This is a principle that I’m reading a lot about at the moment, because my coursework essay is on how Buddhism defines ‘happiness’, and to what extent the Western definition of it is based on the similar, but not identical notion, of ‘pleasure’.
I don’t think anyone would disagree with the idea that pleasure implies a more temporary, fleeting sense of satisfaction, whereas happiness, if we view it in terms of the Aristotelian notion of ‘eudæmonia’, is more of an ultimate goal, and something that is permanent.
The way the Western lifestyle and mindset has developed, it is often quite difficult to distinguish between happiness and pleasure. A lot of people say the key to being happy, is simply to do more of what makes you happy, and this generally seems true.
But while he accepts this idea, the Dalai Lama is keen to distinguish between material pleasures and happiness.
A lot of Instagram’s most successful influencers are the stars and hedonists of this world that we can see flying from city to city, partying on yachts with supermodels, and having access to all the food, drink, drugs and sex they could possibly desire. This is the epitome of material success, and for a lot of people, ‘success’ full-stop.
But is this ‘success’ equivalent to ‘happiness’?
It’s not for me to tell you what is right to strive for in life - it’s not for anyone to tell you, because it’s your life. But we’ve all seen enough corny movies where there’s someone too focussed on making money, and their relationship breaks down because their life revolves around their work, they become unhappy, and then realise that they got it wrong. Money isn’t the key to happiness.
It’s ironic really that so much of our music, film and TV culture hammers home this message to us, yet in order to survive in our society, we inevitably need money. It’s easy for this need to turn into want, and for us to think this is what matters most.
Enjoying more pleasures in life can contribute to a more contented state of mind, and a higher level of satisfaction. Whether it’s taking loads of drugs, having loads of sex, or eating loads of chocolate - pleasure is obviously great, and there’s nothing wrong with it.
I think the Dalai Lama's message here is really just to understand that while pleasure is really positive, it’s not to be confused with genuine happiness. If we could all achieve true, lasting happiness by watching our favourite TV show over and over again, then we would all do it. But sadly, it’s not that easy. (Unless it's Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which still makes me cry with laughter, despite having seen it a million times…)
Generally, though, happiness involves a lot more, and these aspects and factors will be outlined as this project progresses. Some already have been covered, such as compassion, perspective, and how we view others. Pleasure does have a part to play - if it didn’t, it would sure be a very boring and unattractive road to achieving happiness - but this doesn’t mean that pleasure and happiness are interchangeable.
If we are always seeking our next hit of dopamine, then there will be times when we don’t manage to find it, and we are left unsatisfied. A life focussed solely on pleasure will inevitably also be one that involves a lot of dissatisfaction.
The song I’ve chosen for this principle is Jaden’s ‘Play this on a mountain at sunset’. It’s a very spacy, misty journey through the singer’s thoughts, and is supposed to mimic a psychedelic trip. The character in the song is struggling and tries to drown his problems in alcohol and drug use.
I went with this one because its hazy, mercurial nature makes it perfect for meditating to, but it also leaves you feeling a bit dissatisfied. It’s pleasing to listen to, and there’s a temporary sense of ease, but then the anxieties start creeping back into the character’s mind.
“Sunset’s still feeling afraid”
The track concludes with the character and his girlfriend feeling a common effect of psychedelics:
“I know my stomach hurts (my stomach hurts too)”
The listener is left with an aftertaste of discontent and dissatisfaction, and I feel like this underlines the emptiness of being overly infatuated with sense-pleasures. Having said this, one of my favourite Buddhist texts is the Mahāsaccaka-sutta, in which the Buddha embraces happiness that isn’t attached to the senses, and soon after attains liberation. Before he embraces happiness, the Buddha had been starving and emaciating himself, but this only led to pain. So while obsession with sense-pleasures, like drugs and alcohol, may not be the answer, it’s important not to go in completely the other direction and reject things that make us happy.
“Why am I afraid of that happiness that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful qualities?”
Remember, you don't have to stick with my song choice...Which song's making the cut today for your happiness playlist?