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Happiness vs Pleasure

Lately, I’ve been thinking about these two very important emotions, and it seems to me, that we have confused, and in fact, equated, their meaning. We seek pleasure under the false notion that happiness will come with it, or in fact that one is the same as the other, but is this the case?

In a reality where money, apparently, ‘makes the world go round’, this confusion certainly benefits the system, after all, pleasure can be bought, and seeing as it is inevitably short lived, it can be sold to you many, many times. It is a lucrative business that of selling pleasure, and very much the basis of the consumerist society we live in.

Happiness, on the other hand, is freely available and can be long lasting. Pleasure is about having, taking, owning. Happiness is about giving, sharing, offering. Pleasure can be achieved with substances, happiness cannot. The extremes of pleasure lead to addiction, whether it’s to do with substances or behaviours, but there’s no such thing as being addicted to too much happiness.

So how did we come to confuse such antagonistic concepts? I would think it’s precisely because one can be packaged, marketed and sold at a profit, whilst the other one is an attitude, an understanding, an insight into the essence of who we truly are and what life is all about. One concept requires money, the other one requires selflessness, so guess which of these two concepts has been promoted, advertised and encouraged? The materialistic pursuit of pleasure that drives our consumerist society? Or the introspective quest for inner balance, peace and lasting happiness, which inevitably leads to strong, free thinking and less manipulable people? I think the answer is clear even to the least cynical of minds!

When we pursue happiness through the quest for pleasure we become the donkey that runs after the carrot that’s being dangled in front of it, we are simply never going to reach it, but in the process we are greasing and feeding the system that deceived and misled us in the first place. The seemingly unachievable ‘carrot’ ie. the happiness we wrongly seek through pleasure, turns out, is not only eluding us because we are effectively looking in the wrong place, but because biochemically one blocks out the other.

Pleasure produces dopamine and happiness produces serotonin. Both dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters; chemicals that the brain produces in order to communicate between one nerve cell and another. Dopamine excites neurons, but when neurons are excited too much too often, they tend to die. The neurons’ defence mechanism against death by over-stimulation, is to reduce the number of receptors that are available to be stimulated. This process is called ‘downregulation’ and it explains why, whether it be substances or behaviours generating the rush, one will eventually have to increase the dose or the behaviour in order to get the same degree of a rush. Each time requiring a bigger hit and a bigger hit until eventually one requires a huge hit for hardly any effect. This is called ‘tolerance’ and when the neurons start to die, it is called ‘addiction’.

Serotonin, on the other hand, is an inhibitor. It inhibits its receptors, in other words, it slows down the neurons instead of causing them to fire up and in doing so one experiences a feeling of contentment, serenity, fulfilment or in fact, that elusive thing we call ‘happiness’. But here comes the most interesting fact: there’s one thing that downregulates serotonin, guess what that is? it's dopamine. In effect, the more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get. This sure explains why addicts tend to be very unhappy people but it also casts a light onto why society may be suffering from epidemic levels of unhappiness.

It seems we are effectively reducing our chances at happiness with every meaningless pursuit of materialistic or hedonistic pleasure. As the ‘carrot’ continues to be out of our reach, we fall into an inflationary behaviour of seeking the next, and the next, and the next ‘thrill’ or ‘hit’, in a vicious circle of needing and wanting, like a hamster in a wheel thinking if it runs faster it might reach a destination. Let's face it, we have been fooled, led astray, conned into thinking we can buy what can’t be bought. Pleasure is not happiness, they are two very different things, so make sure not to look for one in the other for you may be killing your chances at finding and keeping what I believe we are ultimately looking for. You want to know where to find it? look no further; happiness is within and it's free, isn’t that good news?!

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