Happy – Short and Long

Philosophy has been working on questions of the mind and meaning for centuries. The thinkers and their analysises are too numerous to count, but for the discussion of happiness, let’s consider two school of thoughts.

As early as the Eygptians, philosophers believed that pleasure should be the primary and proper purpose to human life. Greeks used their word hedonia or ‘delight’ to describe it. Today, we still describe self-indulgence pursuits and behavior as hedonistic. Freud called it “the pleasure principle” and said it provided, in the words of Howard Cutler, “the fundamental motivating force for the entire psychic apparatus…to relieve the tension caused by unfulfilled instinctual drives.”

With time, the Greeks advanced the idea of happiness further. Aristotle said singularly pursuing pleasure was vulgar. He believed activity needed to be measured against virtue. The Greek word he used was ‘eudaimonia’, often translated as ‘welfare’ or ‘happiness’. The word, translated literally, means “good spirit” and more recently as ‘human flourishing’. This is the approach Martin Segilman, the father of positive psychology, has advocated in his most recent work, in a effort to bring a greater whole to the discussion of happiness.

Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist and professor at UC-San Francisco, believes the duality is driven by the neurotransmitters in our brain. He associates dopamine with pleasure and desire, flooding the brain following a rewarding stimulus.  Dopamine helps us take action toward goals but can also trap us in addiction. On the other side, seratonin in the brain functions to create longer, sustained happiness. In one description, the chemical was described as helping people feel important and significant. That might explain serotonin’s association with both gratitude and depression.

In The Art of Happiness, The Dalai Lama distinguishes between these two schools in a different way. He says pleasure is unstable–“One day it’s here, the next day it is gone.” It’s sex, drugs and Rock ’n Roll. Real happiness, he says, is persistent and stable. It remains through the inevitable ups and downs that make up life. Where the pursuit of pleasure move us further away from life, real happiness moves us towards life and make us more receptive to what is always there.

As with most everything, it is not about seeing these competing or distinct. We experience intense pleasure and long for lasting happiness. The practice is to working with both equally.


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