Balancing Happiness And Pleasure

by Vlad Dolezal on June 29, 2011

Do you ever pause to consider the balance of happiness and pleasure in your life?

There’s a brilliant TED talk on the difference between experiential happiness and remembered happiness. It explains how most researchers trip themselves up when talking about happiness, as the happiness you experience during a situation and the happiness that you remember experiencing are two fundamentally different things. And maximizing one doesn’t necessarily maximize the other. (Go watch it right now, if you have 20 minutes to spare.)

I’d like to talk about a related concept today. Happiness vs pleasure.

When I say pleasure, I simply mean things that feel good in the moment. And when I say happiness, I mean a deeper feeling, a background satisfaction with your life.

What is pleasure? What is happiness?

Pleasure is anything that feels good in the moment. From eating chocolate, to giving someone you like  a hug, to running (assuming you enjoy the process of running). None of those are inherently bad or decadent. They simply feel nice in the moment.

Happiness, on the other hand, comes from alignment with your core values and doing things you find meaningful.

And happiness can come both from doing things that are pleasurable, and things that are not. As an example of the first category, I enjoy working with motivated life coaching clients (and I almost always screen out the unmotivated ones before we even start.). This brings me both happiness and pleasure.

As an example of the second category, a friend of mine recently tried the paleo diet. He didn’t enjoy it, and didn’t find any healthy/energy benefits from it. But he still felt a deep sense of satisfaction about sticking with it for 30 days. He proved to himself that he can be committed to an experiment.

When you go to the extreme, you get asceticism, where people deny themselves all worldly pleasures for the “spiritual enlightenment” (or whatever you want to call it). While it’s not a life style I would personally choose, looking at it from the happiness perspective, it starts to make sense. You probably get an intense feeling of background happiness from being able to give up everything from soft beds to refined food. It makes no sense if you think about the day-to-day pleasure that an ascetic experiences. But it makes perfect sense when you think about the happiness.

Pleasure is NOT always bad. In fact, it’s usually rather nice.

Have you ever heard the term “guilty pleasure”?

Of course you have. It’s rooted in our culture that most pleasure is bad. Whether it’s eating chocolate, or taking a nice, warm bath, or simply enjoying a lazy Sunday morning of lying around in bed and doing nothing specific. (Let’s not even talk about guilt associated with sexual pleasure.)

Except, there’s nothing wrong with pleasure. As long as it doesn’t set back your life goals and thus your happiness, the more the merrier.

Now, sure, if one of your goals is to get physically in shape, eating a huge 5-course dinner until you feel like you’re going to explode probably isn’t the best pleasure for you to enjoy. But normally, there’s nothing wrong with tasty food, even lots of it, as long as it doesn’t have too much detrimental effect on your energy levels and happiness.

(Speaking of tasty foods, I recently learned the most delicious recipe. For a spicy lentil soup. Big thanks to the friend who sent it to me (Hi, Wendy!). Here’s the recipe (in pdf) on the off chance that you’re interested.)

I recently discovered that even I’m not immune to that mind virus. Despite thinking that I had the whole “accepting that pleasure is good” thing handled, I still found myself thinking in a way that assumed that the more happiness you get (at the cost of pleasure), the better. Yeah, even we life coaches keep stumbling across limiting beliefs that we have to deal with.

How I balance happiness and pleasure

This is something I’ve been playing around with a lot recently, which is why I’m writing this post right now.

Once I embraced pleasure, I started to pick things to do during the day that would increase how much fun I would have. Reading a fiction book, having a good time with friends, playing computer games.  To the point where I dropped some of the life-mission-advancing stuff (like working on my blog).

While I was perfectly fine with focusing on pleasure in the moment while I was off on a week-long holiday, I started feeling a drop in my background happiness when I got back and continued simply enjoying each day as it comes.

But when I tried focusing fully on things that advance my mission in life, I found that life gets a bit uncomfortable that way too. As I mentioned above, sometimes things that give you happiness can feel not-so-great in the moment. And it really gets to me when I start giving up all the various little ways I chill and have a good time to keep doing what feels increasingly much like work.

So I found a balance. The most recent approach I’m trying is to get a certain basic amount of life-mission-advancing stuff done each week, and beyond that spend the rest of my time doing pleasurable things. So my balance leans quite heavily on the pleasure side of things. But I first and foremost make sure I get the happiness actions done, and only then spend the rest of my time just having a good time. And so far it seems to be working pretty well.

How about you? How do you balance happiness and pleasure in your life? How much of each do you give yourself? Or are you looking to experience more happiness without giving up much pleasure? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

Previous post:

Next post: