Another quick thought:

One of the most important things I’ve learned to distinguish—and, unfortunately, only recently in my life—is the fine, nearly imperceptible difference between pleasure and happiness.

Many people mistake pleasure for happiness. Pleasure is merely a temporary relief, escape, good feeling or instant gratification—all short-term in nature—whereas happiness invokes feelings of joy, contentment, fulfillment, even love—all of which are much more long-term in nature.

So when people mistake pleasure for happiness, they tend to then pursue pleasure—money, entertainment, sex, prestige/attention, chemically-induced mood alteration—instead of true happiness. This is where addiction can enter the picture—when one or more of those pursuits becomes the mainstay of one’s perceived happiness (or escape from one’s unhappiness), to the point it comes to control one’s life and actions, instead of the other way around.

And as long as one is pursuing avenues of pleasure, rather than avenues of happiness, one will never find true happiness.

The primary difference is this: pleasure comes as an external or latent reward for an activity, whereas happiness comes from the activity itself. It’s important to make that distinction when making decisions and taking actions concerning the direction of one’s life, and in today’s society and culture it’s very easy to fall into the trap of pursuing pleasure—which is advocated and promoted by the media, big corporations, government—rather than the pursuit of happiness, which can only come from introspection, “knowing thyself”, seeking and discovering those activities which bring contentment and fulfillment in and of themselves, rather than expecting an external or latent reward as a result of the activity.

I’ve found a couple ways of determining what types if activities I might enjoy intrinsically, rather than engaging in them for extrinsic reward:

1) I think about, or observe, what types of activities I gravitate toward during those uncommitted times, when I have no obligations, no place to be, nothing I have to do at that moment—what sorts of things do I then find myself doing naturally, simply because I enjoy doing them?

2) I think back to my childhood, before the responsibilities, obligations, relationships, work, etc. of adulthood began dictating my life, my actions. What did I enjoy doing back then, when I had the opportunity to simply do whatever it is that I enjoyed doing? What did I typically do as a kid?

These thought exercises can help us redirect ourselves to those activities which we naturally find enjoyable and fulfilling. I believe that if we stop engaging in activities with the expectation of some external or latent reward, but rather engage in them because the activities themselves are rewarding, we’ll be much more likely to experience happiness in our lives. (I’ve touched on this concept before: see my article Experiencing Happiness is More Important Than Winning).

Along these same lines, I’m a huge fan of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s lifetime work in this area, generally termed “flow“. He spent decades identifying the various elements of the phenomenon of flow, which his book description defines thusly:

 “During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.”

So essentially, “flow” refers to the various phenomena we all occasionally experience, such as the loss of one in one’s work, the passing of time unaware, the total concentration and contentment during, and fulfillment after, that specific activity in which one so readily loses oneself.

And further, Csikszentmihalyi has determined that it is, in fact, possible to intentionally create the conditions favorable to entering into the state of flow, aka experiencing happiness.

But that means seeking and discovering those activities which in the long term offer fulfillment and happiness in and of themselves, rather than pursuing those which merely result in a rewarding sense of pleasure in the short term, which can so easily be mistaken for happiness.

For a more in-depth look at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s study of the phenomenon of flow, I invite you to watch his TED Talk: