Joy vs. Pleasure: Why You Should Choose Joy Over Pleasure

Happiness comes in many shades—the two main ones are Pleasure and Joy.

Both are different. And we require both of them for living a satisfying life.

Pleasure is for being happy now. Joy is for feeling satisfied while looking back over our lived years and telling ourselves, “So far, it’s been a good life.”

The path to pleasure is easy, almost effortless, but evaporates quickly. The path to joy takes effort, but lasts longer and grows fonder over the years.

So, what’s the difference between pleasure and joy? When we need them both, why should we choose joy over pleasure?

Pleasure: Lustprinzip

We place far too much emphasis on extrinsic rewards. We compare ourselves to the achievements of our peers and bother too much about the opinions of others.

Like fame, fortune, position, and clout. Connections, friends, and followers on social media. Money and all that money buys.

When those rewards stop coming, we become anxious, unhappy, and unmotivated.

External rewards are the selfish cousins of happiness. Pleasure is often a trap that keeps you running on the hedonic treadmill.

You will have realized by now you cannot be happy for long if all you did was amass money. The truth is out there—once money fulfills our basic needs, more money does not get us more happiness.

To have more money, and to gather more “stuff” by its power, isn’t something that connects strongly with our life satisfaction, as studies show.

In modern times, sudden failure of the markets, and overnight vaporization of wealth, are too common. Those black-swan events have made millions realize trusting external rewards to give us lasting happiness is too wrong a notion.

Finally, the belief that our rulers—tribal leaders, emperors, governments—have secured our futures and fates does not comfort us for long.

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More so, when we see their policies slipping and interrupting our predictable lives with glaring shows of misrule and misery.

But why do we keep making the same miscalculation over and overthat “things and stuff” will make us content forever?

It is because that path is easy to come by.

It is the path of least effort—to Lustprinzip, the Pleasure Principle.

In trying to give our lives meaning, a reason for survival, we choose the mode of easy and instant gratification as a payoff for our daily grinds.

In its simplest form, it’s you slumped on your couch watching TV after a long, hard day. That’s you taking the path of the least resistance.

That is not meaning, but pleasure masquerading as meaning.

difference between joy and pleasure

Joy: Freude

Joy is the living soul of happiness. It involves us going beyond our plain limits of ourselves.

Joy is a sense of deep satisfaction that one can understand universally.

Even though by default, we tend to pick instant pleasure over long-term joy, joy is a feeling that people from all over the world recognize as a far more rewarding experience.

We get a sense of joy when we shift our attention to internal rewards. Joy comes from recognizing what’s good inside us.

An internal reward is a sense of accomplishment from within. It is often an experience of satisfaction resulting from our actions to benefit others.

When we take our minds to those points of internal focus, it results in a feeling of joy—a feeling that is enriching and lasting. It is enjoyment and fulfillment, rather than pleasure.

We have a fair idea of joy vs. pleasure. Let us explore flow. With flow, you can invite joy into your life whenever you want.

Flow: Optimal State of Happiness

We can get to feel joy by entering the flow state.

Flow is a state of mind when we are intensely and intricately involved in an activity. When we are in flow, our focus is so deep that we lose our sense of time and even of ourselves.

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Such immersion and total concentration are so powerful they can release us from our self-consciousness, worries, and anxieties, and allow us to lose track of time.

Even before Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced “Flow” to the world, people knew it. We have been using various terms across cultures to describe what we feel in such times—when we are ‘in flow’.

When he introduced it in 1975, Csikszentmihalyi defined Flow as “the holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement.”

His groundbreaking research revealed how we could control Flow, and not leave it to chance.

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Other phrases describing flow are: being in the zone, optimal experience, absolute absorption, complete immersion, aesthetic rapture, full involvement, extreme attention, and being lost in activity.

Csikszentmihalyi told us of the traditional Melanesian sailors who, when floating in the sea, can enter the zone.

He noticed that they “can be taken blindfolded to any point in the ocean within a radius of several hundred miles, and then, if allowed to float for a few minutes in the sea, are able to recognize the spot by the feel of the currents on their bodies.”

French Polynesia - difference between joy and pleasure
Melanesian sailors can recognize “the spot” in the ocean

Flow is a state when we’re so immersed in the act that we lose not only the sense of time, but also the sense of our being.

When a survey asked 6,469 Germans, “Do you ever get involved in something so deeply that nothing else seems to matter, and you lose track of time?”, the answers were:

  • Often – 23%;
  • Sometimes – 40%;
  • Rarely – 25%;
  • Never or Don’t Know – 12%.

Surveys on other populations revealed these percentages are quite stable and universal.

David Farmer, after attending a public lecture presented by Csikszentmihalyi in Sydney in March 1999, wrote what he understood by flow from the perspective of someone who heard the concept being presented by Mihaly himself.

How does it feel being in “Flow”?

  • Completely involved, focused, and concentrating.
  • Sense of ecstasy—of being outside everyday reality.
  • Great inner clarity—knowing what needs to be done.
  • Knowing the activity is doable—that the skills are adequate; neither anxious nor bored.
  • Sense of serenity—no worries about self, feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego; afterward, feeling of transcending ego in ways not thought possible.
  • Timelessness—thoroughly focused on the present, don’t notice the time passing.
  • Intrinsic motivation—whatever produces “flow” becomes its own reward.
Working in Flow

Many people have reported that they get in a flow-like state more often when they are working and not when doing something else.

We may explain it by the fact that work is something that provides us with a challenge, makes us focus our attention, and takes our minds off our anxieties.

However, if you cannot find periods of flow in your work naturally, you can try to set new goals of intrinsic rewards.

Intrinsic rewards are not ones as the motivation provided by cash incentive or more power; rather, such ones as setting higher standards of performance or finding more details about the job.

For getting into flow states at work, a few things to do could be:

  1. Challenging yourself to learn the last possible detail about your job.
  2. Accepting or even seeking opportunities for newer or tougher tasks.
  3. Setting targets to finish your work better and faster than ever before.

And as your work hours begin to “fly” instead of being hammered out by the clock hands, you may notice other benefits such as decreased procrastination, increased popularity, and a higher likelihood of promotion.

To find Flow, seek new challenges at work, rather than just showing up and shuffling out by the clock.

Learn the inner workings of the most magical state of joy, the flow, here: How To Find Flow At Work.

Final Words

Those who repeatedly invite flow experiences into their lives tend to be happier.

  • Live a life of purpose—one that’s meaningful to you, and avoid being influenced by external rewards.
  • Get your mind off the giant wheels of overthinking and anxiety, start to focus your attention on the present moment, being mindful of your present environment.
  • Go into flow frequently, and do more of what captivates you.
  • “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” — Steve Jobs.

Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.

— Steve Jobs

So, turn off the TV and get off the online social grid. Instead, engage with your friends, read up a book, write something, or challenge yourself to an activity that can get you “in the zone.”

And, by the way, don’t try to find flow all the time. Rather, focus on finding joy in many other ways, instead of falling into the pleasure trap.

Do you have a personal definition of success?

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental wellbeing, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).


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