We can all agree on one fact – we value and seek happiness. All humans share this universal aspiration. Achieving genuine and lasting happiness can be said to be a central goal of human life. But if we so strongly desire happiness why are our lives so often filled with stress, distress, and overt suffering? Why does sustained happiness seems elusive at best?
Is life by its nature a cycle of pleasure and suffering with suffering winning in the end, when we arrive at the unavoidable realities of aging, disease and death? If this is hard-wired into human existence then there is little more to say except to learn to bare it as gracefully as possible.
But let’s take a radical view and suggest that happiness is innate to human life and that suffering is an acquired and reversible add-on. If this were so the immediate question would be: “Then why is happiness so ephemeral and elusive, and dissatisfaction, discontent, and suffering so ever-present?” If one takes the radical view that happiness is innate to human life and suffering a mere add-on then one is forced to meaningfully and successfully address this question. We must show why this is so and how we can actually and finally attain our goal of happiness freed from recurrent suffering. Failure to do so would render unbelievable the assumption that happiness is innate to human life.
But we are fortunate here. For millennia very wise individuals across diverse cultures and time have explored the issue of happiness. They have carefully examined their own experience and remarkably they have together arrived at the same conclusion: happiness is innate to human life and suffering can be largely eradicated. Even further, we are now learning from modern scientific research that they are right.
Research is confirming that enduring happiness can be cultivated and suffering brought to an end. Through mind training practices we see individuals consciously cultivating happiness, and through neuroscience we are observing that mind training can also result in physiological and structural changes in the brain consistent with happiness and well-being.
So where do we start the journey towards authentic happiness? There can be many starting points, but it is best to begin by removing one the greatest obstacles to happiness. We start by looking at a widely held illusion – a powerful illusion that keeps us from pursuing the happiness we all want. We begin by looking at the mistaken belief that pleasure and happiness are the same. Until we can see that they are profoundly different we will not give up chasing pleasure and turn towards cultivating true happiness.
Pleasure and Happiness are Not the Same
Let’s go directly to the point. Pleasure, which is mistaken for authentic happiness, is the experience of satisfaction and delight that we attribute to an external stimulus. Simply stated we find certain people, objects, and experiences to be satisfying and others unsatisfying. We orient our self towards what is pleasurable and avoid what we consider unpleasant. Pleasure is seen as residing in an outer person, object, or experience.
Happiness is much different. Happiness is the experience of peace, delight, and joy that naturally arises from a healthy and wise mind and a compassionate and loving heart. Its source is internal rather than external. It is self cultivated within rather than sought after in the external world. It is enduring and immune to the inevitable adversities of life.
When we seek pleasure in the external world – mistaking it for authentic happiness – we become like scavengers searching here and there to gather what we can from a seeming scarcity of such experiences. And when we find islands of pleasure we protect them against any threats, real or imagined.
In contrast, as we progressively experience authentic happiness we become more like farmers cultivating an endless crop. There is so much we give it away. It oozes out of us and touches everything and everyone.
However, we persist in acting as if pleasure is the same as happiness. Such a mistaken or false belief is called an illusion. An echo, mirage, or train tracks appearing to meet in the distance are examples of false perceptions. They are illusions.
The way they appear is not the way they actually exist. It is the same with pleasure and happiness. We think pleasure is the same as happiness. At first glance it looks that way and tastes that way, but it isn’t. Failure to see the truth of their profound differences binds us to an endless search for pleasure and keeps us from attaining the real thing. This is the core of the problem. This is why we neither know nor live an authentic happiness. We can’t, as long as we are chasing pleasure and think they are the same.
If we look closer we will clearly see the differences between pleasure and happiness. We will see that pleasure is dependent on outer people, objects, and experiences. Happiness comes solely from within. Pleasure is transient and fickle. Happiness is stable. Pleasure focuses on oneself. Happiness focuses on others. Pleasure always leads to suffering. Happiness always leads to more happiness. And finally, pleasure is a momentary state and happiness a permanent trait.
Let us look at these differences one-at-a-time. By correctly understanding these differences we will progressively undermine the illusion that pleasure and happiness are the same and realize the truth, pleasure can never lead to happiness.
