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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pleasure, Joy, Happiness

Synonyms as the dictionary might have it?  Or three words for different realities or distinct states of reality?  And what is their relevance to our ethics?


Pleasure is intense, but fleeting.  An orgasm is probably the best example: the peak at the point of release of an expanding, building, consuming tension of the whole body focused at the genetals and dominating a totally subservient mind as it lets go and receives in a moment of utter abandonment and elation.  Then the wind down, perhaps sleep, and back to daily living.  We can thank evolution for the sake of species survival for this most overpowering of human pleasures.

But there are so many other examples of pleasure:  the thrill of a ride on bike or horse or coaster, the excitement of a dive from a plane or into the ocean, the rush in the beauty of a panorama or person or play.  Even the sense of the cessation of pain.

And what makes pleasure greater for humans is our ability to anticipate, imagine, portray, and remember--though sometimes that ability causes or intensifies our pain as well.


Joy is less intense and fleeting.  It can be defined as a string or accumulation of pleasures, but not accurately I think.  Joy is the friendship between lovemaking.  It is the comradeship, planning, and memories of the thrills, excitement, and rushes.  Joy goes beyond and sometime in spite of pleasure or pain.

A pleasure can be solitary.  Joy is shared, a sense of being engaged in life with others.  Joy, not necessarily pleasure, to the world!

A pleasure is immediate sensation.  Joy is intellectual, involving imagination, thought, and memory.  Enjoy your time at college even without the binges, the casual sex, the sleeping in, the gourmet dining!

Pleasures are singular and unrelated.  Joy has continuity and is the experience of relationship.  Pleasures are parts of and events in a joyful life, but not the essence of it.


Happiness seems to be the most abstract, mysterious, and elusive of them all.  It is the word thinkers use to describe the goal of human existence.  Most of these thinkers would counsel us not to confuse it, much less confine it, to pleasure and joy.  Some say that we can be happy even in pain and in unenjoyable times and circumstances.

I do not think, as do some ascetics, that it is opposed to pleasure and joy.  I do think that we find it  difficult to be happy without experiencing pleasures and joy in life.  But I also think that it is difficult to be happy if pleasures and even joy dominate my life.  Happiness seems neither transitory like pleasure, nor continuous like joy, but a sense of the eternal or glimpse of infinity in every now.

Frankel and other psychologists would equate happiness with the sense of Meaning which can be found even in a Nazi concentration camp.  Arendt and other political thinkers would define happiness and its pursuit as a public thing and find it in thoughtful action in concert with others.  Teilhard de Chardin an other evolutionary thinkers would find happiness in the sense of transcendence as humans together journey towards greater understanding of and unity with the universe.  Tillich and other theologians would define happiness as the pursuit and experience of the Ground of our Being or God.


What are the ethical implications of this meditation?  Is our behavior to be measured by the amount of pleasure or pain it brings to us, whether individually or accumulatively?  Is the joyful life, especially the life of friendship and intellectual accomplishment, more important than the pleasures of immediate gratification.  Is there indeed a happiness that somehow includes, but transcends and transforms the pleasure of and the joy in life and that is the ultimate goal and measure for human being?

Once again, I propose the metaphor and model of Integrity.  In this model all the tensions, contradictions, paradoxes among the inner and outer, past and future selves and worlds are recognized and accepted while at the same time discovering a center in which they are all united in the here and now and with.  When I am integral, when I act with integrity, when I allow myself to experience the many and the all in one, I am happy, I am leading a joyful life, I can have abundant pleasures.  When.

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