Happiness (Well-Being) vs. Pleasure…
“Consciously or not, directly or indirectly, short-term or long, whatever we do, whatever we hope, whatever we dream, somehow is related to a deep, profound desire for well-being or happiness” – Matthieu Richard.
I believe that we, as humans, all want to be happy. We want to thrive. We want to possess meaningful relationships and leave this life knowing that we had an impact. Although I believe humans attempt to seek happiness in all moments of life, in reality, we often turn our backs to it. We want to lose weight but we self-sabotage by placing unrealistic conditions and expectations upon ourselves based on no real truths or facts. We want to be “be healthy” but remain caught in a spider-web of stress that perpetuates poor habits and makes finding balance impossible. We want to create “better” versions of ourselves, but we repeatedly revert back to old, destructive behaviors. More often than not, we get “stuck in a rut” or fall off the wagon instead of consistently moving forward in the direction of our ideal life. Both from curiosity and my desire to really help people find lasting health and happiness, this has had me puzzled for a while. In fact, it’s taken me over 6 months to finally construct this post.
Why is happiness – within ourselves and our bodies so elusive?
There are, of course, the typical answers from my industry:
– We are too stressed!
– Over-fed and under-nourished!
– Sleep deprivation!
– We are nutritionally confused by conflicting media outlets!
While all of these things are true, I don’t think it’s the root of our unhappiness.
– “Okay, well then it must stem from an individual’s lack of desire, lack of knowledge, lack of discipline or lack of time, right?”
Nope, I beg to differ there as well.
In my opinion, the problem lies within the psychology of eating; and in particular, the confusion between two emotional states – happiness vs. pleasure. According to Matthieu Ricard, a biochemist turned Buddhist Monk, PLEASURE is a state of gratification; contingent on time, its object and the place. It’s something that changes with nature and uses itself as we experience it. HAPPINESS/WELL-BEING, on the other hand, is not just a pleasurable sensation, but rather a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment, a state that evades and underlies all emotional states, including both joys and sorrows, hardships and pleasure that come our way.
When we look at the content of our lives and determine our perceived self-worth, I believe we are confusing moments of experiencing pleasure with the ubiquitous state of inner well-being (happiness). Experiencing pleasure is merely our perception of any given moment and just as quickly, that pleasure can change. For example, take a freshly baked batch of chocolate chip cookies – we have one and immediately experience pleasure from its deliciousness. Our brain tells us we’re “happy” and all the stresses and negative emotions from the day fade away into the goodness of that moment. Naturally, we believe that if we have another, our pleasure will accordingly increase. But by the end of the second (or third or fourth) serving, that pleasure turns to disgust because we’ve overdosed on the cookie’s goodness, making ourselves sick. Are you guilty of this? I know I am. Here’s another – when we have been outside in the cold and are chilled to the bone, a warm, crackling fire brings us great pleasure, but if we sit too close or for too long, suddenly we’re too hot or getting burned. These states of pleasure have in fact used themselves as we’ve experienced them. Does that make sense?
Let’s look at it this way: often, we set conditions for ourselves in order to achieve happiness – external conditions. We look outside ourselves at the world, gather all our conditions and say, “If I had all these things, I would be happy! If my body looked like this, if I made this much money, if I didn’t have these wrinkles, if I had more time, if I had this job, if my significant other did x, y and z — THEN I would be happy”. But in creating these conditions, we already bear doom for happiness itself; for if one of our conditions doesn’t exist or is missing, our ability to achieve said happiness collapses. We are essentially limiting the happiness we could be experiencing right now because we’re waiting for all these external puzzle pieces to be in place. We must also ask at what cost are we willing to run after these “conditions”? What price are your relationships and your health (including both physical & emotional well-being) paying? We hope that problems go away if they’re ignored, but that’s not the way it works. The constant pursuit of external happiness at the expense of current well-being will bubble and build under the surface until it explodes; explodes into a mental breakdown, depression, sickness, disease, cancer or loss. We keep pushing & pushing until we’re run ragged, searching for happiness while sinking deeper and deeper into depression & self-deprecation.
And so, we must come to see that the pleasure we experience from external factors (the cookies, the fire, the body we think we want or the car we think we need) is very different from the happiness we achieve through an inner contentment.
Because HAPPINESS, my friends, does not exist in the food we eat (or the things we “have” for that manner). Food, alcohol, drugs and various experiences may bring us moments of pleasure, but it will never fix any problems or console us when we’re experiencing moments of sorrow, stress or loss. It will not fill emotional voids. Desserts and sweets will not give us the real sweetness we’re missing in our lives. And no matter its ingredients or sustenance, food will never provide the texture and richness to life that we’re craving. Although it may serve as temporary solace or a distraction, downing 4 glasses of wine won’t make that stress or pain go away. It’s still waiting for us once the pleasure we’re experiencing has used itself up. Do you see what I’m getting at?
