In this post I explore the vital differences between pleasure and happiness. And why chasing the former restricts our ability to enjoy the latter.
These are unhappy times if you live in a rich country. We are suffering an alarming growth in addiction, anxiety and depression. This is especially true if you live in the UK, where antidepressant prescriptions have more than doubled in the past decade:
According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre, which published the data, it is the “greatest numeric rise” of any drug class in the last year.
Britain has Europe’s highest proportion of heroin addicts and problematic use of novel psychoactive substances
… leading to almost a third of Europe’s drug overdoses.
While the reasons and factors behind this trend are complex, I have a theory. And this is that our sense of well-being is being undermined by the never ending quest for pleasure. Every day we have have endless opportunities to get our little fixes of dopamine:
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them …. people with low dopamine activity may be more prone to addiction.
So, this neurotransmitter that tells the brain: I’m enjoying this, and I want more. And dopamine triggers are everywhere: drugs, social media, porn, sugar, alcohol and tobacco are just some of them. Yet the evidence suggests that all this dopamine, particularly when combined with stress, pushes down levels of serotonin.
Serotonin is thought to be especially active in constricting smooth muscles, transmitting impulses between nerve cells, regulating cyclic body processes and contributing to wellbeing and happiness.
It is a contentment or happiness neurotransmitter that tells our brain: this feels good but I have enough and I don’t need any more. Unfortunately, popular culture tells us that pleasure and happiness are the same things. It’s not true: chasing the former restricts our ability to enjoy the latter. Indeed:
Happiness is often equated with a maximization of pleasure, and some imagine that true happiness would consist of an interrupted succession of pleasurable experiences….There is no reason to deprive ourselves of the enjoyment of a magnificent landscape, of swimming in the sea or of the scent of a rose, but we must understand that the experience of pleasure is dependent upon circumstance, on a specific location or moment in time. It is unstable by nature, and the sensation it evokes can soon become neutral or even unpleasant.
In other words, pleasure is externally motivated and fleeting, while happiness is internally generated and constant.
Do you agree? Why not leave a comment below?