During the holiday interlude, our old friend Henrik Clausen sends his thoughts on the distinction between pleasure and happiness.
A Society of Pleasure, or of Happiness?
by Henrik Clausen
One of the puzzling aspects of having Islam come to the West is the attraction it has, despite all its obvious weaknesses, and the complementary weak responses when Islamic communities conspire against their host societies on crucial matters. Things such as circumventing secular law, leeching off social services, using Sharia courts, the forced prostitution of minors, and of course terrorism.
Let me argue that part of the reason for this is the collapse of traditional communities in the West, beginning with the traditional family, and the shift from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of pleasure.
There’s no easy political fix for this. No further laws and regulations will help. Sorry ’bout that.
The Islamic community offers just that — a community. And that is intrinsically attractive. It competes, on a human level, with the starved-out communities we used to have a century ago.
I am old enough to have grown up in the ’70s, when neighbourhood communities and school communities were still alive, and somewhat well. Today neighbourhoods tend to be just where you happen to live. The words ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, when applied to a neighbourhood, now don’t say anything meaningful about the community there, merely about average income and car size.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we need to understand just a little about the differences between pleasure and happiness. As outlined by Dr. Robert Lustig, of the University of California:
|1.||Short lived||1.||Long lived|
|4.||Experienced alone||4.||Experienced with others|
|5.||Achievable with substances||5.||Not achievable with substances|
|6.||Extremes lead to addiction||6.||Can’t be addicted to happiness|
There you have it. There’s even a neurotransmitter distinction, Dopamine vs. Serotonin. Most people have probably heard of Dopamine, which is at the heart of severe drug addiction. Few have heard of Serotonin, which cannot lead to addiction, and cannot cause overdoses. Too much pleasure? Rock stars and many others have experienced that for ages, at times with deadly outcomes. Too much happiness? There can never be such a thing!
The history of rock stars is full of stories of pleasure, addiction and even death. The easiest route to pleasure is simple: Take a stimulant. Cocaine is probably the most direct way to more pleasure than you can bear, physically or psychologically. Great artists such as Eric Clapton, Lou Reed, Brian Jones, Neil Young, David Bowie, Stevie Nicks, and many, many others have been lost in crystal canyons of all kinds. Some made it out alive; many didn’t. Addiction to pleasure kills. And in more ways than this.
But what about the pursuit of happiness, which is even guaranteed by the American Constitution? If we can’t distinguish happiness from pleasure, we get in trouble. Sheryl Crow has a wonderful account of her experience in the song “If it Makes You Happy”. It’s about the kick of stage life, about heavy drinking, and possibly about other stimulants untold. The visuals are stunning in their vulgar ugliness. That’s most certainly deliberate.
The lyrics revolve about the key theme: “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad” — the favourite excuse of the addict — followed up with the question: “If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?”
And that nails it. Pleasure isn’t happiness. Pleasure is short-lived, and artificial peaks lead to very real lows. In some cases, even driven by very real brain damage. The visuals in the Sheryl Crow video shows the prison-like confinement of that state, dressed in vulgar clothing, yet still with a dream of the open sky and vast expanses of nature. But with no obvious means of getting out.
And again, this is the Dopamine-effect, from dawn to dusk. Jim Morrison may have reached for a beer as he woke up; today we reach out for our smartphone or tablet, to get that small Dopamine kick of someone liking our latest brilliant post on Facebook. If not, better post another one so that you can be liked for that one. Then, even if that succeeds, we remain “Alone together”. Social media provoke Dopamine. And depression, too, when the kick fades without any true happiness.
Once one begins watching out for Dopamine-driven vs. Serotonin-driven behaviour, in oneself or others, this becomes marginally creepy. There was that great article on a profound topic that needed to be written, yet the addictive computer games with all their mini-rewards ate the hours. There was the great intention to get on the bicycle, but the hormones shouted “Raid the fridge!” instead. And that morning mindfulness was squandered by checking Facebook likes. Personal experience. There’s nothing like it.
Conflating pleasure with happiness is expensive, yet only renders happiness even further out of reach. When surrounded with products that provide pleasure — gadgets, foods, drinks — pleasure has never been easier to find. Yet happiness seems more elusive than ever.
Another famous pleasure seeker is Ozzy Osbourne, of Black Sabbath fame. Watching his family show “The Osbournes” is full of Dopamine-seeking behaviour. For, as he put it already back in 1970:
Happiness, I cannot feel, and love, to me, is so unreal.
I need someone to show me the things in life
That I can’t find
I can’t see the things that make true happiness
I must be blind
Hauntingly precise: ‘Blind’ he is, unable to feel happiness, and love as such feels distinctly unreal.
If Ozzy keeps looking for things, people or substances to make him happy, he remains in deep trouble.
Pleasure is everywhere. That sugary snack, that flashy product on sale, addictive computer games such as Facebook. That additional drink (or three), that fast date or even a line of cocaine. Pick your poison. Sure, government has banned some of them, so you can get the extra kick of disobedience from those.
Back to Dr. Lustig. He has four solution that would bore Ozzy Osborne to death in less than 24 hours. The main advantages of these are that they work, won’t assault your bank account, and we know about them already. They increase serotonin, control dopamine and lower the stress hormone cortisol. So here are the secrets to true happiness:
- Connect. With real people in real life, doing real things.
- Contribute. Do something for others, rather than for personal gain or pleasure.
- Cope. Sleep decently, be mindful, and get some exercise.
- Cook. Real food, with real people. This also constitutes Connecting, Contributing and Coping 🙂
Then, a piece of bad news: Governments can’t do this for us. Neither will big business, for these behaviours cannot be sold as products.
Government can, at best, get out of the way, and focus on protecting our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. In that fortunate situation, we have the opportunity to reduce pleasure-driven consumption, connect with people, rebuild our communities, protect and future-proof our societies. This is the Right Thing To Do. For the sake of our children, and well as for our own happiness.
No, it won’t directly fix the problems of Islam and Sharia. But opting for happiness instead of hunting down short-lived pleasures should make us much more resistant to such threats. Naturally.
And it’s just science, natural science. It’s eminently comprehensible. Here’s a hundred minutes of it.