Pleasure vs Enjoyment

What is the difference between pleasure and enjoyment?  It’s a distinction drawn by psychologists in what’s come to be known the “positive psychology” movement. It began about twenty years ago and amongst its chief advocates were/are Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi and his book Flow and subsequently Martin Seligman and his book Authentic Happiness.

How to lead a more joyful life

The premise behind their methodology is that people can move forward in life more successfully if they focus on their strengths and what makes them happy (compared to the more traditional school of psychological thought that focuses on resolving problems and revisiting the past).  The idea being that positive energy moves you forward and negative weighs you down.  Hard to argue with that.  It’s important, then, to know what is happiness and what brings it to us.

Defining Happiness

It’s enlightening to realize that one is fleeting and momentary (pleasure) while the other (enjoyment)  provides a more sustained wellbeing.  We need both to be happy.  Pleasure is defined as  short term experiences (think food, sex, shopping). These bring a feeling of contentment  that comes from biological programming or social conditioning.

The hallmark of enjoyment (a.k.a. happiness) comes from a forward movement, a sense of accomplishment.  Playing a close game of tennis, sealing a contested business deal, new insights from conversation. These activities require total absorption, skill, feedback and use of your signature strengths. They bring about awe,  wonder, and time stands still.  You’ll likely have longer term satisfaction and a sense of higher self esteem from these activities.

If you expect to derive long term satisfaction from momentary pleasures you’ll likely be sorely disappointed.  That first taste of chocolate is usually the very best.  The experience diminishes thereafter – but if you keep chowing it down you’re left with a stomach ache and loads of calories.  That’s different from the thrill of working hard to, say, climb a cliff, playing a piece of music, or learning to tango.  If you really get into it, you’ll be in what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”.

Pleasure can  lead to enjoyment and flow.  But ironically, the authors say there is an absence of emotion (which is usually not the case with pleasure).

That Flow Feeling

How does it feel to be in “flow”?

  • Completely involved, focused, concentrating – with this either due to innate curiosity or as the result of training
  • Sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality
  • Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well it is going
  • Knowing the activity is doable – that the skills are adequate, and neither anxious or bored
  • Sense of serenity – no worries about self, feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego – afterwards feeling of transcending ego in ways not thought possible
  • Timeliness – thoroughly focused on present, don’t notice time passing
  • Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces “flow” becomes its own reward

“What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, Csikszentmihalyi looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow”.

For more on the story, check out  Csikszentmihalyi on Ted TV.  It’s academic and a bit slow to get going but an interesting view if you can be a patient viewer.



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