Too Much Pleasure, Not Enough Happiness

Make your pleasures meaningful.

Posted Mar 19, 2019

 Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

With life expectancy having increased steadily over the decades, is the adage “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die” still relevant?  Despite many years of lengthening life span, slight decreases in life expectancy have been observed in the United States in recent years.  The Centers for Disease Control highlighted drug overdoses, liver disease, and suicide as three major contributors to the recent decrease in life expectancy.  By trying too hard to feel good in a desire for happiness, are more people being caught up in risky behaviors such as substance abuse only to feel empty and helpless?  Are we witnessing a growing crisis of meaning in our culture?

In his song Yesterday, When I Was Young, Charles Aznavour described the thrill of youth when: “So many happy songs were waiting to be sung” and “so many wild pleasures lay in store.”  A delicious meal, friendly conversation, and good music are all ways we enjoy ordinary living.  Do you find yourself seeking more and more pleasurable experiences, big and small?  Our culture encourages the pursuit of pleasure.  So many entertainment venues are readily available, and marketing can seduce people to try new products and activities to expand their options.  Sports, fitness gyms, concerts, online gaming are just a few of the myriad of opportunities for enjoyment.  But do all these pleasures add up to happiness?

Feeling good isn’t the same thing as being happy.  With pleasure, we can reach an optimal level, beyond which what we enjoy can become boring or worse.  We can satiate on specific foods or a song we like.  But some people can become obsessed and seem to never have enough.  Many things are harmless, but others, like drugs or alcohol, can gain control over a person.  Rather than leading to happiness, an addiction can be physically, emotionally, and socially devastating.  So what role should pleasure play in our lives?

Researchers have explored the role of pleasure as a priority relative to other important goals.  One approach compared pleasure and meaning as two pathways in the pursuit of happiness.  Some people seek happiness by trying to enjoy life as much as possible, while others engage in the most meaningful activities.  Often behaviors that advance one of the two objectives overlap with the pursuit of the other goal, but at times taking one action means trading off another.  Would you take on an additional job if it meant you’d have less time with your young children?  Both strategies contribute to well-being, but are they equally effective in helping people find happiness?

To date, research has not resolved this question definitively, in part because there remain important methodological difficulties in defining and measuring subjective concepts as complex as happiness.  But psychologists have revealed important dynamics to consider.  Ideally, a full life includes a healthy balance of both positive emotional and meaningful experiences.  In a perfect world, all pathways would enhance one another and converge on richer happiness.  But unfortunately, reality is not perfect. 

Research suggests that prioritizing pleasure correlates with greater emotional wellbeing, at least in the short run.  Simple pleasures are part of a good life.  They help make life worth living and are often relived in nostalgic reminiscence.  By replaying happy memories, we can recycle our good times to get through demanding situations or periods of adversity.  Indulgence yields joyfulness, whereas denying oneself or being deprived of simple pleasures can be associated with sadness or anxiety.  Over time, having sacrificed ordinary pleasures can lead to feeling cheated, jealous of those who indulge, or regret over wasted opportunities.  But if those sacrifices produced important benefits, such as career success, better physical health or more favorable outcomes for one’s children, the long-term impact might be one of satisfaction, pride, or delayed gratification.

Imagine a life focused on pleasure without regard to others.  Can a pleasure be as sweet when indulged in alone as when shared with others?  Unlike physical things, pleasure expands as it’s shared.  If seeking pleasure hurts others or damages relationships, joy is diminished as interpersonal losses are suffered.  In retrospect, social costs might be understood as too high a price to have paid for those pleasures.  In Aznavour’s retrospective ode to youth, the singer “never stopped to think what life was all about,” and ultimately realized that as friends drifted away, only the singer was “left on stage to end the play.”  In an ironic cycle, an excessive drive for pleasure can lead to isolation and loneliness.  Loneliness then fuels the pursuit of pleasure to compensate for lost social support.

If you find yourself engaging in more and more pleasant activities, but feeling emotionally empty instead of genuinely happy, consider whether you’ve lost sight of what all your busyness is about.  Is your hectic schedule part of an overall life of meaning and purpose? 

