Pleasure vs. Fulfillment

What is Happiness? 

Happiness is difficult to define, but here I’ll divide it into two main buckets: Short-Term Pleasure and Long-Term Fulfillment.

Both types of happiness exist for the same reason, namely to advance human evolutionary interests. The difference is pretty distinct, however: we’d all rather be fulfilled (think, happily married) than pleased (think, cigarette buzz). Short-term pleasures provide us with instant gratification, while long-term fulfillment usually takes applied effort over time.

Short-term Pleasure

Nature uses a chemical reward system in order to motivate you to behave in a certain way, producing Happiness Chemicals whenever you complete homework, go to the gym, get a compliment from your boss, or make love. To vastly oversimplify a brain that contains hundreds of neurotransmitters (electrical and chemical messengers), we’ll focus on four key Happiness Chemicals: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin.

Here I’m over-generalizing complex chemicals that have multiple roles in the brain, but this helps us get a sense for the brain’s underlying evolutionary programming. Generally, if something feels pleasurable, you can attribute it to your reward system’s Happiness Chemical release, which are both effective motivators and highly addictive. While these once would’ve prodded you to form survival habits, in our modern world there are a profusion of devices and activities that release them in a very different context.

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It may seem odd that the addictive behaviors driving positive chemical stimulation are often, although not always, detrimental to long-term wellbeing. But we evolved to replicate our genes, not to be healthy or happy. In other words, pleasure is just an evolutionary incentive system designed by natural selection. 

If achieving happiness were as simple as smoking a cigarette, devouring a pizza, or watching some raunchy porn, we’d be a happy bunch of evolved apes. Sadly, this is not the case, and short-term pleasure often comes in short, elusive stints. As a result, many Americans are devoid of a general sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. No matter how much pleasure is experienced in the short-term, fulfillment remains out of reach. 

So what does bring lasting happiness?

Long-term Fulfillment

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” - David Foster Wallace

“Beliefs make the world, in a very real way… beliefs are the world in a more than metaphysical sense.” – Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning

Like the Patriot who’s fighting for their country or the parent who’s caring for their child, long-term fulfillment must come from going beyond immediate pleasures toward a greater purpose. 

A Belief System is the set of values that you embody. Religion is a form of mass Belief System, sometimes captivating millions of minds to see the world the same way. But even if you’re not religious, you still have a Belief System – a purpose for being and doing and core framework for interacting with the world. Whatever gets us out of bed in the morning - everyone has a subconscious or conscious underlying motivational framework, even if it’s not religious in nature.

Despite the abundance of instant gratification, you can access in the developed world, what actually drives you to feel fulfilled is an alignment between your Belief System and your current life situation. Meditation allows you to examine and even re-evaluate your Belief System and life choices, bringing them into more harmony with each other.