Does Pleasure Come at the Expense of Happiness?

Happy New Year!

I tend to only write blog posts that reflect my thoughts and feelings when the mood strikes or I’m inspired. Hence the long pause but I’m addressing that by bringing in new, fresh ideas, like recipes, third-party posts and simple reflections on other materials.

In the meantime, I was recently inspired to write following a conversation I had with a Cardiologist I met at a Pop-Up at North York General Hospital. He was very interested in our “keto-friendly” cookies and when I went in for the sell, he put up the blockers and said, “sorry, I’m fasting.” It’s not Yom Kippur… he was on hour 36 of a prolonged intermittent fast. It’s a style of eating whereby one only eats within a certain window of time, and absolutely fasts the rest of the time. Apparently, every single doctor in the hospital has prescribed to that lifestyle choice and they are all following ketogenic diets. When they are in an eating time frame, they’re following very low carb, very high-fat regulations. He was in a state of ‘‘ketosis’ and instead of doing this to lose weight , he said he was doing it for the numerous health benefits, and most significantly, so that he could feel happy.

The last part struck me. The obesity epidemic, the rise in diabetes and all other manner of health issues suggests that most people sacrifice their long-term health and consequent happiness because they indulge in too many short-term pleasures. This doctor was seeking the opposite: happiness through specific dieting. He was sacrificing immediate pleasures (cookies and other delicious, nourishing foods) in favor of long term happiness. From his mannerisms, I have to tell you, he seemed happy. I then got to thinking about the dichotomy between feeling happiness and feeling pleasure. A Life Blog Post by Margaret Paul shed a bit of light on it. She writes:

“Pleasurable experiences can give us momentary feelings of happiness, but this happiness does not last long because it is dependent upon external events and experiences. We have to keep on having the good experiences -- more food, more drugs or alcohol, more money, more sex, more things -- in order to feel pleasure. As a result, many people become addicted to these external experiences, needing more and more to feel a short-lived feeling of happiness.”

Pleasure is short-term while happiness is long term. Can long term happiness be achieved by jumping from one, quick, short-term burst of pleasure to the next? We were both rather aghast at how many cookies were being sold for $2 at Subway in the hospital’s cafeteria, but then it made sense to me: these nutritionally void, intensely sweetened carb bombs create short-lived feelings of pleasure. (For a doctor dealing with pretty stressful, intense challenges every minute, an occasional pleasure is probably warranted.) In fact, eating sugar has been linked to the brain’s increased release of dopamine, the “give-me-more” happiness chemical. On the other hand, it’s no longer a debate whether or not increased and prolonged digestion of sugar has a direct correlation with insulin-resistance, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, heart and liver-diseases, obesity…even cancer. It does. But it sure does taste good, and eating a cinnabon or piece of chocolate cake is one of the most pleasurable, if not fleeting experiences one can imagine. Literally, just writing those words, caused me to salivate.

Knowing that things are so bad for you, I keep wondering - is it worth it?

This may sound a bit contradictory, if not outright hypocritical, but I think that yes, it is worth it. Very much so in fact. We work hard, we take care of others, we are pressured from all corners of our lives to excel and if there is something in this world that even for just 15 seconds can put a smile on your face, perhaps a warmth in your belly, a brief release of dopamine, then I say go for it. The challenge is really finding that right, reasonable catalyst for pleasure.

It doesn’t have to be an oreo, or a cookie from Starbucks, or a piece of cheesecake for dessert; or more drugs, alcohol, money or sex. At least not every time. There are other sources of pleasure in this world that I have found, and which I encourage you to try out. For example:

  • building a train set with my 3-year-old; or even just watching him play with his train for 30 seconds is probably the most pleasurable experience I can imagine.

  • Kissing my beautiful wife or seeing her smile when I tell her how beautiful she is

  • drinking an Americano made from my favorite roaster (deMello)

  • A brief tug of war match with my dog (who usually wins)

  • Listening to a 5 minute stand-up routine from Spotify

  • Shameless Self-Promotion: eating a decadent Bald Baker Brownie

There are thousands of low calorie, low sugar ways to feel pleasure and I encourage you to try something new each day. When you get a craving, indulge and satisfy it, but nutritionally void treats aren’t the only way to do that. You may even find that the hunt for those pleasurable moments is what leads you to long-term happiness.

Daniel SennetComment