Pleasure and Happiness

Chided for too many hits on the snack cabinet, a work colleague shrugged it off as an epicurean temperament. It is true that Epicurus, father of hedonism, placed pleasure at the root of all happiness. But unfortunately for my gluttonous friend (who, to his credit, was offering a mock-justification and not a real one), step two in Epicurus is to realize that pleasure is best secured by tracking your lifestyle and your appetites always toward simple pleasures and never toward luxury. It may seem counterintuitive at first glance, but the pursuit of luxury is perhaps the single greatest obstacle to pleasure (and therefore to happiness). Thus Epicurus.

I always liked the twist on happiness and pleasure that dominates the novels of 18th-century England. I believe it was Ann Radcliffe (whose gothic novel, The Italian, 1797, is in my opinion still the greatest example of that genre to date) who put it most succinctly, although I can’t find the quote. Something like, “Pleasure is the excitement that comes from the gratification of an appetite; happiness is the deep contentment that comes from a life of virtue.” Pleasure is a state of sensory excitement bound to a momentary appetite; happiness is a state of being that transcends the momentary appetites. Thus the eighteenth century.

My personal elaboration for today is this. The contrast between pleasure and happiness commonly drawn in 18th-century novels doesn’t mean they’re constantly at odds. Fortunately or unfortunately for us (depending on whether you prefer that life be interesting or that life be easy), there is simply no direct correlation between happiness and pleasure. Some surface pleasures may be conducive to happiness, and some may be destructive of happiness. Some may resonate with pure joy at the depths, and some may stir up turbulence and dissonance at the depths. It all depends on whether those pleasures are consistent or inconsistent with virtue, affirming or debasing one’s core health or any human connections in play. When surface pleasure and deeper happiness go together, it makes things easy. When they are at odds, there has to be a trade-off, no way around it, a loss on one side will compensate for the gain on the other. That’s when it gets interesting.