A Society of Pleasure, or of Happiness?

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:

    Pleasure       Happiness
1.   Short lived   1.   Long lived
2.   Visceral   2.   Ethereal
3.   Taking   3.   Giving
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
7.   Dopamine   7.   Serotonin

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.

Good luck!

13 thoughts on “A Society of Pleasure, or of Happiness?

  1. Great article, and I agree with everything! I would go one step further and reach for joy! I’m a believer in and follower of Jesus Christ, and joy is one of the nine Fruits of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self Control . You can pursue happiness; joy comes from within and is a permanent state of being; a gift from God. Also, if we pursue happiness (in itself) I believe it can be elusive. However if we pursue giving, doing for others, self sacrifice, doing the right thing even when no-one is looking etc. etc., happiness is the end result. My two bits 🙂

  2. What about the fleeting happiness that must be pursued? The Declaration says that pursuing happiness is a right along with life and liberty. TIC

    • acuara, as I said, you can pursue happiness, nothing wrong with that, but if “happiness” itself is your end goal it may (or may not) elude you. Just my opinion, and from personal life experience.

      • I would agree, if you seek happiness only for yourself, even at the expense of others, happiness being virtuous will elude you in your selfishness. If you do right, and well, by others assisting them in their happiness, then happiness will embrace you and call you friend. “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” (sadists and paranoiacs excluded)

    • acuara, within the context of the Declaration, the pursuit of happiness relates to following your career.

  3. Absolutely amazing article, 100% spot on too. As a recovering alcoholic I can personally attest to the truth of what Clausen has written especially the chemical aspect of addiction/ pleasure. This is definitely something I am going to share at my next AA meeting.

    For any addict (including those addicted to screens) it’s all about the dopamine rush. My biggest fear is that in many ways, even after giving up the booze for quite some time, I have become a screen addict myself for precisely that reason- I don’t need alcohol or another drug to go directly to my brain, it’s right here in front of me whenever I want it, at my nearest computer screen.

    I don’t kid myself- a lot of my paid work is done online so I have an excuse for taking a look at Hate Book, or some blog I’ve commented on (like this one!) to get my mini dopamine rush. Luckily, it is much easier to control than the alcoholism was- I shut down my computer for at least an hour, walk away and do something in the real world.

    What’s really scary is that it seems the vast majority of those around me are screen/ dopamine addicted as described in the article, especially children. If you walk around Manhattan, you can also see the “Pod People” who are so engrossed in their fantasy screen world that they are in danger of getting killed as they cross the street without looking.

    Meanwhile, the expensive, taxpayer funded public schools around me are all loaded with screens- kids all have I-pads; libraries have had their BOOKs removed and become “media centers” all the better to indoctrinate our kids in the latest Communist/Progressive/Leftist/Fascist/Socialist/Anti-American/ Gender compliant propaganda. No longer are children being taught HOW to think, they are being taught WHAT to think. Constantly, all day long.

    Thanks for publishing this piece, something I won’t find anywhere else. And best wishes for the New Year.

    • My biggest fear is that in many ways, even after giving up the booze for quite some time, I have become a screen addict

      Those little phone screens are amazingly addictive, as I have witnessed via our visitors here. Fortunately, it’s one we’ve avoided. We also threw out the lobotomy box many years ago. I have yet to see any of the beloved Seinfeld shows or Cheers, or whatever (the only two I could think of).

      • Dymphna- I refuse to buy any “smart” phone and instead have one of the old fashioned flip cell phones to keep in my car for emergencies.
        I don’t need any more excuses to sit in front of a screen for a dopamine hit!

    • Might I humbly suggest that instead of doing something in the real world for an hour, you reverse the ratio? 😉

  4. A very good article. I wish I had read it twenty years ago. By now, I have understood the difference between happiness and pleasure on my own.

    I would add that happiness differs from pleasure also in that happiness usually requires some effort, while pleasure can be simply bought or stolen. A happy family life, for example, takes a lot of hard work, while promiscuous sex with partners you don’t care too much about requires only following the line of least resistance.

    It is the same in religious life. Real, authentic Christianity makes you overcome your laziness and struggle a lot if you want to live at peace with God and get some foretaste of paradise. But it leaves you your freedom. True Christian spiritual experiences are not addictive. A cult or a doctrine that offers you immediate pleasurable experiences makes you addicted to them and can drive you crazy or destroy you completely. At any rate, it will try to enslave you.

  5. Let me toss in a few thoughts on this.

    Tucker Carlson, as usual, had an outstanding segment on addiction and the findings of an investigator, Johann Hari:

    Hari interviewed researcher rather than researched himself, but the most poignant experiment he found was the revisit of the old experiment where rats are allowed to put unlimited dopamine into their brains. They did so excessively, often resulting in death.

    But, a creative researcher noticed that those dopamine-mad rats were actually kept in cages by themselves. He changed the experiment so instead of being in isolation, the rats were kept with other rats and interesting objects they could play with. Under conditions of social interaction and an interesting environment, the rats showed little or no interest in the dopamine fixes.

    I’m often reminded of the very insightful article by Ava Lon at the Gates of Vienna,
    Role of Extended Family in Childraising
    in which she makes a compelling case that it is far healthier for both children and parents for children to be raised in the environment of an extended family, where the children had lots of adult stimulation and the parents had relatives to help share the responsibility of raising their children.

    The only way to achieve the social and familial setting that people, including parents and children, need, is to repeal all affirmative action and diversity law, and allow people complete freedom of association. This implies tolerating overt discrimination, whether based on race, religion, sex, or even prestige.

    Chicago neighborhoods used to be segregated through an informal practice of real estate agents called redlining. Basically, neighborhoods were kept primarily black, or white not through the force of law, but through informal, but effective conventions. Neighborhoods were safe, and you better believe there were some elegant black neighborhoods. Now, of course, redlining is strictly illegal, working-class suburbs were forced to supply free or subsidized housing to welfare recipients, neighborhoods are generally far less safe, and any type of cultural cohesion is out the window.

    Freedom of association implies the freedom to limit your living area, or your workplace, to those who share your culture, outlook, values or beliefs. It is perfectly reasonable for a religious organization to exclude atheists from their employment: not because atheists are bad, but because people focused on their religion might want to create an ambiance for their children and fellows that is best served by having most or all the people share the values they are trying to teach and follow.

    Henrik Clausen correctly states government cannot create happiness, but can only get out of the way while people seek their own happiness. Almost all government, US government emphatically included, are veering in the direction of removing individual choice and discounting the value of engaging in associations of their own choosing. In essence, it’s like being thrown into the solitary cage, and then having the government administer an electric shock when we go for the dopamine substitute for satisfying social relationships.

    As to the recipes for maintaining happiness even with the foot of government on our necks, keep in mind the great benefits of pets, dogs and cats. It’s rather difficult to sleep in and skip the bicycling or running when the dogs are jumping up and down on you. Taking care of animals literally forces you to have connections with others. You can always go a step further and train your dog (and yourself) to be part of a therapy dog team, combining connecting with animals and connecting with other people.

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