Is this Happiness or Pleasure?

Many people talk about slowing down, getting out of the rat race, retiring to Florida, downsizing, or becoming minimalist, but why? The answer is to be happy but if we don’t define happiness we can mistakenly replace it with pleasure and find ourselves in the exact same boat we were in before we slowed down.

Giving up commitments and removing our clutter should make us feel immensely better and it does for a moment until you feel guilty for saying no or ‘need’ something you gave away. Most times we are the happiest when we don’t have everything we want. You may have to improvise or ask someone to borrow something, which makes us just a little uncomfortable or can annoyingly take us a little bit longer. The happiest times of my life where when I lived with very little and was for all intensive purposes broke. Why is that?

Maybe being happy doesn’t mean having everything we want.

Does being happy mean we are never uncomfortable? Resoundingly, No! We can have an incredibly happy life, content with where we are, who we are and what we have. Happiness comes from the knowledge that it’s not always going to be easy and it’s not always going to be perfect and we will still be okay. We will actually be more than okay, we will learn lessons and become a better version of ourselves because of the experience. We can even have the expectation that we will be uncomfortable and just that knowledge can make us happier when we find we aren’t as uncomfortable as we thought we would be.

Pleasure, however, is a different beast. Seeking pleasure is, by far, not the same thing as seeking happiness. Pleasure, in most cases, actually will decrease our happiness. See, the pleasure meter you experience when you get something new is off the charts, but then just days later you’re already less excited than you were when you first received it. It’s like buying a new car, or a new pair of shoes, after the first use your pleasure meter starts to go down and you can become unhappy when the car isn’t everything you thought it would be or the shoes don’t hold up as well as you expected.

There are three different variables in the happiness meter: Pleasure, expectation, and contentment. Pleasure has high-risk factors for decreasing happiness overall. If we seek only pleasures in life we will eventually come to expect them. The expectation is the root of all discontentment, we become incredibly discontented when our expectations are not met. And here is where we find unhappiness.

So the formula seems to suggest that we actually stop seeking pleasure. Which would be a pretty boring life, but what if for the sake of argument, in our overly abundant, consumerist, first world country, that we just stop seeking so many pleasures? Sure I’ll still seek the beach in the summertime and ice cream on the first day of spring but maybe I’ll stop seeking the $5,000 vacations and the brand new vehicles. And without the need for expensive houses, cars, and vacations, I may find I have to work less and that wouldn’t be too bad! What if we seek happiness right where we are, with the people we are with?

Arguably, our culture sets us up for unhappiness. Expectations in the U.S. are unreasonable. We see ads everywhere that include the perfect (but outrageously expensive) vacations, perfect hair, flawless skin, the fastest cars with heated and cooled seats, and bigger and bigger and bigger houses (though cheaply built). While, Instagram and Facebook surely, don’t help us set lower our expectations either. We are set up for failure and that sucks. But we have the option to see through the smoke screens and remind ourselves of what makes us happy not what is purely pleasurable.

What pleasures have you sought because you thought they would increase your happiness?

Some of mine are a new minivan (we are the only country in the world where every parent drives a minivan, no matter the number of kids), a bigger house than I really need, perfectly renovated bathrooms, expensive shoes for a theoretical career, and a Caribbean vacation. I’m sure that list could go on. When I really think about it, those things have not brought me happiness, just short, intense pleasure. I would have been just as happy (or happier), in the long run, going to the Outer Banks with my family, wearing shoes from TJ Maxx, a bathroom that functioned but wasn’t super pretty (so I had more money to give, or to take my family to the beach), and I would have been way happier with a used, smaller car that I didn’t’ feel worried my kids would ruin with their lollipops or chocolate milk!

For my downshifted life, I’ll be taking steps this year to recognize what is happiness in my life and what is merely pleasure.


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