Pleasure is Not an Innate Quality of Outer Experiences
Early in life were taught that certain people, things, and experiences are pleasurable, and others are not. As a result, we are drawn towards what we perceive as pleasant and push away from what seems unpleasant. External activities become our source of pleasure. As a result, we mistakenly come to believe that pleasure is an innate quality of outer objects, people, or experiences. We seek them more and more expecting to gain further pleasure. But the following examples will show that although pleasure is reliant on outer stimuli they are not a steady or reliable source of pleasure. What is pleasant can easily turn unpleasant when circumstances and conditions change.
Consider the following. In the summer, when we sit in front of a fan we experience the fan to be pleasurable. In the winter, when sitting in front of the same fan we experience it as unpleasant. In the summer we think that pleasure is an innate quality of the fan. We say the fan is pleasurable. In the winter we feel chilled and unpleasant. We say the fan is unpleasant.
Let’s look at this more closely. Was pleasure or displeasure an innate quality of the fan? Or, was our experience of pleasure a composite experience based on the actions of the fan, the outside temperature, the relief of a preceding moment of distress, and a variety of other factors? Upon reflection we would agree that the fan does not contain the characteristic of pleasant or unpleasant. If it did it would have to be one or the other all of the time.
Let’s look at another example. We would all consider eating a fine meal as quite pleasurable. Again we would ascribe the pleasure to the quality of the food. Yet if we continue to eat the same food until we are overfilled we would no longer consider our meal to be pleasurable. We might even feel ill. If the quality of pleasure was in the food then it would be pleasurable all the time, and the more we ate the happier we would be. Common sense tells us this is incorrect. Even a fine meal is neither innately pleasant nor unpleasant.
Pleasure relies on external stimuli – on objects, people, and experiences. Yet the very things we rely on for pleasure do not actually contain pleasure as a steady, trustworthy, and reliable characteristic. What gives pleasure one day may give suffering the next.
Unlike pleasure, authentic happiness comes solely from within. It is not reliant on external objects, people, or experiences. Its source is a healthy mind and heart. That’s what it’s dependent on. As a result it is stable, unchanging, reliable, and trustworthy. In this way pleasure is very different from happiness.
Pleasure is Transitory – Happiness is Permanent
All outer things – people, objects, and experiences – are impermanent in their nature and are always undergoing change. As circumstances and conditions change the feeling of pleasure derived from them similarly changes. This is easy to see in our own life. Lovers can become enemies and enemies can become friends. Objects we once admired no longer hold interest. Tastes change. Needs change. Life changes. As a result, pleasure in its dependence on external stimuli is always in flux. It is fickle and ever changing. It’s like a moving target. That is why we are always chasing it and can never quite hold it in place.
Chasing pleasure us like running after a moving target. We have to run faster and faster as if we were on an out-of-control treadmill. That is why the search for pleasure in the outer world is relentless, exhausting, disillusioning, and in the end unsatisfying. And yet we are pushed further and further by the never-ending innovations of our advertising and marketing industries. They keep us on the treadmill and flourish on the fickleness of pleasure and the false conception that pleasure equals happiness.
Authentic happiness is permanent. It does not rely on people, objects, or experiences. It relies on a healthy mind and open heart. When we discover how to live in our authentic self, happiness is found at this center of our being. We will neither see nor be in touch when we are busy chasing after pleasure. However, it is always there, underneath our outer search. It is simply clouded over by our obsession with the outer world. Once we see our natural happiness, know it, and abide in it, we will discover its unchanging nature. We will discover that authentic happiness, unlike pleasure, is permanent and unchanging.
Pleasure Focuses on Self – Happiness Focuses on Others
Pleasure is a self-centered drive. Its only concern is obtaining personal comfort and security from the external world. It is about meeting one’s own needs, even when this means causing harm to others including those we claim to love the most.
We do great harm both individually and collectively when we act from a selfish motivation, and in the end selfishness blocks the path to happiness. Further, we are separated from others because we selfishly use them as objects of pleasure, and we systemically rape our environment in order to distil bits of personal pleasure or ourselves. This self-centered search for pleasure harms life and disconnects us from authentic happiness.
