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The Difference Between Pleasure and Happiness

February 18, 2011 by  
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If what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” is true, the key to happiness is being involved in every detail of our lives and taking action with intention. It all comes down to our focus, both in being mindful of what we do as well as keeping our attention on the condition of our life. This is never easy. As mentioned last week, we have built-in desires and tendencies that disrupt our focus and distract us from our intended actions.

Personally I think a huge part of this is that we mistake pleasure for happiness. Things that are pleasurable, that fulfill our immediate desires, do not necessarily bring happiness as they are really two different things.

Consider what you think of as ‘pleasurable’–food, relaxation, physical contact with others, etc.–then think about the things that actually make you happy and feel fulfilled–recognition for your hard work, winning a competition, learning something new, etc. An action can feel pleasurable, enough to continue doing it, but you may not enjoy it in the end (heavy drugs or alcohol use quite often result in this seemingly contradictive state). Yet you can do things that are painful but give you great contentment, like pushing yourself to finish a marathon or living frugally because you put all your money into your new business. What makes you happy, and breeds contentment, are those things that challenge you and add complexity to your life, not the sensations of a momentary pleasure.

If you understand this and can recognize the difference, the battle over “self” that I talked about last week will be much easier. If you let your mind be constantly diverted from your plans and intentions by activities that are fleetingly pleasurable such as excessive eating, television, recreational drug use, drinking too much alcohol, etc. you will not enjoy your life. They just can’t provide you with the lasting contentment that comes from facing difficult challenges and accomplishing long term plans.

Pleasurable, healthy diversions do not have to be a disruption. If you plan for them they can become part of the order and progress that your happiness is built on. That is how you achieve focus and flow, with intentions fulfilled and distractions under control. The key here is recognizing what is a distraction and what will, in the end, provide you with the happiness and contentment you are after.

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