Happiness Vs. Pleasure

Smiley Coffee

Happiness. I may be slowly becoming obsessed with it.

I think it’s kind of inevitable that once you get out of “crisis mode” and are able to cover all of your bills and get all the day-to-day stuff sorted, you start to look at the bigger picture and what you want for the long term. Either that or maybe it’s just an offshoot of getting older and falling into a stable life.

Either way, happiness is often an obvious place to focus. I think you can make a solid case for answering “What is the meaning of life?” with the simple “To be happy”. Sure there are lots of other valid answers, but I think most people would agree that finding real happiness is a cornerstone of a life well lived. Where this has led me is to the theory that too much of our culture and our experiences aren’t actually focused on happiness (although we may think they are), but instead on pleasure. The problem with this is that pursuing the latter is one of the best ways to never achieve the former.

So what’s the difference?

I think, intuitively, the difference between happiness and pleasure is fairly obvious when we take a minute to think about. Happiness in this context is synonymous with contentment; the kind of feeling you get when you’re sitting on the patio on a beautiful morning, sitting next to someone you care about, with a hot cup of coffee (or tea, no judgement) in hand and you sigh and think “Life is good”. Pleasure is more fleeting; it’s that hit of dopamine, that indulgence that you know probably isn’t great for you long term, but you do it anyway. Sure, it feels good, but it doesn’t last, and so, many of us end up stuck in an endless cycle of trying to find the next thing to chase after to make us feel good again and again.

It’s a fairly clear difference and I don’t think it’s that we necessarily get the two confused for each other, but more that we end up using pleasure as a stand-in for happiness. Why? Because it’s easier and quicker… because it can be bought… and because often it’s a way to escape some ongoing pain in our lives (feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, or aimlessness).

Now, I don’t think anyone should live like a monk (unless that’s your thing, again not judging) and lead a life devoid of those things that bring pleasure. I just think we’re out of balance, both on a societal and individual level. We’re so caught up in the day-to-day and the things that can give us little shots of pleasure, that we end up neglecting the big picture and are just stuck in the same cycle for years. I’m trying to tilt my actions a little more in favor of the happiness objective and depend less on the pleasure hits.

So, let’s explore some of these reasons for this and how I’m trying to shift my focus from things that give pleasure to what will bring me lasting happiness.


Let’s start with my cynical view about the role capitalism is playing in our lives. As someone who’s spent years studying business, I can’t help but think that marketing and money play a big role in skewing our preferences towards pleasure over happiness. From drugs, to luxury experiences, to consumer goods and status symbols, the things that make the most money are the things that tap into our brains’ reward centers and give us quick jolts of pleasure that quickly fade and leave us wanting more.

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Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s always malicious or even intentional, just that pleasure is a whole lot more profitable and as a result western culture tends to value it higher in general. Related: here’s a fascinating/terrifying article about how various social media platforms and apps are designed to “hijack our brains” by giving us quick hits of pleasure to keep us coming back for more, just like a slot machine.


I’ve fallen victim in the past to the attitude that true happiness is something I can only achieve somewhere far down the road after I’ve acquired X thing or accomplished Y goal. I think this is especially common to see in the Financial Independence community where we idolize a future time when money isn’t so much a constraint and work is optional. This can start off fine, but take the example of Brandon who became so focused on his future freedom and happiness that he realized he was making himself and his wife miserable.

What I’m realizing more and more is that happiness is a choice that you make every day. It’s important to find happiness in the life you lead while also setting yourself up for future happiness. In the past, when I’ve tended to think of happiness as tied to some future date, it’s been easy to fall into bad habits like binge-ing Netflix for the immediate pleasure. Ironically, this is in direct conflict with actually accomplishing those goals that I thought would bring more happiness.


In a way, I think finding happiness is a bit of a skill that you can get better at over time. You start to learn the thought patterns and actions that bring you joy and they become easier as you learn. However, it’s no question that for the most part pleasure is the path of least resistance. Sometimes it takes a conscious effort to get to the gym when junk food and laziness would feel a lot nicer at the end of a long day. However, I think there are ways to set yourself up for success. Just like they recommend when training a dog, I’ve tried to remove the chances for myself to fail. In the junk food example, just not buying it in the first place means that I’m not going to make the mistake of stuffing my face when I’m feeling low. Furthermore, you can diminish the role that effort plays in making good choices by developing positive habits. I’ll touch on this more in the next post.

Intentionality and Goals

I like this quote from Tom Bilyeu: “While I cannot promise you success, I can promise you failure. I cannot promise you happiness, but I can promise sadness.” The point he makes is that since failure and sadness are given, the only thing that makes sense is to accept them and move on by taking actions to move specifically in the direction of your goals. I’ll talk more about intentionality in future posts, but it’s something I’m trying to cultivate in myself. It’s a key component in success, happiness, and financial security and I’ve found that it’s something in common across the top people in any field. The choices they make lead them intentionally towards where they want to be over the course of years. The alternative, to which I’ve fallen victim in the past, is aimlessness and going through the motions each day without a clear long term path. Tom recommends starting with your goal in mind and working backward to identify the skills and experience needed to get there. This produces actionable steps to focus your intentions each day.

The reason I mention all of this is because so far, as I’ve tried to define the specific directions I want to be heading in my life, it’s been easier to avoid falling victim to some of my main pleasurable temptations. For me, a big one has always been getting caught up playing video games for hours. I’m by no means cured of this (and I don’t necessarily want to stop completely), but I’ve found success lately in making better use of my time when I know that I’m using those hours in service of my goals and values instead of just the vagaries of my whims.

Wrap up

The lesson I’m trying to learn is to remain focused on adding activities and thoughts that increase happiness, removing the things that create unhappiness, and not letting the temptation for instant gratification and short term pleasure derail my efforts for a lifetime of contentment and fulfillment. In the next post, I’ll discuss the specific components of life that I believe bring happiness and how I’m trying to improve and increase their presence in my day-to-day.



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2 Comments, RSS

  1. gofi November 11, 2017 @ 10:27 am

    I think you hit it head on with this: “I think finding happiness is a bit of a skill that you can get better at over time”.

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