Choose Enjoyment Over Pleasure
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
In Greek mythology, Eros and Psyche gave birth to a daughter named Hedone. A daemon, or minor deity, she has no myths attached to her, but is known for her one gift to humankind: pleasure. Her gift, however, was also a curse. In Rome, where Hedone was called Voluptas, the statesman and philosopher Cicero saw her deification as “vicious and unnatural,” insofar as she “overpowers natural instinct.”
That’s not so far from how we see things today. Pleasure can be a boon or a burden, depending on our relationship to it. It can leaven laborious days, or lead us to waste them. The pleasures of a mild stimulant such as caffeine can be harmless or even beneficial, but the pleasures of amphetamines can be deadly.
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This creates a puzzle for the happiness seeker, who must navigate between the twin perils of puritanism and indulgence, leading to the much-dreaded rule of moderation, which is more or less the philosophy of leaving any party as soon as it gets really good. Fortunately, there is a better way to solve the puzzle: To stay at the party without letting it get out of control, choose enjoyment instead.
Enjoyment and pleasure are terms often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Pleasure happens to you; enjoyment is something that you create through your own effort. Pleasure is the lightheadedness you get from a bit of grain alcohol; enjoyment is the satisfaction of a good wine, properly understood. Pleasure is addictive and animal; enjoyment is elective and human.
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In his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that enjoyment gives you a sense of effort, forward movement, and accomplishment. Or, as two psychologists wrote in 2021, during enjoyment, one “commits oneself to savoring the situation and engaging in the task to have positive feelings of joy and fun.”
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Enjoyment is better than pleasure because it is more conscious and permanent. As Csikszentmihalyi points out, everyone gets pleasure from eating when they’re hungry, but it takes some knowledge and cultivation to enjoy food. After you finish lunch, the pleasure is gone, and in fact, the idea of eating is no longer appealing because your physical need has been satisfied. Meanwhile, the memory of a meal enjoyed with friends transcends the immediate experience and can bring good feelings long after it is over.
Pleasure and enjoyment do not even have to coincide. I enjoy going to the gym, because I know that my voluntary effort will improve my body and health. But it usually isn’t very pleasant, because it is strenuous and often even physically painful. The legendary fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who died in 2011 at age 96, famously disliked working out, but did so for hours a day because he enjoyed being fit (and, I imagine, rich). If I sought only pleasure, I would stay on my couch and inadvertently deny myself enjoyment, settling for a comfort that is animal and evanescent. It is a bad trade.
Each of us knows, without necessarily realizing it, that pleasure is inferior. When we say to our kids, “Turn off the computer and go play outside,” we are exhorting them to choose enjoyment by doing something that requires more voluntary effort, does not create a dependency, and has more enduring benefits. We know that this advice will help our children have a happy life because our own happy childhood memories are of playing ball with friends, not sitting in front of the TV watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island.
Opting for pleasure is a mistake for happiness. But even if we choose enjoyment, other barriers can make us less likely to get the satisfaction that it can offer. Some people ruin their enjoyment of life by using it to show others how happy they are. For example, when out for a hike on a beautiful day, you might have the urge to document your fun on social media. That way, your friends will say, “She has a great life!” In contrast, you are much less likely to document your guilty pleasures—say, watching Netflix in a ratty bathrobe at 4 p.m.
The problem is that enjoyment theater degrades the happiness it purports to deliver. For example, in a 2018 study in the Journal of Consumer Research, scholars asked hundreds of students at the University of Pennsylvania to chronicle their holiday experience with photos. Those who voluntarily shared their photos on social media enjoyed their experience 8 percent less than those who kept the photos for their own memories. The researchers argue that this happened because sharing the photos online created pressure to present oneself in a positive light, which is bad for happiness.
Enjoyment can also be ruined by a worldview that is excessively practical, in which we feel our time and energy should never be “wasted.” This is particularly true in the case of leisure, which is often viewed as a misuse of time, because it is not productive in an economic sense. Such an attitude lowers your enjoyment of leisure: People who consider activities such as hanging out with friends wasteful enjoy the activities 12 percent less than those who consider them to be productive.
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Far from being a waste, enjoyment is generative and restorative, and thus worthy of time and resources. I recommend scheduling enjoyable activities, especially with loved ones, much like exercise. If you leave them up to chance, you risk allowing them to get crowded out by work—or worse yet, mindless pleasures.
In his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the 20th-century German philosopher Josef Pieper writes, “Leisure is only possible when a man is at one with himself.” Enjoyment of life—whether that means spending “unproductive” time with others, reading a good book, or taking a long walk—has a loftier significance than good feelings do. It is important for human agency, a life lived on purpose. Enjoyment means refusing to be managed by pleasures, nor subjugated by joyless drudgery. Pursuing it is a declaration of independence from your base impulses, be they licentious or despotic. It is a key ingredient in creating the life you truly want.