Pleasure & Happiness – 2 Different Pathways
Written by Aush Chatman

I have been reading a phenomenal book, “The Hacking of the American Mind” by Dr. Robert Lustig. So I thought I would share with you some of the more thought-provoking and interesting ideals both from the book and also inspired in my mind through the book.

The main theme centers around happiness and how difficult it is to attain. Dr. Lustig argues that we have made a grave error in how we define happiness. The premise is that we have mistaken “Pleasure” for “Happiness” and because of this exchange, we never can truly find what we are pursuing.

Pleasure and happiness are of course both positive experiences. They are also intimately related to each other. But they ARE different and comprise two different neural pathways in the brain. I will do my best to describe what pleasure is (primarily through a neurological lens).

What is Pleasure? 

In the brain, the sensation of “pleasure” is found in the dopaminergic neural pathway. This is where “reward” and “motivation” behaviors reside. If misused, this pathway is also where addiction resides. 

Pleasure is about an experience, a moment in time, that makes you feel good or even GREAT! Your brain gets dopamine and opioid “treats” when you experience pleasure. You derive pleasure through dopamine inducing activity – eat, fight, mate. So pleasure is VITAL to our survival both individually and as a species. 

How Pleasure Differs from Happiness

What has happened in modern society is that access to reward (dopamine hits) is limitless and without boundaries. You can get it anywhere at any time and in copious amounts. Social media, online pornography, drugstores, liquor store, your fridge, etc. 

Society also has told us that pleasure is where happiness not only begins (which is probably true) but also where it ends. We tend to emphasize the moment or the experience over the full process. 

You want Matthew Mcconaughey’s presence and coolness, just purchase this car here and instantaneously you have it. Not because I want THAT car, but because if I had that level of cool, if I was seemingly that comfortable in my own skin, I would be happy.

Pleasure Dopamine Hit

Quick personal anecdote, one way to get a dopamine reward is task completion. That is one of the reasons finishing a workout feels good! But months ago I had a writing assignment due (actually a blog post just like this one). I had ample time to work on it and finish it on a particular day. In classic procrastinating Aush fashion, I did nothing. So I missed out on my task completion dopamine hit. When I left the gym that day I IMMEDIATELY drove down Mira Mesa Blvd. and found a donut shop and quickly consumed 3 donuts and milk. Why? Because the dopamine hit I should’ve received from completing the task I still wanted to FEEL, so I got my reward through eating, for my brain it feels the same in the moment, rush of dopamine, I feel good and not bad for not doing what I was responsible for. 

WOW, this is VERY deep stuff, can you feel it? Can you see the destructive behavioral pattern this could set up in my life? In today’s world, I can easily get my dopamine fix that should be my motivation and reward for completing tasks, with $5 of donuts, or maybe a video game, or social media time, etc. That is a dangerous path and not one intended for us!

But let’s go even deeper. Even if I do not go down a path that leads to finding dopamine in the wrong places, even if I don’t fall into addiction. The pleasure pathway is still the wrong path for me to find happiness. Accomplishing tasks, eating uber healthy, working out, having the most healthy sex life for who I am, none of that equals contentment and happiness.

But Why? Doesn’t that sound like a good life?

Why the Pleasure Pathway is the Wrong Way

Remember Pleasure is about the moment, and moments come and go. Pleasure is a means to an end, but it is NOT the end itself. Think about how we define pleasure and its purpose, to reward and motivate. We complete the tasks, have the baby, and eat the food, so we can get to a better tomorrow. The end of the road is not the present moment. 

Unfortunately, pleasure just doesn’t last that long, and if you try to make it last that long, you run into addiction. Much like insulin resistance, your brain will need more and more dopamine to get the “high” taking us to dark places that look an awful lot like “unhappiness” the exact opposite of what we want.

So wrap up, pleasure, it is vital, it can be the beginning of happiness but is only a piece of what happiness is made of. We will talk Happiness next time!

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