Everyone seems to be in a 24/7 rush for pleasure and distraction. What people really want is to be happy, but they seem to spend most of their time seeking sense pleasures. Perhaps they believe that pleasure leads to happiness. Or, maybe they have all given up on happiness and figure that they might at least find pleasure while they can. The problem is, the headlong race for pleasure can obscure real happiness. If you can just let go of your cravings for pleasurable experiences, you can be happier right now.
It’s not strange that we fixate on sense pleasures as a means of being happy. We evolved to seek what tasted good and felt good, because 100,000 years ago these things usually kept us alive. While we may not remember what life was like back then, our genes do. For them, the passage of the intervening years is nothing. Our genetic heritage still impels us to survive by seeking what our mind-bodies consider pleasurable. Some schools of psychology still believe that we are motivated primarily to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
Sense pleasures include mind-body reactions to what we take in through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. There’s no denying that pleasures are good! The taste of food, the experience of sex, and the warmth of a fire on a cold night are all wonderful. Some pleasures can even lead to spiritual heights.
However, sense pleasures, such as food, drink and entertainment are inherently temporary. There are several reasons for this.
The first is, you run out of whatever you were enjoying. You run out of dessert, wine, drugs, or whatever. Maybe the movie is over, the theme park closes, or the vacation is over and you have to go back to work. Whatever it is, it is done.
The second is you reach your limit. You eat until you are stuffed (hello Thanksgiving), you drink until you pass out, or you engage in sex until you are exhausted.
The third way pleasures don’t last is that you get bored with them. I once had the idea of re-watching all six Star Wars movies in one day. After the first two movies, I was done.
The fourth way is you build up a tolerance for things. Addicts know that to keep getting the high you want you often need larger and larger doses. These could be larger doses of drugs, exciting activities or anything else that is your high.
While pleasures may be good while you are enjoying them, they usually contain seeds of future unhappiness. Some have a lot of side effects. For example, if you continually overindulge in food and alcohol you will turn into a fat sick person with a perpetual hangover. Even if there are no side effects, unhappiness can come when the pleasurable experience is over.
When I say that sense pleasures are temporary and can lead to future unhappiness, I am not saying sense pleasures are bad. In fact, I believe that they can be great. It is just that they have their downsides, and they are poor substitutes for real happiness. Authentic happiness does not end, you never get tired of it, and it has no nasty side effects. So, if you have the choice of pursuing pleasure or happiness, go for happiness.
Unfortunately, while sense pleasures are poor substitutes for happiness, often they seem to be all we know how to find. The mind-body does not know how to make you happy. That is not its job. We humans did not evolve to be happy, we evolved to eat, stay alive, and have babies. Happiness is outside the realm of the mind-body.
The mind-body sees something happen in the world, which causes something else to happen, and something else, etc. It knows only the world of cause and effect. It tells us that to be happy we have to do something. Pursuing pleasure is the most readily available thing to do. So, we pursue pleasure, even though what we want is happiness.
What is wrong with seeking pleasure, if that is all that seems to be available? If you are seeking pleasure instead of happiness, you are doing what the mind-body knows how to do, and you are reinforcing its idea that the goal in life is to find pleasure and avoid pain. If you focus on doing things to obtain pleasure, this focus can obscure the happiness that is natural to you. If your mind knows only to look for pleasure in the world, it will miss the happiness that is already inside of you.
If your mind knows only to look for pleasure in the world, it will miss the happiness that is already inside of you.
What to do
Let’s say that a person is sitting on a couch, unhappy, lonely, and looking for something to feel better. What to do? There is a pint of ice-cream in the fridge and episodes of Friends on the tube. There is a nice Chardonnay. There are also a few joints stashed away. These are reliable pleasures, which will for a time distract this person. But then what?
Here is where you have to ask yourself, what do I want? Do I want to be happy, or do I want to dive into the ice-cream? Do I want to stop being lonely, or do I want to light up a joint? In many ways, one choice cancels the other. Burying unhappiness in food, entertainment and drugs makes it impossible to see that happiness is waiting inside for you.
Burying unhappiness in food, entertainment and drugs makes it impossible to see that happiness is waiting inside for you.
To be happy right now, you have to sever the connection to your mind-body’s automatic desire to seek sense pleasure. You do this by looking inward for what you want, and not to the next sensation. You cannot argue with the mind-body. You cannot talk it into moderation and you cannot tell it how to find real happiness. You just have to let it go, and look somewhere else.
You find happiness by being mindful of what you are doing right now. This gives you the power to choose either to drown yourself in food, drink and everything else or let go of all of that and look inside for happiness. If you can let go of the craving for pleasure, you make space in your life for happiness.
Of course, you can be overwhelmed by unquenchable thirst for sense pleasures. Moving your focus away from these things is not easy. Minds are rational things, and reason says that if something makes you feel good, you should go for it. However, you cannot trust your mind in this.
You have to simply let go of the desire. You can be happier right now by simply choosing inner happiness over whatever you have around to provide you with another sensation. Sure, if you put away the ice-cream, the wine, the joint, the cigarettes, or the next hook-up, you will crave the pleasure. However, instead of automatically doing something to satisfy the craving, try looking inside for the happiness that is there. If you can see just a bit of it, this can sustain you until it becomes the first place you look for the happiness you want.
Here is an exercise:
Sit on a chair with your eyes closed. Take three deep breaths to relax. Now think of some sense pleasure that you regularly enjoy. For example, you might think of something you love to eat. Or, you might think of how something physically feels when you do it. Remember how it has made you feel. Indulge yourself in the memory of this feeling for a minute.
After the minute is over, let go of this thought and imagine something that triggers a feeling of happiness in you but does not involve a sense pleasure. This can be someone telling you he or she loves you. Or, it can be something you accomplished, which made you feel happy. Focus on the feeling of happiness. Try to isolate it, so that you can experience it independently of what triggered the feeling.
Now, go back and forth between the remembered feeling of pleasure and the feeling of happiness. Try to experience one and then the other, over and over.
The object of this exercise is to see that there is a difference between the feeling you get from pleasure and the one you get from happiness. When I do this exercise, the feeling of happiness is richer and deeper than the remembered feeling of pleasure. This is because the feeling of happiness is real and is here right now. The thought of pleasure, on the other hand, is only remembered.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing inherently bad about pleasure. You can still have fun, and you can still feel all manner of pleasure. However, if you look first to the happiness inside, you can find real happiness and still experience all of the pleasures of being alive in this beautiful world. You can find pleasure in the world, but your basic feeling of happiness no longer depends on what you do in the world.
Posted by D.E. Hardesty
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For more, see Finding Your Power to Be Happy.