How many social problems that we confront today trace their origins to a total lack of understanding of the difference between pleasure and happiness? They do share a basic common denominator: They are both human experiences fundamentally energized by a blend of physical, emotional and intellectual gratification. Where they differ is in their impact on human behavior and the subsequent effects on society.
Ask anyone--child or adult--what he or she wants most in this world, and the answer is likely to be "happiness," or "to be happy." Follow up by asking what that means, and the response is likely to be exceedingly vague, along the lines of "to feel good about myself and my life," echoing a recurrent theme of popular psychobabble. Anything more specific will usually center on material possessions or transient experiences: "to buy a new house," perhaps, or "to lose 30 pounds."
The suspicion grows that even among our best educated and most advantaged younger people (and perhaps a good many of their elders) there is a lamentable inner void when it comes to a meaningful definition of true happiness.
Try this one on for size: Happiness is making steady, measurable and observable progress in achieving the long-term goals that are part of a lifetime plan. Happiness is rooted in some combination of the most basic desires for a good life that nearly every functional individual holds: to love and be loved; to successfully raise a family; to share ample quality time with friends and loved ones; to be enjoyably engaged in a gainful pursuit, one that fully employs and continuously expands one's skills, has purpose, earns fair recognition and provides rewards that are economically and/or emotionally satisfying, and to be a valued and respected member of one's community and society.
In each respect, this definition underscores the understanding that happiness is not a destination, but rather a journey of progressive fulfillment.
More particularly, it is a definition that offers a set of criteria by which every day--in fact, just about every waking moment--can be calibrated. The degree to which a person is occupied in activities deriving from these pursuits and furthering his or her life's goals is the real calculus of happiness.
By comparison, pleasure can be defined as a discrete enjoyable experience, subject to each individual's perception of what is enjoyable. Pleasure is the fruition of any activity or event that internally arouses an acute emotional response: delight, laughter, excitement, rapture, physical gratification, sensory stimulation, camaraderie, favorable recognition and so on.
Wholesome pleasure often contains a strong component of play, and play is an important ingredient in many aspects of happiness. The difference lies in how play furthers a larger purpose. As an example, playing with a child may evoke great pleasure, but under the heading of sharing quality time with a loved one, it takes on a more deeply rooted, longer-term significance.
Pleasure can be as exalting as listening to a symphony or completing a marathon; it can also be as dangerous as using drugs or stealing a car. Although most people would recoil at putting drug use or car theft in the category of pleasure, that is an important element for those who engage in such nefarious activities to gratify a craving for excitement.
Pleasure is material and transitory; happiness is spiritual and lasting. Pleasure is superficial; happiness is deeply embedded in the psyche. Infants and children experience pleasure; it requires insight and maturity to experience true happiness. Despite their distinctions, however, both happiness and pleasure, in proper balance, are vital to mature emotional and intellectual adjustment.
The pursuit of happiness is a positive force. Those who organize their aspirations in accordance with a lifetime game-plan based on attaining goal-oriented happiness become the achievers and producers in our society. They lead constructive and fulfilling lives in their homes, in the workplace and in their communities. They are the volunteers who are the backbone of every civic, religious, educational and charitable group. They provide the moral fiber that holds society together.
Those bent on pursuing pleasure without the insight or the will to progress beyond that level can undermine the very foundations of our society. They are unable to adjust to the responsibilities of school, family life, occupation and the many other demands that society makes on its members. Devoid of a long-range outlook and motivating goals, they lack the capacity to cope with deferred gratification. Consequently, their self-centered actions often inflict great damage on others.
Somehow, we have neglected to properly instruct our young people in the pursuit of happiness. Without that crucial understanding, they mistake pleasure for happiness, and continue to fling themselves with reckless disregard into potentially self-destructive activities. The results can be seen in a long and ever-growing list of social ills that bedevil us--substance abuse, violent crime, gang wars, educational failure and unemployability, babies born out of wedlock, sexually transmitted diseases.
As the gap between the happiness-seekers and the pleasure-seekers continues to widen, the adversarial nature of their differences becomes more apparent to each. They are revealed and sharpened in every dangerous confrontation, ranging from carjackings and muggings to hate crimes and drive-by shootings. Once-felt sympathy for the disadvantaged is now rapidly evaporating in the face of a looming fear of diminishing personal security.
Much needs to be done to teach youngsters how to understand and accept responsibility for devising and implementing a realistic plan for their own happiness. They need to be taught how to set attainable fulfilling goals for themselves, how to plan for the future, and how to find a healthy balance between happiness and pleasure. Such an effort grows increasingly imperative if some measure of stability is to be restored to our troubled society.