Choosing Between Pleasure and Happiness

The ancient wisdom of Vedanta tells us that we are frequently posed with a choice in life between Preyas and Shreyas (Sanskrit). Preyas includes all desired activities by an individual at a given point in time while Shreyas includes that which is desirable for all people of all times and places, namely freedom from unhappiness, the knowledge that frees one emotionally and intellectually.

For easy understanding, we can think of Preyas as ‘Pleasures’ while Shreyas as ‘Happiness’. Even this would need some explaining. Why? Because many of us equate pleasure to happiness.

I refer to research by Dr Robert Lustig, an American pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied how the two are very different. Here are seven ways pleasure is different to happiness:

1. Pleasure is short-lived; happiness is long-lived: Pleasures are those that typically make you feel  ‘guilty’ (maybe not for all):   sugar, over-eating, binge TV, gossip, social media time, fast cars and so on. Neither the ‘feel good’ from these activities nor the guilt that may come with it, lasts very long.  The joy that comes from holding your newborn child in your arms, walking hand in hand with your partner, a good night’s sleep after a day’s honest labour, feeling of being debt-free, living life free of guilt- all these last much longer and count as happiness.

2. Pleasure is visceral; happiness is ethereal: Pleasure is stimulation of our nervous system, something we feel when our senses come in contact with their desired objects and cause sensations as rewards. It is gross and very much of this world. Whereas Happiness is ethereal- meaning subtle, light, something to be inferred. It doesn’t seem to be of this world.

3. Pleasure is taking; happiness is giving: Invariably, we say we ‘take pleasure’ in something- enjoy, like, adore, love, relish, delight in, savour, revel in, get a kick out of, be entertained by, be amused by. It is all about ‘taking’ whereas happiness is invariably given. It is what comes out of what we give to our parents, spouse, children, work, society, nation, this world or even to nature or this universe or our Creator. Is it any wonder then that so many of us find happiness in charity, acts of humanity, kindness, compassion, love, communion.

4. Pleasure is tied to the neurotransmitter dopamine while happiness is tied to the neurotransmitter serotonin: Neurotransmitters are chemical substances made by the neuron specifically to transmit a message- these messages are precursors to how we think, feel and act ultimately. Dopamine levels dictate our motivations and emotional arousal. The ‘kick’ that we get out of some thoughts and activities is coming from Dopamine. It is released by neurons in the brain’s reward centre. A certain amount is healthy but low levels are linked to Parkinson’s disease while high levels are linked to schizophrenia.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is produced mostly in the intestine (90%) and the rest in the nervous system. It regulates sleep, memory, learning, temperature, mood, behaviours and function of the endocrine system which produced hormones and the health of our heart. One can almost instantly see the correlation between health and overall wellbeing. Lower levels of serotonin are linked to depression and high levels are known to be pretty bad too.

The Choice

5. Pleasure can be achieved with substances; happiness cannot: The drugs most commonly abused by humans including opiates, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine, create a neurochemical reaction that significantly increases the amount of dopamine. Happiness on the other hand comes from a sense of balance, harmony in the mind and body. It comes by a balanced diet, exercise, optimism, hope, trust, love and so on.

6. Pleasure is addictive: The extremes of pleasure lead to addiction, whether they be substances or behaviours. Dopamine is addictive and it can come from your morning coffee, evening tea, post-meal dessert or cigarette, likes on social media, drugs and anything you binge on. You do it a couple of times and you crave to do it again and again because it is addictive. Yet there’s no such thing as being addicted to too much happiness.

7. Pleasure is experienced alone; happiness is experienced in social groups. The guiltier the pleasure, the more lonely you are in the experience.  Whereas happiness, because it is about sharing- sharing a world view, ideas, values, resources, love- is experienced in a group – as a group, as a circle of friends, as coworkers, as a community and so on. Happiness comes out of a sense of being rooted, a certain connectedness to people, values and to this universe.

The path of Shreyas or happiness culminates in freedom, peace of mind,  independence, fulfilment and completeness; in other words Moksha.

The path of Preyas or pleasure culminates in loss of well-being loneliness, arrogance, egotism and eventually self-destruction.

I do not intend here to convey that we must actively shun pleasures. I only intend to spell out the differences between pleasure and happiness and say that many times we need to choose between them. Not all pleasure is bad, only that which comes at the cost of happiness. This brings us back to where we started: to a choice, a choice that is offered to us at every step of our life- the choice between seeking pleasure or happiness. What will you choose?

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