Happiness vs. Pleasure

I have a confession to make: I didn’t actually feel very good at the gym on Saturday. My triathlon training session  — especially my somewhat labored running — was not pleasant. It didn’t actually hurt, but it was hard work for me. I thought of the blog I had posted just the evening before and felt a fraud for having blithely promised that I would be happy at the gym the next day. Would a passer-by think I looked happy? Probably not. Red-faced, perhaps even grimly determined … yes. But happy? Really?

The answer was yes.  Because happiness and pleasure are not the same thing.

To help me understand this distinction, I look to the Dalai Lama. In “The Art of Happiness,” he says that pleasure is fleeting — here today, gone tomorrow — but happiness  is sustained. He also asserts that true happiness results from wholesome activities and self-discipline. Bingo! That was me on Saturday morning! I was doing something good for me, keeping a commitment, stretching for a longer-term goal. Beneath the sweat, I was happy.

Don’t worry, I am not going all Puritan. I like pleasure as much as anybody, and I don’t mean to suggest that it is opposed to happiness. But I do agree that pleasure tends to occur on the surface, while happiness runs deeper. In addition, we are often passive recipients of pleasure and are more active in our own happiness. (This ties in with my previous blog about how happiness doesn’t just “happen” but must be practiced and rigorously pursued.)

So what use is this distinction? For one thing, it may be helpful in choosing between attractive alternatives. Try asking yourself: will this bring me more happiness or more pleasure? This question may lead you to consider your core values and make a choice that serves your bigger agenda rather than your momentary desire.