Pleasure, Joy and Happiness

One of the marks of an expert is the knowledge of vocabulary within a specific domain and the ability to apply this vocabulary effectively and precisely. Listing to two engineers talk about the construction of a bridge, we would not understand much of their conversation, as long as we not happen to be a structural engineer ourselves.

If we are seeking a more meaningful and fulfilled life, we need to become experts in the field of language that will help us in this quest. I think that pleasure, joy and happiness are among the most important words we need to gain a good understanding of and I will provide a discussion of these in the following.

It must be noted here, that unlike terms used in engineering, there is no one true definition of what pleasure, joy and happiness mean. There are various conflicting understandings and in this article I am not claiming to be able to provide one universally agreed definition. Instead, I aim to provide a useful definition. One that is best suited to aid us in understanding ourselves and help us become more enlightened and fulfilled.

Pleasure

I define pleasure as a feeling of sensual gratification. You drink a class of cold water after a long walk on a hot, dry day. You eat a most pleasant meal after a time of fasting. You have good sex.

Pleasure is rooted deeply in our biology and is used as the ‘carrot’ by our biology to make us do what is good for our survival, well-being and procreation of our genes. Pleasure is easily exhausted. It is most pleasurable to drink one glass of cold water when one is thirsty, but a second, third, fourth and fifth glass quickly bring diminishing pleasure returns for us.

Joy

I define joy as a feeling of temporary elation caused by something we are experiencing. You see the sunrise over the ocean. You win the lottery. You have passed an exam. You have solved an equation.

Joy is not a reward from our reptile brains, as pleasure is, but related to our perceptions of what is good and beautiful. Joy, though, is not good in itself. Joy may be misguided, such as exemplified in the word schadenfreude, the joy at the misfortune of someone else.

Happiness

I define happiness as a lasting inner state of calm and contentment. While pleasure and joy are short-lived and intense, the feeling of happiness permeates every moment of our lives, for days, months or decades. You have a happy marriage. You love your job. You have found your purpose in life.

It has been found we have a base level of happiness determined by our biology and the culture in which we live in. However, I do believe that there are things in life we can do to become more happy and content with our lives, chiefly by finding and following a purpose and by a better understanding of our feelings, such as by meditation.

If I was to rank, pleasure, joy and happiness, I would say that happiness is the feeling which is most aligned with the goal of seeking a meaningful life and enlightenment. Pleasure is the feeling which has the greatest potential to steer us off the paths of enlightenment and betterment. Joy would sit somewhere in between these.

However, that being said, I don’t think we should try to eliminate pleasure or joy from our lives. They are a gift to us, they can provide us with energy and motivation for taking on the challenges of our lives.

In the beginning of this article, I have stated to goal to come up with a definition for pleasure, joy and happiness that is useful. I think the definitions provide above are useful, in that they can direct us in how to approach each of these emotions: For happiness, I think we should not be afraid that we may find too much of it and try to bring plenty of it into our lives; we should seek pleasure in moderation; and make sure that we embrace the right kind of joy, joy at things which guide us and others on a path to happiness.

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Practices for Enlightenment

I believe we all have moments in which we become the best versions of ourselves; moments in which we are ever so slightly closer to true and deep enlightenment.

Unfortunately, these moments are rare and we digress from whatever insights we have gained easily. For instance, we might realise that binge watching television brings little happiness into our lives but comes with significant costs such as less time to spent with family and friends or for our health. We might then decide to spent less time watching television and more time on more meaningful endeavours.

This decision alone, however, is not sufficient for the outcome we decide upon to manifest. Often, we will try for a few days but then the hustle and bustle of life engulfs us and we quickly forget what we have set out to do.

I believe that to attain wisdom and foster goodness in our lives, we need to constantly remind ourselves of what is most important to us. So that, once we have decided to be good and happy, we can stand a chance against the demands of everyday life. One of the ways to do that is by following a set of practices: sequences of steps we do regularly and with a spiritual purpose.

This has motivated me to design the following simple practices, which may help in achieving a more balanced, meaningful and enlightened life:

I believe these practices can enable us to be stronger and wiser. Of course, we need to find a way to embed them into our lives in a regular manner, for instance every morning or every evening; since a practice can only unfold its power when practised repeatedly.

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Practice: Joy

Joy is what makes the little moments in our life worthwhile. We may play a game, we may laugh with friends, we may dance, or draw or swim; any of the things nature has allowed us to find pleasure in. We need this joy and it is a great source of strength for us.

In Buddhism joy is known as one of the four immeasurables along with compassion, love and equanimity. If we embrace these states of mind, we may become happier, wiser and bring more good to the world around us.

We have a natural ability to experience joy and to practice joy is less about mindfully seeking it and more about letting loose of the restraints modern life and adulthood place upon us.

