There has been a longstanding debate between two proponents. One claims pleasure is the key to happiness, another that purpose or meaning is the key to true happiness.
Religious leaders, philosophers, and scientists have contributed to this debate throughout history. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, some factions have focused on human purpose being to serve and worship God and on the denial of earthly pleasures. In contrast, others point out that the Bible says that food, wine, music, dance, and sexuality are gifts from God for our pleasure.
In a time when happiness was not something most people generally strived for or even thought possible, Socrates (460 BC), regarded by many as the first western optimist, argued that humans could achieve happiness through rational control over their desires. For the Greeks of that time, happiness was typically viewed as an infrequent gift from the gods given to few. But Socrates argued that happiness could be achieved through virtue. By suppressing or at least controlling our drives for pleasure and ego, we could achieve true happiness.
The hedonistic philosopher
Roughly one hundred years after the birth of Socrates, another Greek philosopher by the name of Epicurus took another approach to happiness. Epicurus was a hedonistic philosopher who argued that pleasure and pain govern human behavior.
For Epicurus, the key to happiness was all about living an "untroubled" life. Today we tend to use hedonism to mean extreme maximization of sensual pleasure, but Epicurus' notion of happiness was more nuanced. He was in no way averse to sensual pleasure but argued that the absence of pain or discomfort was a more achievable and lasting form of pleasure.
Science may be closer than ever to reconciling these two perspectives, and a quick scan of "happiness research" indicates that pleasure and purpose both contribute to happiness, so the question is, why not do both? For example, in her book The Myths of Happiness, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky presents evidence to support the idea that a strong sense of purpose can improve our happiness. Other research shows that pleasurable experiences can release a myriad of the body's "feel-good" chemicals.
These "feel-good" chemicals are primarily:
- Endocannabinoids – the body's self-produced cannabis help regulate dopamine, the body's major pleasure chemical
- Oxytocin and vasopressin – hormones connected with sex and strong relationships
- Endorphin – comes from Latin and literally means “self-produced morphine"
- Gaba – the "anti-anxiety molecule”
- Serotonin – “the confidence molecule”
- Adrenaline – “the energy molecule”
A great deal remains to be known about creating the right neurochemical balance that generates a sense of happiness, but there is no doubt among scientists that these chemicals play an essential role.
But why does our body choose to reward us "or not" with these happiness cocktails?
Part of the answer is clearly genetics. Some of us are born with a more advantageous mix of these chemicals which can help explain why people experience and handle hardships differently. But other significant contributors to the brain's reward system are the things we choose to do. For example, if we choose to exercise or have sex, our body rewards us with some of these chemicals.
Do good – feel good
It is likely that by choosing to participate in activities that we deem as meaningful, we are causing our bodies to reward us with a number of these feel-good chemicals. In other words, the question is not whether pleasure or purpose are more important for our happiness, but rather to understand that pleasure and purpose are intricately intertwined. When we do good, we feel good!
And while the pleasure of sex, exercise, or a good meal can leave us with good feelings, these rewards tend to be short-lived, and the activities need to be repeated to gain the same level of satisfaction.
On the other hand, engaging in things that give us a sense of purpose may not provide the "highs" gained from pleasurable activities. But, they likely provide a higher level of general satisfaction over a longer period.
So again, the question is, why choose? Get involved in things that give you a sense of purpose and enjoy exercise, good food, and great sex!
The combination of pleasure and purpose is the real secret of happiness!
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