The Journal of Best Practices

Marriage, Asperger's, and being a better husband

The Pleasure Trap

The important difference between pleasure and joy

There is an important difference between pleasure and joy. Pleasure is like a Xanax; it’s a one-time hit that generates a good feeling, but the good feeling wears off when the dose expires. Joy, on the other hand, is achieved from within, and is therefore sustainable. That’s not to say that it’s permanent or automatic; we have to nurture and sometimes mindfully manufacture the joy, which is difficult to do these days. When we’re constantly in a rush, medicating ourselves with a few hours of Facebook, catching the season finale of The Office at the expense of meditating—in these moments we’re either driving in survival gear or seeking diversionary pleasures. Pleasure, too, can be manufactured from within, but it’s almost easier to procure it—so we do—and when it comes to sourcing our happiness, procurement is a dangerous method.

We spend so much time in pursuit of temporary pleasures that we dash through life blind to the true path that will bring us real and sustainable joy. Yes, my desk job sucks, we think. I should have been an actor. But, whatever, I can grab some Chipotle at lunchtime and check ESPN.com this afternoon for the scores, maybe try that new IPA tonight while we’re watching CSI: Dubuque. All in all, it’s not so bad. What a lovely sentiment for a tombstone: The middle fifty years of my life weren’t so bad. Chipotle was pretty good, eh?

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Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be heading to Chipotle as soon as I post this article. For now, though, let’s focus on joy and pleasure vis-a-vis troubled relationships. If you’re like me, you have this nasty habit of bestowing upon one person or another the dubious and monumental task of making you happy. Just cuddle up next to me on the couch all evening, I’d like that. Make my dinner. Talk to me on the phone for hours at a time and tell me how I great I am, the way you do with your friends. You might happen to be with someone who derives tremendous joy from giving their partner the sorts of things their partner desperately wants, the things that make him or her feel secure. If you’ve found that person, congratulations, as a couple you’re 100% compatible. The rest of us, however, have some work to do. The work isn’t about changing your partner or outsourcing your happiness to a third party. The work is yours to do.

A metaphor: We’re told that money can’t make us happy, and for almost my entire life, I thought that was just something my fellow poor people and I said whenever we spotted a yacht or a Ferrari that we had no hope of affording. But it's probably true what they say about money, and the metaphor is definitely true in relationships. No amount of admiration, affection, conversation, or sex—the fun stuff—will ever be enough to satisfy a person whose internal compass does not point to joy.

Pleasures that do come from the outside are gifts to be enjoyed, and should be thought of as such. An affectionate embrace from your girlfriend, for instance, or the unexpected compliments you receive from your spouse in random conversations—these things make us duly happy, but they mean so much more when we don’t stake our happiness on them. Notably, we are more likely to attract these pleasurable moments when we’re not desperate to receive them. (If you’re not sure you buy that statement, then tonight, when you’re alone with your partner, try bursting into tears and begging him or her to be more into you; let me know how that goes.)

If you’re feeling let down by your partner for some reason, consider taking a moment to determine what it is you’re not getting from them. If your happiness is dependent upon these factors, is that your partner’s issue to deal with? Or yours? It’s important that love be shown, but if you stake your happiness on how it’s being shown or expressed, you’re likely to find yourself feeling short-changed. And that isn’t fair to either of you.

David Finch is a New York Times best-selling humorist, essayist, and public speaker.

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