We have many reasons not to experience joy. We are too tired, too stressed. We don’t have enough time. We are too serious a person to play or be silly. Therefore the practice to embrace joy in our lives is twofold:

  1. We need to think about what are the underlying factors preventing us from experiencing joy and how we may overcome them.
  2. Whenever joy finds us naturally in our lives, we need to embrace it fully and not feel guilty or be distracted by other obligations in our lives.

While the other practices lend themselves to be practised regularly, the practice of joy is something which needs to be woven into our everyday lives. As such, to not loose track of our commitment to joy, it may be good to schedule regular ‘joy reviews’ where we assess how we are tracking in bringing joy into our lives.

Image credit: The Roses of Heliogabalus

The Four Immeasurable Minds

I have long had an interest to learn more about Buddhism. Actually I bought myself a book on Buddhism many years ago while I was visiting Thailand. This book did not really grasp my attention and I always wanted to explore this topic further.

So I recently obtained a collection of books on Buddhism. Unfortunately many of the books were a bit strange and difficult to follow. For instance, I read part of the book The Life of Shabkar and it struck me as a bit of an odd tale. I appreciated its authenticity and that the translation tried to capture the language used in the original text; but I just found it too difficult to follow; with too little true philosophical or spiritual discussions and too much self praise.

The book I found the most useful out of my initial collection turned out to be The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh. The first thing I learned from this book is that Buddhists seem to have been early adopters of listicles. There is, of course, the noble eight-fold path but there are plenty of the ten of this, the four of that, or even the 65 of something else.

One of these collections particularly resonated with me: what is called by Thich Nhat Hanh (other authors use different names of this) the Four Immeasurable Minds (see Brahmavihara). The basic idea is that if we nourish these minds within us, we grow better and more wise. In the words used in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, if you practice the Four Immeasurable Minds “they will grow in you every day until they embrace the whole world. You will become happier, and everyone around you will become happier, also.”.

The four minds are the following.

Joy

Joy is the simple feeling of pleasure we may derive from many sources. Buddhists though do not approve of any form of joy. The joy should be wholesome and sustainable. For instance, it cannot be denied that those who drink plenty of alcohol in company usually are in for a good time; however, this feeling of joy is marked as being hollow since it is not in alignment with deeper values. Notwithstanding these limitations, there are plenty of other things one may derive joy from. May it be the beauty of nature or simply the company of others.

Compassion

We have a great natural capacity for compassion. Generally if we see others in pain or discomfort, their pain is mirrored within ourselves as an unpleasant feeling, which fuels our desire to help those in need. While researching about the Four Immeasurable minds, I read somewhere that some Buddhist practitioners are encouraged to imagine a woman without arms who cannot save a drowning infant as a way to connect with their capacity to feel compassion. To me, this does not seem particularly helpful. I think it is better to try to connect with our ability to feel compassion in every day life. People do not need to be in urgent need to be worthy to be the object of our compassion. Everyone deserves it, since no one can escape hardship and suffering entirely in their lives.

Love

Love is an easy word to say and and easy concept to understand; it is however, in my view, a word which is difficult to describe. Without defining exactly what we mean by love, it is easy for us to appreciate that love is a strong force which can guide us through our struggles of acting for the benefit of others and ourselves. Some Western Buddhists like to avoid the term love and opt for ‘loving-kindness’ instead. That is to emphasise that this love does not solely mean the kind of romantic love that usually comes to our mind when we hear the word love and start thinking of Valentine’s day. But I think, especially in a religious/philosophical context, we can easily grasp that love is a wider concept here; which may include the love for God, the love for the world, love for ourselves and love for all of those around us.

Equanimity

Buddhism is very concerned with relieving us of our suffering. A lot of our suffering is self inflicted by the constant turmoil of our emotions. Thus it makes sense to aim for a calm and collected mind. If we achieve equanimity within ourselves, we become stronger and more receptive of the good and wholesome emotions which live within us.

As I’ve said above, the idea behind the Four Immeasurable Minds is that we should embrace these minds and strengthen them. As mentioned above, when devising particular exercises for this, especially if they involve drowning infants, might not be the best course of action. I think it is best to try to weave these minds into our everyday actions and thinking; that is where their potential can truly be unleashed.

Ending with another quote from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

[A] group of the Buddha’s disciples visited the monastery of a nearby sect, and the monks there asked, “We have heard that your teacher Gautama teaches the Four Immeasurable Minds of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Our master teaches this also. What is the difference?” The Buddha’s disciples did not know how to respond. When they returned to their monastery, the Buddha told them, “Whoever practices the Four Immeasurable Minds together with the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path will arrive deeply at enlightenment.” Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.

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