Apparently there is a difference between pleasure and enjoyment. Who knew?
I guess I’ve always just thrown them into the same pot and used them interchangeably. But thanks to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who has been my audiobook companion over the past couple of weeks, the difference is clear (I’ve been listening to his seminal work, ‘Flow: The Psychology of Happiness).
So what is pleasure and how does it differ to enjoyment?
I believe the implication of understanding the difference can be truly life-changing.
Pleasure is a contented feeling we get when fulfilling “expectations set by biological programs or by social conditioning have been met.” It is linked to appetite, patterns of behaviour and can be the root of addiction. Csikszentmihalyi defines the ways we seek pleasure as “homeostatic experiences”; things such as overeating, alcohol, drugs, material possessions, watching TV, having sex etc.
This homeostatic experience occurs when we seek to restore some kind of equilibrium to our mind when overstimulated, or perhaps exhausted by some element of life. What you might think of as ‘escaping’ reality.
Enjoyment on the other hand is about engaging in experiences and activities that make life rewarding. The need that almost everyone has, to acheive something more than those extrinsic momentary pleasures. By nature enjoyment carries a sense of movement and is about progressing with purpose, accomplishing something, longterm momentum towards a goal etc (a fair definition of happiness).
According to Csikszentmihalyi these activities require full absorption, skill, feedback and use of your signature strengths. They lead to time standing still and increased satisfaction and self-esteem.
Pleasure on the other hand moves in the opposite direction. The first bite of pizza or pint of beer is usually the best with the experience somewhat diminishing from that point on. And the only thing you acheive if you keep going in the attempt to get that same feeling is a headache, an ever growing waistline, and a decreasing sense of satisfaction and self-esteem.
One of the things I really look forward to about being on holiday is being able to sit and do nothing in the sun with a nice cold beer in my hand. Bliss. But that pleasant feeling doesn’t take long to get old and I need something more. Perhaps you relate…
But about three days into a holiday I usually find my stride. I’ll get myself immersed in a good book. I’ll have probably also found some kind of vacation hobby (taking photos, walking, writing, building sandcastles, playing chess or something) and the foundation for enjoyment is set.
Enjoyment Is Not Always Pleasant
Pleasure is by nature an apparently pleasant experience (even if the longer term consequences aren’t so), but enjoyment can actually be extremely stressful at times.
“A mountain climber, for example, may be close to freezing, utterly exhausted, and in danger of falling into a bottomless crevasse, yet he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
I have had this experience with exercise. I get great enjoyment from setting and achieving goals in my exercise routines. But it’s not always pleasant. In fact my biggest enjoyment in this context has come from accomplishing things that can be very unpleasant.
Csikszentmihalyi uses the word ‘flow’ to describe that raw enjoyment you get from being completely immersed in some activity where you don’t notice the passing of time. This is not some magical experience that only a select few can have.
Flow is a state anyone can acheive.
When you understand the difference between pleasure and enjoyment you lay the foundations for more flow experiences and ultimately a greater sense of meaning and satisfaction. These are really important factors for introverts and highly sensitive people who have a deep need for intrinsically rewarding experiences.
The notion of being satisfied is interesting. The perpetual search for pleasure is rarely satisfied. It always requires more. But when you’re in a state of flow satisfaction is no longer a motive; you experience the feeling of enjoyment because of what you are doing, not because you want to feel enjoyment. In fact in flow you are unlikely to stop and say or even think to yourself, ‘I’m enjoying this’.
As we know, enjoyment isn’t defined by how pleasant things feel. A runner “can experience enjoyment through the most painful part of a marathon because they know they are moving through small goals to reach a much bigger and meaningful goal”. When our thinking is lead by pleasure-seeking we may ask the runner ‘why the hell would you put yourself through that kind of unpleasantness?’
It is the same with any goals that we may set for ourselves. Goals are necessary because they keep us focussed on where we are wanting to get so that when things plateau or get painful and lack pleasure, we can continue to enjoy being able to move from where we were to where we desire to be.
Pleasure progress leads to extremes and addictions. Our tolerance for pleasure builds so that we need more alcohol to get drunk, more food to feel full, more social media to feel liked, more clothes to feel beautiful.
Enjoyment progress leads to challenges, growth, and great personal development. It is not about feeling satiated, it is about moving forwards and enriching our lives.
Pleasure is driven by a sense of lacking; “I need this now because I don’t know when I’ll next be able to get it”. Enjoyment produces a sense of serenity that transcends these basic urges. When in flow and enjoyment those urgent and pressing worries that keep you up at night fade into the background as you become immersed in what’s in front of you.
Pleasure is about suppressing and momentarily ignoring the stress, enjoyment is about transcending it.
The Same Subject
Food can bring both pleasure and enjoyment. A takeaway is not enjoyed like a meal which has been created from scratch.
When eating a meal that you’ve cooked you have the satisfaction of knowing exactly what you’re eating and pride in knowing you brought it into existence. There is also the longer term enjoyment that comes from improving over time as you experiment and learn more about cooking and nutrition etc. The enjoyment of a good home cooked meal lasts well beyond the final bite.
On the other hand, when the doorbell rings you start salivating and soon get to shovel the fast food down to satiate that pleasure drive. It is rare to feel truly satisfied, at least for long after a takeaway. That first bite is always the best.
We are sold this lie of convenience. That when a stranger or a factory cooks your food you don’t have to do any work but you get the same result. You don’t. There’s no improvement or progress.
Everything around us is geared towards appealing to our pleasure drive. Advertising, marketing, and the products/services that we are encouraged to buy which promise to make life ‘easier’ actually end up creating more dissatisfaction with our lives. Enjoyment requires an investment of time and self. No one can sell this to you, however much they might try.
When we don’t realise what it is we truly need (enjoyment) we seek to meet that need with the wrong solution (pleasure), which is an untameable beast that slips away as soon as we feed it.
Over to You
Have you ever experienced flow? When? Please leave your response in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!