Happiness vs Pleasure: Savouring the Moments That Matter

Ask anyone what they want most; the answer will likely be happiness or something that brings them happiness. In our fast-paced world, it is so easy to get wrapped up in chasing pleasure. The rush of dopamine that floods our brains when we take a bite of a deliciously sweet cake is undeniably gratifying. This momentary pleasure is a natural response, a quick burst of joy triggered by the brain’s reward system. Dopamine acts as a motivator, encouraging us to seek out behaviours that provide instant gratification. However, this pleasure is short-lived, often leaving us wanting more soon after the initial high fades.

While the immediate pleasure of enjoying a sweet treat can brighten a moment, it is essential to recognise that such experiences are transient. They offer a temporary escape, a brief respite from daily stresses. These pleasures, while enjoyable, do not contribute significantly to our overall well-being or long-term satisfaction. The fleeting nature of such pleasures often leads to a cycle of seeking more and more without ever genuinely feeling fulfilled. 

Eating sweet treats but feeling guiltyA perfect example is treating yourself to a slice of cake or a couple of biscuits to cope after a stressful day at work. The sugar rush and the dopamine release provide a moment of relief and joy. However, once the initial pleasure fades, the underlying stress is still there. This then causes you to reach for another slice of cake, a few more biscuits, or perhaps another sugary treat like ice cream or chocolate. 

As this pattern continues, you rely more heavily on sugary treats to manage stress and emotions. Over time, this can lead to a cycle of overconsumption, with people constantly chasing the next sugar high to escape from feelings of anxiety or unhappiness. Yet, despite each treat’s temporary pleasure, you never feel truly satisfied or content. 

This spiral of seeking more short-term pleasures can even lead to negative consequences. Physically, it can result in weight gain, energy crashes, and, over time, health issues such as diabetes or heart disease. Psychologically, it can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and further stress as you become aware of your unhealthy habits but feel powerless to change them. The more you indulge in these fleeting pleasures, the more you may feel trapped in a cycle of discontent, unable to find lasting satisfaction or happiness. 

On the other hand, happiness is a deeper, more enduring state of being. It is not simply about feeling good at the moment but about achieving a lasting sense of contentment and purpose. Happiness comes from engaging in meaningful activities, nurturing relationships, and contributing to something larger than ourselves. It is built over time through experiences that provide a sense of achievement, connection, and inner peace. 

Happy fulfilled family

Family is everything

Our connections and relationships are among the deepest sources of our happiness. Spending time with loved ones, sharing experiences, and building memories together provides a sense of belonging and support. These connections enrich our lives far beyond the temporary pleasure of a sugary treat. Focusing on building and maintaining these relationships lays the foundation for lasting happiness. 

Therefore, while the pleasure of a sweet treat is enjoyable, the enduring joy of meaningful connections and experiences truly enriches our lives. By prioritising these more profound sources of happiness, we can create a more fulfilling and contented existence that goes beyond the temporary highs of transient pleasure. 

The Neuroscience of Pleasure 

When we indulge in activities like eating a delicious dessert, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked with the brain’s reward and pleasure systems. Dopamine plays a crucial role in how we experience pleasure and motivation. It is part of the brain’s reward circuitry, which includes structures such as the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area, both of which are pivotal in the processing of rewards. 

When we bite something sweet, such as cake, the sensory experience—the taste, smell, and texture—triggers a cascade of neural activity. This results in dopamine release, creating a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction. This biochemical reaction is the brain’s signalling that we have found something enjoyable and beneficial, encouraging us to repeat the behaviour. This mechanism is evolutionarily designed to reinforce behaviours essential for survival, such as eating, by making it pleasurable. 

Sweet pleasures trigger dopamine in the brain

However, the pleasure from such activities is short-lived. The initial surge of dopamine creates a momentary sense of euphoria, but this feeling is fleeting. The sweetness of the cake and the joy it brings quickly fade as the dopamine levels drop. This temporary nature of dopamine-induced pleasure often leads us to seek repeated experiences that can provide the same dopamine hit. This is why we might find ourselves reaching for another slice of cake or seeking other sources of instant gratification. 

Unfortunately, the transient nature of dopamine-fueled pleasure can sometimes create a cycle of craving and overconsumption as we chase after the next brief high, hoping to recreate the initial pleasurable sensation. This cycle is ultimately harmful to our well-being.  

It’s important to recognise that while dopamine-driven pleasures are essential to our brain’s reward system, they are not designed to provide lasting fulfilment. These moments of pleasure are temporary and do not contribute significantly to long-term happiness. Instead, they offer a quick fix, a momentary escape from life’s mundane or stressful aspects. 

Understanding the neuroscience of pleasure can help us appreciate why certain activities are so tempting and why they often leave us wanting more. It also underscores the importance of seeking more sustainable sources of happiness, which can provide a more profound sense of satisfaction and well-being over time. 

The Essence of Happiness 

Happiness is a more stable and long-lasting state of well-being that encompasses a broader and deeper range of experiences, in contrast to the fleeting pleasure that dopamine induces. A sustained sense of contentment and fulfilment characterizes happiness, a fleeting emotion. This lasting happiness, often called eudaimonic well-being, arises from various sources contributing to a rich and meaningful life. 

Sources of Lasting Happiness 

Personal Growth

One significant source of happiness is personal development and growth. Engaging in activities that challenge and help us grow intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually contributes to a lasting sense of achievement and satisfaction. Whether learning a new skill, pursuing a passion, or setting and achieving personal goals, growth and self-improvement foster a deep understanding of fulfilment. 

Fulfilling Relationships

Another crucial element of enduring happiness is the quality of our relationships. Feeling emotionally secure, at home, and with a sense of belonging comes from having solid, encouraging relationships with our partners, friends, and wider family. These relationships offer companionship, love, and support, which are fundamental to our well-being. Sharing our lives with others, experiencing mutual trust and respect, and having a reliable support system make us truly happy. 

Meaningful experiences such as volunteering

Altruism boosts happiness

Meaningful Experiences

Participating in meaningful activities that give us a sense of purpose is also a key contributor to lasting happiness. These can include work that we find fulfilling, hobbies that we are passionate about, or volunteer work that allows us to impact others’ lives positively. These meaningful experiences provide a sense of purpose and contribute to a narrative of a life well-lived. 

The Complex Interplay of Emotions 

Happiness involves a complex interplay of emotions and psychological well-being. It encompasses positive emotions such as joy, contentment, and love and the ability to cope with and recover from negative emotions like sadness, anger, and stress. Strong emotional resilience is vital to experiencing lasting joy and happiness. It allows us to navigate life’s ups and downs with a sense of balance and perspective. 

Unlike the quick burst of pleasure from dopamine, which is intense but short-lived, happiness is about the cumulative effect of various positive experiences over time. It is less about the intensity of a single moment and more about the overall quality of our lives. Having good contacts and a series of accomplishments and experiences that provide a happy and meaningful life is how happiness is created and gives your life meaning. 

In short, the take-home message is that while the pleasure from a slice of cake is momentarily delightful, the happiness derived from personal growth, fulfilling relationships, and meaningful experiences is more rewarding. By prioritising these more profound sources of happiness, we can build a life that is enjoyable in fleeting moments and rich, content, and joyful.

Avoiding dopamine hits from sugar and alcohol plays a vital part in weight managment. Find out more about my 8 week course weight management course here.