Insights: Pleasure Versus Happiness

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We all want pleasure. It feels good. We are biologically built to search for pleasure. What we need to understand is that there is a large difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is fleeting, happiness is sustainable. 

It’s easy to misunderstand these two emotions. We can easily think that what brings us pleasure is actually happiness. Yet if you looked at the brain chemistry that gets released during pleasure compared to happiness, you would see a very different experience in the brain. 

First, the chemical dopamine is released with pleasure, which makes us seek out more. For me, this tends to happen when I eat chocolate, I want more without thinking about the consequences. My brain just wants it. Whereas, the chemical serotonin is released with contentment and happiness. 

My brain is not the only one that gets stuck on pleasure. There is an enormous issue with people being addicted to the pleasure they receive from being on their phones: playing games, finding new apps, scanning news stories or dating sites. They literally cannot put them down. 

This addiction to our phones is affecting our children’s ability to attach and have healthy relationships. I am also seeing an increasing amount of couples complaining about their spouse being on their phone rather than talking. I often hear parents say they text their children who are in another room. 

There is an advertisement on television which starts with a mom and children sitting at the dinner table saying how much they miss their dad. The camera pans over to the dad who is so busy on his phone he is not present with his family at all. Even though this is meant to be funny, sadly there is a lot of truth to this scenario. 

Let’s look more at the brain and dopamine verses serotonin. 

Dopamine only hits five receptors in the brain while serotonin signals 14 different parts of the brain. Dopamine is focused on short time enjoyment while serotonin is looking for long-term enjoyment. Dopamine makes you want more while serotonin you know when it is enough.

We can play a game with our kids and be done afterwards, but play that same game by yourself on a phone and most often we will want to keep playing it, saying to ourselves, ‘just one more time…’ 

What I find interesting is the increase in depression, anxiety and suicide amongst teenagers who have been raised with social media and cell phones.  Between 2010 and 2015 there has been a 65 percent increase in the suicide rate amongst teens. That is astounding. 

An interesting study showed the correlation between mental health issues and media screen use. This study showed that 48 percent of people who spent five or more hours a day on their phones had suicidal thoughts compared with 28 percent of those who spent an hour per day. This study showed no other correlations. These are very scary statistics. 

Studies also show that teenagers who live with a balanced life of playing sports, homework, hanging out with friends and having family activities have a much lower rate of depression and suicide.

Overuse of our phones is like eating too much cake—a small piece for taste is wonderful and enjoyable, but eating too much leaves us feeling sick and not good about ourselves, and the long-term results can be bad for our health. 

So think about your phone use, think about if what you are doing is a pleasure or happiness experience. Focus on your relationships, that is what truly brings us long-term happiness.

By the way, I wrote this article while I was away in San Diego for a conference.  I have this lovely room overlooking the harbor. I realized when I awoke the next morning the first thing I did was look at my phone for texts and emails. I made a commitment right then to myself that the first thing I am going to do in the morning is open my blinds and take a moment to ground myself. There is nothing I need to know at that hour of the morning.  I hope you consider doing the same.

Contact Dr. Shelly Zavala at or [email protected].



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