Happiness vs Pleasure

In which RVA jaws about Buddhist principles…

So I’m quarantined like everybody else.

As I write this, the nation-wide stay-in-place order is in effect.  By the time this is published, I’m not so sure what the state will be (which is really, really dumb).  But that’s another matter.

Somewhat unrelated (but only a little), I’ve deleted my gacha game a little over a week ago.  Gacha games are what most people think of when you say ‘mobile game’.  They’re simple little games that are meant to be played in bite-sized sessions throughout the day.  I was playing a really good game that really fixed a lot of the usual complaints about gacha games.  For anyone else, I would highly recommend it.  For me?  With my history of gaming addiction?  As well-made a game as it was, it was still too overwhelming.

My gaming addiction is very, very mild.  VERY mild.  But addiction is still addiction and it was real.  All the hallmarks are there.  Structuring the day around optimizing gameplay, spending more time thinking about the game than other things, gradually losing interest in other hobbies.  Addiction is a complicated thing, and it isn’t homogenous.  Addiction for one person will present slightly different for another.  For me, the true hallmark of addiction is when you do the thing (play the game, take the drink, etc), not because you want to but because it hurts not to.  At that point, the addiction is clear.  And I was getting to that point again.

So, I deleted the game.  And it sucks because boy howdy would a fun little game be a BIG help getting through this whole pandemic thing, wouldn’t it?  Sheesh.  Man, it’s been no joke.  On the plus side, with all this energy to burn, I’ve cleaned the house repeatedly.

But I’ve also been delving back into philosophy.  When something fundamental like what you enjoy is shaken to its core, I tend to go back to basics.  For me, that means philosophy.  Existentialism.  Navel-gazing.

One debate that philosophy tends to draw lines on is happiness versus pleasure.  Studying Buddhism tends to focus here, because Buddhism is all about happiness and pleasure being diametrically opposed (oversimplication).  Given that I only think so highly of Buddhism, as a basic tenet, this is something I ponder.

Happiness.  Pleasure.  What’s the difference?

Seems simple, right?  Aren’t they synonyms?  That, right there, is a problem.  Because a lot of times, philosophy and ethics and sociology and behavior studies, they will use very similar terms but mean different things.  Sometimes, those differences are subtle and sometimes they are profound.  So I often begin any philosophical study by trying to understand a speaker’s stance on and definition of ‘happy’.

Most people define happiness through an example.  ‘It’s like Christmas morning’.  ‘It’s like waking up without having to go to work’.  Etc.  But I think a definition by example is often lacking.

So what is happiness?  If we take a survey of happy moments, a common theme is the presence of…well, being present.  It’s being ‘in the moment’.  Anticipation has passed, fixation is nonexistent, and tension is nowhere to be found.  The happy person is in the now.  So to be happy, one must not be fixated on the past nor burdened by thoughts of the future.  They aren’t focused on outcomes or precursors.  There is no thought or reminder pulling them out of the moment.

For many, this is summed up as ‘Happiness is the absence of desire’.  Desire is seen as the thing that vexes us.  We desire for something to be different, or we desire for something to be better, or to be happy.

I balked at this for a long time.  Desire is a fundamental part of being human, right?  It’s one of the great traits that defines us as people and as a people.  Our desire to grow made us into a dominant species (which might not be the best claim to fame, given pollution and societal standards right now, but that’s another debate).

But then I started to read about how others defend desire and I realized, much like happiness, the same word was being used slightly differently.  A good example of this, if happiness and pleasure aren’t clear, might be envy and jealousy.  Very similar, and often used interchangeably, but not the same thing.  Envy is wanting to have a thing; jealousy is wanting to have a thing exclusively.  To envy a person’s car means you want a car just like theirs.  To be jealous of their car means you want their car and you don’t want them to have it.  Subtle difference, but important.

So is desire really key to humanity?  Are our best traits found in desire?  Or are they found in ambition?  And what’s the difference?

I’m still working on that.  Like happiness and pleasure above, I find a lot of examples and definitions that are given by example.  Desire is consumption, ambition is production.  Desire is burning wood, ambition is giving off heat.  That kind of thing.  Desire is the pursuit, ambition is the achieving.  Desire is the journey, ambition is the destination.

No trait is fundamentally good or bad.  And for the most part, I find extremes to pretty much always bee detrimental.  Indulging in desire is as hazardous as eschewing desire.  Both render you dangerously inhuman.  But a key to growing up is unlearning truths you were taught when you learn they were wrong.  But more than that, it is developing the reason and intelligence to discern half-truths and partial truths.  A thing can be right for the wrong reason, and the inverse.  As you age, you learn that something being fact is binary (yes or no), but something being true is usually a gradient.  And what determines it is often the context in which it exists.

I still don’t 100% know the difference between happiness and pleasure.  But knowing there IS a difference has been a big help in dealing with my depression.  This has led me to seek out other differences.  What’s the difference between desire and ambition?  Is one creative and the other consumptive?  Is one the pursuit and the other the completion?

Truth is an understanding of our relationship with the world around us, on all levels.  Pursuing that truth remains an ever-rewarding pastime.  I doubt I’ll find all the answers that I’m looking for.  I doubt I’ll ever be able to definitively know happiness from pleasure, desire from ambition, serenity from placidity.  But the answers exist.  I haven’t found too many answers but thus far, I’ve found some very interesting questions.
How’s your quarantine going?

Author: Robert V Aldrich

Author. Speaker. Cancer Researcher. Martial Artist. Illustrator. Cat dad. Nerd.

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