The Pleasure/Happiness Conundrum

A guy is talking to his doctor about his health and he asks the doctor if he thinks he will live until he is 80. The doctor asks, “Do you drink?”


“Do you smoke?”


“Do you eat red meat?”


The doctor stops and asks him, “Then, why do you want to live til you’re 80?”

This old joke highlights the conflict between pleasure and happiness. We can think of pleasure as something immediate like eating a donut while happiness is how you will feel 4 hours after eating the donut. I will try to describe their complicated relationship and then offer my 2 cents.

Pleasure = Happiness

If you were lucky, childhood was a time when pleasurable activities, like playing games and reading with a parent, led to happiness. As kids we find ourselves in these “flow” activities in which we are totally absorbed. There is no conflict; pleasure and happiness are in-sync. As we age, we find people who we enjoy spending time with and these friendships or love affairs lead to our happiness (if we are fortunate). Some of us are lucky enough to have jobs that are both pleasurable in their daily tasks and lead to our general sense of well-being; they make us happy.


We have evolved with scarcity: of food, drink, rest, sex, free time, peak experiences, etc. Our brains are tuned to these pleasurable activities because they have helped us survive. The problem today for many in the modern world is there is no scarcity; hence, we can’t really let the search for pleasure guide our decision making.

Pleasure (think now) can lead to unhappiness in the long term (think hours from now). Too much pleasure in the form of chocolate cake, a 12 year old Scotch, or watching Breaking Bad can lead to unhappiness. Every adult knows that we need to do things in moderation and to defer some gratification so we are able to accomplish things.

Unpleasurable things=Happiness

Then there is a whole category of things which are not really pleasurable in any way but lead to happiness. Riding a bike for longer than 30 minutes is painful the first time. Running a mile feels like torture if you’ve never ran. How many times did you have to eat vegetables, drink wine, or meditate before they became enjoyable (if ever)?  I recently started jumping into a frozen lake for five minutes at a time because of its profound effects on my mood and energy. None of this is easy. Whenever we start anything new we are awkward and incompetent. Malcolm Gladwell summed it up when he said that people like things that are hard and many of these ‘hard’ things lead to happiness.

What we need is an informed executive function to combat our biology. Daniel Kahneman calls this ‘slow thinking’ which is deliberate and thoughtful rather than ‘fast thinking’ which is quick and intuitive. It’s the slow thinking that says, “If you eat that donut, you are going to feel like crap in 2 hours”. Religion can play this role but often comes up short in the day-to-day decisions that we face in modern society.  What would Jesus say about time spent on social media? Science and the experience of others offer us guides for navigating the pleasure/happiness conundrum, especially when it comes to unpleasurable things that could make us happy. Here is my list of potentially unpleasurable daily activities that make me happy:

outdoor exercise; reduce process sugars; 12 hour eating window; green smoothie, cold water therapy; stretching; meditation; breathing; red wine with dinner; and yerba mate.

Inspired by: Rhonda Patrick, Ken Wilber, Tim Ferris, Sam Harris, Wim Hof, Buddha, Jesus, and Argentina

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