain generally negative emotions can sometimes be positive if we have a goal in mind.

Anger, for example, can curb selfish behavior and stimulate cooperative behavior. This is just one example of why we don’t always want to experience positive emotions. Life can be cruel, just like people, so sometimes it’s only natural for us to be angry. We can become angry when we’re stressed or when little things are getting on our nerves.

An annoyed woman.

We can’t get lost happiness back

Day after day, time after time, we experience feelings of pleasure, purpose, pain, and lack of meaning. We’re happier people when we experience a greater portion of positive feelings and when we experience those for a longer time.

Therefore, happiness has to do with the principles of pleasure and purpose over time. Time is undoubtedly a scarce resource. Curiously, there are a few researchers who consider happiness based on the way we use our time.

In the long run, we have to try and use our time in a way that lets us obtain overall pleasure and purpose at the highest degree and for as long as possible. Just as we can’t make up for lost time, we also can’t make up for lost happiness.

Staying in a job we don’t like or keeping a frustrating relationship only prolongs the discomfort we’re experiencing. No future happiness will fully make up for all that lost time. That time we spent being miserable will be lost forever.

The real reason why most of us aren’t as happy as we could be is because we’re putting our attention in the wrong places. If we really sat down with ourselves and had an honest conversation about what things and people make us happy, our lives might look very different. If we’re spending our time doing things that ultimately don’t mean anything to us, how are we ever going to be completely happy?

So now you know. If you want to be happier, you have to do activities that give you pleasure and purpose in life. But you can’t forget that it’s important to do these activities over an extended period of time. This is the way you can maximize your happiness.