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Happiness vs. Pleasure: The Source of Our Discontent?

Pleasure is a trap.

Key points

  • We confuse pleasure and happiness because both feel good.
  • Culture plays a major role in the confusion, urging us to search for one when we really want the other.
  • Pleasure and happiness have different physiological underpinnings.
  • Pleasure is fueled by dopamine and can give rise to addiction; happiness is linked to serotonin and connection.

Understanding our feelings can be challenging, but it is necessary for our health and wellness. Using language to describe the sensations and emotions we call feelings is limiting, as our feelings are so subjective and abstract in their nature.

However, neuroscience concepts offer a way to describe the differences in our feelings and ultimately a better understanding of our goals for health and wellness. Examining our feelings of happiness and pleasure can shed some light on how we can be happier and healthier as individuals and as a society.

Happiness and Neurotransmitters

Physiologically, happiness is distinct from pleasure, but the two are easily confused, as they both feel good. Happiness is primarily mediated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and the parasympathetic nervous system. Happiness can be associated with high levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin (connection) and gamma amino butyric acid (GABA, relaxation), as well.

Notably, happiness can occur in the absence of dopamine, the absence of the need to move, do and seek. Happiness occurs only in a state of safety. Satisfaction and contentment are better descriptors of happiness than pleasure.

Pleasure and Neurotransmitters

Pleasure, on the other hand, is primarily meditated by dopamine, a neurotransmitter most known for mobilization, approach, motivation, curiosity, and reward, goal and pleasure seeking. Dopamine is a major signaler in the sympathetic nervous system. In states of safety, dopamine can move us to confidence and connection. However, in states of threat, dopamine can move us to conflict and aggression.

If we achieve what we want in either of these physiologic states, then we get a little more dopamine and a little more pleasure. Our emotions and behaviors are reinforced; We will seek to replicate the strategies we deployed.

Sadness, Pain, and Neurotransmitters

Sadness is considered the opposite of happiness. Sadness has low levels of acetylcholine, serotonin, GABA and dopamine. Sadness occurs only in a state of threat.

Pain is often considered the opposite of pleasure. Pain has low levels of dopamine, too. In pain glutamate and noradrenaline are dominant while acetylcholine, serotonin and GABA are low. Pain, also, occurs only in a state of threat.

The profiles of sadness and pain look an awful lot alike—and they are. Pain and sadness are frequently experienced together, as they come from the same physiologic soup.

A Model of Addiction

What is most notable is that happiness occurs only in a state of safety (and pain and sadness only in a state of threat), but pleasure is contextual: It can occur in both a state of safety and a state of threat. This has great implications for each of us personally, but also for society as a whole.

We often confuse happiness and pleasure. Under conditions of safety the two are neurochemically similar, although not identical (dopamine having a more dominant role in pleasure than in happiness). This similarity can contribute to the confusion between happiness and pleasure. However, culture may contribute more to the confusion than do the neurochemical similarities. We have been marketed to and groomed to believe life is about pleasure and that to be happy we must seek and find what is most pleasing to us.

We are a culture of pleasure seekers. Within these narratives and constructs we have lost the ability to discern, to feel the differences between pleasure and happiness. We wind up pursuing pleasure thinking we are on the road to happiness. But this road can be dangerous. Pleasure-seeking, pleasure-craving and pleasure underpin addictions, whereas happiness contains no danger or threats.

The addictions we suffer are many—to novelty, thrill, travel, shopping, consuming, food, sugar, alcohol and other substances, and sex. That is all well known. What is not well described is our addiction to the pleasure of aggression. When aggression is a successful strategy, it is reinforced with dopamine and thus repeated.

Aggression is not just marked by our physical behavior, it is also marked by our emotional and social behaviors. Defeating someone with a punch in the nose can feel quite good to us, but so can defeating someone with an emotional or social punch in the gut.

Aggression, dopamine, and pleasure are found in taunting, demeaning, canceling, bullying, and abusing. Aggression, dopamine, and pleasure are also found in comparing, gossiping, judging, shaming, and blaming. Ultimately, aggression, dopamine, and pleasure are found in many of our negative and false narratives and constructs—our lies.

We can get great pleasure from aggressive thoughts and behaviors and we can become “addicts” to aggressive thoughts and behaviors. Because of the effect of dopamine, we are drawn again and again to these aggressive narratives, constructs, and behaviors even when they no longer work well for us, particularly if the adverse consequences are not immediate and obvious.

Behavior that persists despite recurrent negative consequences is addiction; this can apply to aggression.

Who are the pushers of this drug? Most of us.

Who are the addicts to this drug? Most of us.

There are segments of industries that benefit from the pleasurable side of aggression. Our craving for the pleasure of aggression becomes important to their bottom line. Our need for more is met with the production of more. We can see how this strategy has been used and amplified in aspects of social media, broadcast media, entertainment, video gaming, sports, and at this moment of history it has become particularly problematic in politics as well, with more conflict production than policy production. Aggression becomes an addiction.

“Please, sir, give me more of this perverse pleasure.”

To be addicted is to be trapped. It is when we are trapped that we suffer. “Addiction” to macro, micro, and passive-aggressive behaviors can thus trap us all in suffering. In this “addiction” to aggression we suffer from more physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual illness and disease than from all the other addictions combined. Indeed, our addiction to aggression and threat may be the root of all other addictions.

The Great Escape

The escape from this addiction is simple—seek satisfaction, contentment, and happiness, not pleasure; pleasure is two-faced and can easily become dangerous and threatening. Let pleasure come naturally, don’t avoid it, but don’t crave or seek it.

Happiness is found in safety. If we provide safety for ourselves and others we will find happiness. This practice should be a priority for individuals as well as institutions.

This isn’t to say that being angry and aggressive is wrong. Anger and aggression are part of our physiology. Anger and aggression help with our survival. It is good to protect ourselves and others. It is good to hold ourselves and others accountable for misdeeds. There is safety within protection and accountability. We do not need to become wimps to create safety in the world, but we also don’t need to use anger and aggression as a chronic source of pleasure, and a substitute for happiness, only to create more threat in the world.

When we are in safety, we naturally feel happy, crave less pleasure, and are less prone to demeaning, taunting, canceling, bullying, abusing, gossiping, judging, shaming, blaming, and lying, let alone punching someone in the nose. Our physiology dictates this—no restraints are required.

“Never look down on anybody else unless you are helping them up.” – Jesse Jackson

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