Psychologists have studied a life of meaning as one having a higher purpose.  People focused on meaning view their lives within a context beyond the self.  Believing they should take into account how their behaviors affect others, they think a lot about what life means and how they fit into its big picture.  They feel what they do matters to society.  Research suggests that people focused on meaning are likely to enjoy greater life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing.  Perhaps more importantly, they are more likely to achieve higher levels of wellbeing measured objectively in areas such as education and career advancement.

Although research suggests that both pleasure and meaning are important to overall psychological wellbeing, the idea of a full life might obscure the difficulty of balancing the two and negotiating potential conflicts.  There are times that challenge these goals.  Depression can deprive a person of their enjoyment of ordinary pleasures.  Following a divorce or while grieving the loss of a loved one, the chocolate cake doesn’t seem to taste as delicious and visiting a favorite place feels lonely and sad.  What was once enjoyed with another can become a painful reminder of loss and even trigger feelings of regret or guilt.  Other people can ruin our pleasure, too.  An angry teenager can ruin a special meal or an occasion that should be joyous.

Pleasure is not the same thing as happiness.  In difficult times, one can feel happy despite the scarcity of simple pleasures.  Young newlyweds might not be able to afford an exotic vacation, but their love for one another can make them very happy.  In an effort to fill one’s life with pleasure, a person can lose sight of their long-term objectives.  If satisfying a desire today threatens one’s future health or relationships, the tradeoff might mistakenly sacrifice happiness in the long run for fleeting joys.  Imagine looking back on your life someday.  What will have been worth it?

In your pursuit of happiness, consider the following:

  • Don’t let others deprive you of the joy you deserve by making you feel guilty.
  • Enrich a pleasure by sharing it, reflecting on it, or noting it in a diary entry.
  • Consider the role of pleasure in your life over time.  Savor those moments that won’t come back again—a baby’s full-hearted laugh, a puppy’s high energy, or an unexpected rainbow.
  • Are you substituting pleasure for happiness?  Consider whether you’re hoping pleasure satisfies your desire to be happy.
  • Are you overindulging in pleasure at the expense of more important goals or the needs of others?
  • Some pleasures have more lasting value.  Those that strengthen our health or relationships pay dividends over time.  The fun we had with our children can be enjoyed again and again as we see them grow into happy adults.
  • Happiness is not a thing to find—it emerges from a way of being.
  • Remember you can reach out for support.  Many avenues for obtaining professional help are available.

References

Avsec, A., Kavčič, T., & Jarden, A.  (2016).  Synergistic paths to happiness:  Findings from seven countries.  Journal of Happiness Studies17, 1371-1390.

Aznavour, C., & Kretzmer, H.  (1967).  Yesterday, when I was young [Recorded by C. Aznavour].  On His Kind of Love Songs [LP].  US:  Reprise Records.

Biswas-Diener, R., Linley, P. A., Dovey, H., Maltby, J., Hurling, R., Wilkinson, J., & Lyubchik, N.  (2015).  Pleasure:  An initial exploration.  Journal of Happiness Studies16, 313-332.

CDC.  (2018).  Death rates up for 5 of the 12 leading causes of death:  41st annual report on the health of the nation includes data through 2016.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0920-death-rates-up.html

Kavčič, T., & Avsec, A.  (2014).  Happiness and pathways to reach it:  Dimension-Centred versus person-centred approach.  Social Indicators Research118, 141-156.

Murphy, S. L., Xu, J., Kochanek, K. D., & Arias, E.  (2018).  Mortality in the United States, 2017.  National Center for Health Statistics.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db328.htm

Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P.  (2005).  Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction:  The full life versus the empty life.  Journal of Happiness Studies6, 25-41.

Schueller, S. M., & Seligman, M. E. P.  (2010).  Pursuit of pleasure, engagement, and meaning:  Relationships to subjective and objective measures of well-being.  The Journal of Positive Psychology5, 253-263.

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