Pleasure and happiness

This page last updated June 13th, 2016

This page in brief ….

What’s wrong with living for the good times, using sex, drugs or pleasure-seeking to make us happy?

It turns out that it doesn’t work as well as we woulkd like to think. We achieve some short term pleasure, but in the long run these things don’t make our life satisfying. And that’s not some moralist speaking, but psychology researchers!

The playboy life?

It is tempting these days for people to be hedonists, living for pleasure and good times, via parties, sex, alcohol, perhaps drugs. Surely those things give great pleasure and happiness too? That’s certainly one of the messages we can get from our culture.


Psychologists have learnt that loving relationships are one of the major keys to a happy and contented life. When sex is part of a loving relationship, then that relationship, and our level of contentment and pleasure, can be enhanced. But a study into the connections between sex and happiness found that married people had more sex than single people and the happiest people were those who had only one sexual partner in the previous year.

So a stable marriage is one of the major factors in a happy life and healthy aging, and while sex outside of a stable relationship is attractive for many, it is not a recipe for a happy life.


Alcohol is one of the most used and abused drugs and readily available in most countries. Yet drinking in excess is one of the most significant threats to long term happiness. A long term study of American men found:

  • alcoholism was the single strongest cause of divorce;
  • alcoholism was also found to be strongly coupled with neurosis and depression (which most often follows alcohol abuse, rather than preceding it); and
  • together with cigarette smoking, alcoholism was the #1 greatest cause of morbidity and death.

Pleasure seeking?

While we all want to be happy, giving high priority to seeking happiness doesn’t work. Psychologist Todd Kashdan:

as people place more importance on being happy, they become more unhappy and depressed. The pressure to be happy makes people less happy. Organizing your life around trying to become happier, making happiness the primary objective of life, gets in the way of actually becoming happy.

Strangely, researchers have found that our bodies respond to seeking pleasure above all else in a similar way that they respond to chronic adversity. Empty positive emotions are about as good for you for as adversity, says psychological researcher Barbara Fredrickson.

The bottom line

Psychologists distinguish between extrinsic goals, selfish goals that one pursues for themselves, and intrinsic goals, where we seek to give to others through loving relationships and generosity. The “takers” will achieve short term pleasure but are far less likely to to have as happy lives as the “givers”.

Some people are happy to “live for today” and seek pleasure where they can find it. But those who want a happy and meaningful life would be better pursuing a long term stable relationship and activities that give to others.

Photo Credit: 4ELEVEN Images via Compfight cc.

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