Is there a difference between Joy and Pleasure?

Most of us use these words interchangeably, we think joy and pleasure are one and the same thing. We believe that the fundamental purpose of life is to expand our experience of physical sensations, and all sensations are essentially pleasure.

We value pleasure more than anything else and consider it a part of our well-being. For example, the pleasure of sleeping eight hrs a day for some of us may be indispensable. Without basic pleasures of food, good clothing, a decent time with loved ones or friends, we find happiness to be an impossible goal.

But is all pleasure the same?

For example, some people derive great pleasure from drinking alcohol excessively. While some people enjoy reading extensively. Can both these pleasures get us into trouble? Perhaps, but drinking alcohol is more likely to land someone in the hospital. Right?

For this reason, it becomes important to distinguish certain pleasures. In fact, I use the word pleasure, joy and security exclusively for this reason. Distinguishing these things can sometimes be beneficial to communicate effectively what one means when one uses these words.

Difference between Pleasure and Joy.

There is a specific characteristic of pleasure which differentiates it from joy. The former involves the use of past experiences, while the latter is always in the present.

Pleasure is an experience which was enjoyable in the past, and which you want to repeat now. So you take actions to repeat that experience; you seek it out. There is no happy accident involved in pleasure. It’s an expected feeling which you visualize and imagine yourself having and therefore pursue it.

You essentially want to re-experience a happy memory.

Joy, on the other hand, is mostly an accidental experience of happiness which comes uninvited. Like walking down a street and be greeted by a cat rubbing its body against your feet, asking to be petted. Or noticing the sky turning various hues of orange, yellow and red after a heavy rainfall on a warm summer evening.

That is joy, uninvited, unexpected and happening by accident.

A joy, as you can tell, can also become a pleasure. Once the mind experiences something joyful, sometimes it remembers that experience and wants to repeat it again. Now something that was a joy, becomes a pleasure.

There are some key differences between the two.

  1. Joy cannot be addictive in nature, because it’s experienced and leaves no emotional residue. One can say its forgotten. Sexual experiences can also paradoxically be joy, if they are sort of forgotten. That is, they don’t linger. You don’t go back and think about that sexual experience. It was beautiful, and it ended, when it ended. Done. Gone. Such joy forms the basis of a happy marriage. If this joy turns to pleasure, it can become a cause for an unhappy one.
  2. Joy or enjoyment, cannot be craved for, because it is never really sought. So the lack of it does not create any kind of resentment, anger or displeasure in oneself. Whereas deny the man his pleasure, and you’ll see his or her dark side. You’ll see anger, aggression, and desperation all at once.
  3. Joy also goes with a deep sense of happiness, balance, and harmony. It is not impulsive and therefore does not lead to hasty decisions. While pleasure can be related to a temporary sense of gratification and often can lead to bad decisions. Joy has no sense of urgency, whereas one craves pleasure to be instantaneous.
  4. In relationships, when we seek pleasure, we force things to go a certain way. We force others to like certain things which they may not really enjoy. Pleasure-seeking makes us believe that others should enjoy the same things we do, the way we do, creating friction in our relationships. On the other hand, joy encourages an attitude of ‘ Live and let live’. We let our partners and friends enjoy the things they do and allow them to flourish in their own preferred way.
  5. Pleasure-seeking never creates contentment in us. It is often accompanied by an even greater urge to experience more of the same, as the experience doesn’t seem to give us deep satisfaction. It creates a state of reaching out and grasping, which over a period of a few years starts becoming natural and even necessary. Experiencing joy is not forced and hence when it happens, it gives us satisfaction, regardless of the amount of joy we experience. The feeling of grasping and reaching out becomes lesser and lesser, and our mind becomes clearer day by day.

Why is this so important?

To understand how to maintain balance in one’s life, one has to understand what is creating the imbalance.

From what we can observe, joyful experiences, which we generally call happiness, are necessary and enough to lead a balanced life, regardless of what one’s occupation is. However, most people want more and will not stop at anything to experience the maximum amount of pleasure possible.

They want money, power, fame, influence, and intense experiences. However, if one is not aware of the difference between joy and pleasure, one is bound to hurl one’s life down a path of pleasure-seeking, which by its nature creates more and more imbalance.

Let’s go one step deeper into this.

But what about basic security?

Is security which most people cannot do without, like the leisure to be in solitude every day, having plenty of personal space, dining with friends, or having dinner with one’s family every night, a form of pleasure or joy? Take these away and some people will become insecure and unhappy in their lives.

This is where self-awareness becomes necessary. One has to examine the details of his or her life and understand if there are certain pleasures one depends upon, for example, the habit of having three glasses of vodka to fall asleep at night, under the pretext of basic security.

Basic security is necessary to live a stable, happy life. However, what is basic security and what is pleasure in everyday life is for you to decide. That is a decision which one makes based on their level of self-awareness at that point in their lives. Think of it as a dark room which gradually fills with light as your self-awareness increases.

Some people become aware of the excess in their lives and become minimalists. They donate all their belongings and begin to live like hermits. Is this a path for everyone? Probably not.

Balance is not something that is created in one day. Just like a pendulum in a wide swing does not come to a stop right away. It takes some time to find balance, and the more time passes, the more balance you find, as long as you become more aware of those tendencies which cause imbalance.

Similarly, at different points in life, one makes decisions as to what level of pleasure-joy balance they want in their lives to maintain a basic level of psychological security. The more self-awareness one practices, the more joy overcomes pleasure in one’s life.


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Images courtesy of Marta Markes and Bench Accounting

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