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Pleasure vs. Happiness

Most people conflate pleasure and happiness. Or people assume that happiness means experiencing frequent, or even perpetual pleasure. In reality, happiness and pleasure are different and, in some ways, antagonistic.

Broadly speaking, pleasure is immediate and passive. Anyone who can buy the ticket can enjoy the ride. You don’t really have to contribute anything to experience pleasure.

Happiness, on the other hand, is long-term and active. You actually have to do something to get happiness, and even then it’s not a sure thing. Most people focus on doing something worthwhile and then realize, incidentally, that they are happy.

Pleasure diminishes a little every time. The ride is amazing the first time, fun the second time, and a little boring the third time. Pleasure thrives on novelty and escalation and the diminishing returns can be disappointing, frustrating, and stressful. Constantly seeking pleasure can leave you bored or despondent, or worse.

Happiness gradually accumulates. What starts out as difficult, boring, or irritating eventually becomes rewarding. Consider having a dog. By any objective standard, getting a dog is a terrible idea. You have to buy them stuff. You have to take them to the vet to get shots and medical care. They chew up your stuff and scratch your doors. You have to walk them, even when it’s cold and dark. You have to pick up their poop. It seems like no rational person would go to the trouble, but many people do because having a dog makes them happy. Perhaps it’s not despite the inconvenience but because of it.

Pleasure and happiness are mostly separate processes in your brain. Pleasure involves the dopamine system and happiness relies more on serotonin. Both these systems have important functions. We need dopamine to reward behaviors necessary for survival and encourage us to try new things. Unfortunately, this system can be manipulated by people who want to sell us pleasure at the expense of happiness.

Serotonin encourages us to behave in ways that are good for us and good for our society in the long run. It encourages prosocial behavior and working toward meaningful goals. It’s also harder to sell. This is why we are so often told that pleasure is happiness. Unfortunately, the more we seek pleasure, the less we can experience happiness. Pleasure is like taking money out of savings and happiness is like putting money back.

Addiction is a process of putting more and more effort into less and less pleasure. Recovery is a slow process of meaningful change, during which you may suddenly realize you are happy. AA and NA emphasize repairing relationships and helping fellow addicts because those kinds of efforts lead to happiness. Happiness can’t be bought but it can be won. If you feel trapped by addiction, call Gardens Wellness Center at 844-828-1050 or email us at to learn how we can help you find a better way forward.