Happiness is selfless. It’s about others. It naturally seeks to connect with others rather than seeking to extract pleasure from them. And when we are authentically happy we want the same happiness for others. Why not? Don’t others deserve and want happiness the same as our self? Even further, we rejoice in the happiness of others. The happiness of others adds to our own. Pleasure is self-centered. Happiness is other-centered. This is the third way in which pleasure differs from happiness.
Pleasure Leads to Suffering – Happiness Leads to More Happiness
Because pleasure is reliant on external stimuli we are always grasping at what we find pleasurable. Whether it is a person, object, or experience we want more and more. Grasping turns into clinging, clinging leads to attachment, and a growing attachment results in addiction. There are some pleasures that do not take us through this entire cycle, but those external circumstances that have become major sources of pleasure in time become our obsessions, addictions, and greatest sources of mental distress.
External experiences are in a state of constant change. We cannot control them. As much as we may try to fix them and possess their “pleasure” we will not succeed. The effort to attach to outer circumstances as a source of unending pleasure is exhausting. We try harder and harder to possess and defend our sources of pleasure. With time we become disillusioned, experience loss, and can even become angry and resentful. But this habitual pattern continues to re-play itself. It is a dead-end pattern.
In this way the cycle of craving, clinging, attachment, and addiction always leads to dissatisfaction, anxiety, disillusionment, and suffering. This is the major problem we face with chasing pleasure. We cannot catch and hold it. It becomes a lifelong chase. It is like we’re on a treadmill going faster and faster but never reaching our goal. And because we persist in our belief that pleasure is the same as happiness we cannot re-direct our efforts in the right direction.
Unlike pleasure happiness is stable. It is innately and permanently present in the healthy mind and open heart. It does not need to be sought after as it is always there. We cannot lose it. We can only forget it. Authentic happiness only leads to more happiness and never to the suffering and afflictions that are a constant companion of the outer search for pleasure. This is the fourth way in which happiness differs from pleasure. To understand this is to further undermine the illusion that they are the same.
Pleasure is a Momentary State – Happiness is a Permanent Trait
A state is an impermanent feeling or emotion. A trait is a permanent and stable part of our life. Pleasure is a temporary state of being that alternates with, indifference, and dislike. We go back-and-forth from one to the other as the person, object, or experience changes according to changing circumstances and conditions. We have a good, a bad day, and a blah day. That is how it is with external sources of pleasure. They appear, they change, disappear, and reappear. Pleasure is never constant as its source. It is ever-changing.
Unlike pleasure we are discovering that authentic happiness is a trait. Once cultivated and revealed it is internal, permanent, and unchanging. You can count on it. Because it is a trait it is stable and hardy, conveying a progressively immunity to life’s adversities including aging, disease, and death.
There is recent research by Richard Davidson and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin that may be of interest here. Their research focused on the most recently developed part of our brain – the prefrontal cortex. The left prefrontal cortex appears to be the brain center for the experience of happiness and well being and the right side the opposite. It is as if the left side stands for the glass half full and the right for the glass half empty.
Through their research they discovered that each of us has a basic disposition that contains a certain ratio of left to right activity. Some of us are more left-sided – the optimism and well being of a glass half filled. Some of us are more right sided – the pessimism and dissatisfaction of a glass half empty. In actuality we are each a mixture – a bit of each side. However, whatever our basic disposition it is stable over time. That is why it is called a trait.
If we have a pleasurable experience related to external pleasure the shift of activation will be to the left pre-frontal cortex and if we have an unpleasant experience the activation shifts to the right side. But this is only temporary – a state change. We soon revert back to our basic disposition. I am sure we can all see this in our personal experience. We have a certain basic disposition. Life’s shifts and changes can move us in either direction – pleasure or discontent – but in time we more or less return to our “old” self.
What is important about this research was the discovery that well trained meditators (50,000 – 70,000 hours in a lifetime) could alter their basic disposition and shift their baseline of well-being and happiness way over to the left frontal cortex. They demonstrated that a basic trait can be permanently enhanced or changed by mind training. Happiness and well-being can be learned.
Even more important is the discovery that individuals who are just beginners in mind training can show early but definite shifts in the ratio of left to right pre-frontal activity. Because pleasure is a state it can never be stabilized and fixed. Happiness, however, is a stable trait. And the good news is that we can develop and enhance this stable experience throughout our adult life.