Some look for it through the acquisition of things: nice cars, clothes, jewelry, second homes. Others look for it in relationships. And others turn to their occupation in search of it. It seems that, on some level, we are all looking for happiness.
And if you ask most people what brings them happiness, you will probably get a mix of two things: pleasurable experiences and enjoyable ones.
So what’s the difference and what does it have to do with happiness?
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, known for his pioneering work on optimal experience, and author of Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, defines pleasurable experiences as “homeostatic”, meaning that they do not produce psychological growth. Instead, they satiate biological needs (1). Sleeping in, eating a good meal, laying in the sun, getting a massage, a glass of wine and a night in front of the television all fall into this category. Pleasure, according to Csikszentmihalyi, “is an important component of the quality of life,” but pleasurable experiences, “do not add complexity to the self” (p 46).
Enjoyment, on the other hand, “is characterized by forward movement: a sense of novelty, of accomplishment” (p 46). It is when we have to extend ourselves, stretch our limits, and when we are challenged. Things like playing a contested game, meeting an important sales goal, learning a new skill, and having a conversation or reading a book that teaches us something new, are all examples of enjoyable experiences. Interestingly, Csikszentmihalyi’s work has uncovered that, although we may not equate enjoyable things with fun at the time, we will look back upon them with a feeling that we have accomplished something, and think, “that was really fun.” The hallmark feature of enjoyment is that we have changed as a result. We have overcome a barrier, learned something, met a target or refined our skills.
So which leads to happiness?
Well that depends on how you define happiness. Pleasurable experiences do make us feel good. But they don’t lead to a life of fulfillment, a sense of meaning, and feeling alive. This is the reason they don’t last.
Enjoyments, on the other hand, occur when we move beyond simply restoring homeostatic balance — into the realm of psychic growth. These are the things we don’t forget, the memories that stay with us because they give our lives meaning. And yes, they do bring us happiness.
References: Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience. New York, Harper and Row. (p 40-49).