As Brene Brown so eloquently puts it:, “we are the most in debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is (and I learned this from the research), you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say: ‘here’s the bad stuff: here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment – I don’t want to feel these. I’m gonna have a couple beers and a banana-nut muffin.’ You can’t numb those hard feelings…without numbing the other affects and emotions. So when we numb ‘those’, we numb [everything] – we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness, and then we are miserable and we are looking for purpose and meaning.”
It’s easier to pretend the happiness is there than to acknowledge that it’s not. And so we live from pleasure moment to pleasure moment, covering up the fact that we’re fundamentally unhappy or that something in our life is extremely out of balance, numbing all our emotions and dumbing down our intuition – maybe we are able to sidestep the sorrow and pain or the fact that we know something is missing, but we are also never able to fully experience happiness or joy.
Does this scenario sound familiar? – Monday rolls around and we start this (and every) week with an intention to “be good & stay on track” (I know I have done this; I mean, “after the weekend we had, gosh it’s needed, right?”)…
So our intentions are in the right place.
But then that happiness factor (or lack thereof) creeps back in. We give ourselves no place to create happiness on the inside, so then we must create a false sense of it externally, convincing ourselves we feel happy in those moments of pleasure; convince ourselves we are happy – hence creating the cycle of “being bad” with our food, propagating self-destructive language, emotions and actions. In reality, our control on the outer world is limited. There are no guarantees and often that which we seek eludes us. Thus, I believe, we must turn our thoughts inward. Consider this – what translates all our preconceived “conditions” into happiness or suffering? Our own minds, correct? The belief that “having” all our conditions creates happiness; or that not having them crafts a sense or degree of failure and unhappiness – is merely our perception of the current situation. This band-aid approach to finding happiness (or dealing with tough situations) is a superficial substitute for the inner well-being we are yearning.
We must learn nurture happiness from the inside. We need to assess where we’ve lost our balance, what priority our well-being takes and begin to make a shift in our mental habit patterns. The more that we let negative emotions pervade our consciousness: guilt, worry, stress, anger, fear, hatred, jealousy, arrogance; the more miserable we feel. The more we punish ourselves for things we did or didn’t do (like being “good” or “bad” with our food this week); or beat ourselves up for that which we have or don’t have (like the right job or flat stomach) — the more we perpetuate the cycle of running from the happiness we seek.
So here’s the silver lining.
My friends, that happiness we all want isn’t an external thing. It’s not something we can reach out & touch, it’s a feeling. And right now, in this moment, you can have that feeling – without ANY of the external “pleasure-bringing” things you think you need. How exciting is that? You have everything you need right now to feel and BE happy. So ask yourself, “what would I be doing different right now if I was happy?” If you possessed all those things you think you need to be happy – what would that FEEL like? Would you speak differently to yourself in the mirror? Would you live every day with a different perspective? Would you go buy that new outfit you’ve been promising to reward yourself with? Have the confidence to talk to a [cute] stranger? Get off the couch and go meet up with friends/family? Would you look differently at your job, your family, your body, your life? Would you forgive freely, whine less and laugh more?
So what’s your next step? After you turn your focus internally to creating that happiness, begin to nurture the nature of your conscious mind to eliminate negative emotions and replace them with thoughts that increase your well-being. Matthieu Ricard calls doing so practicing habits of happiness. It’s important to note the significance of practicing these because they won’t be easy and at first, like with all new habits, we need to give ourselves the space to grow and not be perfect. But if you accept the task of being responsible for your own happiness – instead of looking to build your self-worth on external factors, then nothing and no one else can affect your well-being. For well-being is the fundamental, self-perception of your worth, your attitude, your compassion and your outlook on life. It pervades and comes through every situation – the good, bad and the ugly. It doesn’t change with the external, but instead underlies every other emotional state. And right now, you can unlock that happiness without conditions. Our minds determine the quality of every experience and instance of our lives. And if you accept that responsibility and start exercising your mind to practice habits of happiness daily, then get ready, because your life will change forever.
And that’s both the most empowering, yet somewhat daunting mindset to take on, isn’t it? We can no longer blame circumstances, stress, food or anything else for the waxes and wanes that negative emotions and external pleasures bring. We must address any emotional voids we experience, instead of filling them with food, and we must stop living by the excuse that “I can’t be happy unless __________”.
Here are some ways you can start practicing habits of happiness on your own:
– replacing hate with unconditional love
– trading guilt for acceptance (for yourself and others)
– forgiving instead of blaming (for yourself and others)
– giving up the pursuit of media-dictated physical “perfection” with loving our unique imperfections
– practicing gratitude in moments of hardship, uncertainty and fear (and every day!)
– accepting that our actions, yes – every one, has effects on ourselves and others; that what we do matter
– allowing ourselves the times & space to notice how we feel and sit with it, breathe it and figure out what we need from it or for it; versus covering it up or pretending it’s not ther
– practicing self-love and self-care every day
So ask yourself, what would happen if you invested the time you spent worrying about external situations, objects and perceptions on actively practicing habits of happiness? What would happen if you started living your happiness right now?