‘As I See It’ by Columnist Jon Huer: Confusing pleasure for happiness 


Published: 10/22/2021 1:27:50 PM

Of all the cultural beliefs with which we live and die, none is more life-demeaning and society-destroying than our confusion of pleasure for happiness. It is this misidentification of pleasure for happiness that steers the course of America’s internal battle — as a nation and as individual human beings — inevitably into the daily moral abyss, leading a life of silent unhappiness in pursuit of loud pleasure.

Indeed we confuse pleasure with happiness as easily as we do facts with truth (a topic for another day). On a cursory level of everyday experience, pleasure, often packaged with convenience, appeals to us with certain familiarity that is difficult to resist.


Even in our ordinary language, we are not so certain about what we mean when we say “pleasure” or “happiness” to describe events and actions.


If we are thirsty and obtain water to drink, the resulting experience is pleasure, not happiness, as it affects our bodily equilibrium; it is confined to the water’s function on the body.


If the water is given to us as a form of kindness or sacrifice by another thirsty person, our gratitude is turned toward the water-giving “person.” The effect of this exchange involves two human beings and their relationship, not water or thirst, resulting in the creation of happiness independent of the physical equation of body and water.

Only in confusion or unthinking moments, are pleasure and happiness thought of as one single experience. In the second instance, the drinking person feels the pleasure of the water and the happiness toward the other person’s action (if you remember the scene in film “Ben-Hur” when dying-of-thirst Judah Ben-Hur receives water from Jesus of Nazareth). Once the person collects himself, he is overcome by the happiness of receiving love from another human being, his pleasure of drinking the water now having become secondary.


When a hungry man receives food from a vending machine, he only feels pleasure. When a hungry man receives food from another hungry man, who shares his own food, the effect goes well beyond the food.

Let’s put the pleasure-happiness dichotomy in the simplest possible way: Pleasure is what involves us as individuals for our self-centered satisfaction of a short duration, whereas happiness is what results from interactions with other people that lasts as long as our memory lasts.


Historically, as well as in our personal experience, we know that the pressure from the urge to do things for our own pleasures always works against our desire to do things for others. It has to do with our human nature itself. If left to our own natural device, we are selfish and inclined to pleasurable things and activities.


Human history is a continuous record of our desire to increase pleasure and reduce pain

Hence, all things we do otherwise — for our family, our community, society, humanity, posterity — are results of our strenuous social effort to make ourselves less selfish and less inclined to pleasure.


Normally most societies past and present have been clear about what is happiness and what is pleasure. But in America, history’s first “natural” society which began with the sole creed of the “Good Life,” this burden of pleasurable life demands that every day be Christmas.


We have made a national fetish of “happiness” so that we must show to everybody how “happy” our lives are. Since happiness cannot be materially demonstrated, we end up showing what great pleasures we have experienced. The result is that the successful among us are forced to show our success in unceasing pleasure.

Ultimately, pleasure by itself, no matter how much or how often we experience it, can never turn into happiness. My own pleasure — say, with tasty food or a new car — can never become somebody else’s pleasurable experience because each pleasure is a separate, exclusive sensory-material existence.


My great pleasure with food can never satisfy somebody else’s stomach, nor can my new car become somebody else’s pleasure source. Pleasure, by definition, cannot be shared.


But happiness exists only when it is shared through an infinite number of replications as shared experiences. If we want to make ourselves happy, the surest way is in making others happy, and happy people tend to multiply their happiness through other people. The most convincing example is in the parents whose hardships of parenting are instantly forgotten when they see their happy babies laughing and gurgling in happy delight.

Yet, sadly, no other na­tion as a whole devotes so much of its national energy to bodily comfort and sensory pleasure as we do in America. Alexis De Tocqueville already saw this in America a century and half ago: “Everyone is preoccupied caring for the slightest needs of the body and the trivial con­veniences of life . . . making life ever easier and more comfortable, keeping irritations away, and satisfying one’s slightest needs without trouble and almost without expense. These are petty aims, but the soul cleaves to them; it dwells on them every day and in great detail; in the end they shut out the rest of the world and sometimes come between the soul and God.”

Romans might have introduced mass pleasure. But it is certainly we, Americans today, who made the pursuit of pleasure our national creed to the extent that we can neither escape nor resist the New Opiate of the Masses.

Jon Huer, columnist for the Recorder and Professor Emeritus, lives in Greenfield.

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