It may seem a strange thing to say, but often in your life you will have to choose between pleasure and happiness. You will be forced to decide, of your own free will, whether you will make wrongful pleasure a principal purpose in your life and thereby inevitably forfeit happiness, or whether you will deliberately choose to give up the pursuit of unlawful pleasure and, in so doing, become happy.
As you go on in life, you will see more and more the truth of this observation, which is profoundly rooted in human nature. You will see the difference between pleasure and happiness, and you will observe that professional pleasure-seekers are never happy. On the other hand, the truly happy people are those who have schooled themselves deliberately to give up some pleasures.
Let us reflect for a minute on the practical meaning of pleasure and of happiness.
Pleasure means enjoyment. It means the gratifying of some sense or faculty in which we take delight. Every one of our human faculties, whether of body or of soul, has its own particular craving. Our eyes are constantly longing to look and to see things that are beautiful, interesting, or agreeable.
Our appetite for food is constantly craving the satisfaction of eating and drinking. Our muscles crave exercise.
Even our mind, memory, and imagination crave the gratification of their own particular faculty. The mind wants to know more and more, and it derives pleasure from learning, from hearing news, and from discussing and debating. The imagination craves amusements, stories, plays, movies, and pleasurable reading of every kind.
Such craving for pleasure is especially intense in our day, because there are so many things that stir it up, and so many means of gratifying this thirst for pleasure. In older, simpler times, people had to work hard for very little. Their food was simple, and children nowadays would probably look down on their amusements. They had no cars, no movies, no airplanes, no dance halls, and no such variety of amusing magazines and newspapers. They probably enjoyed life as much as or more than people do today, but they were not stimulated so much and stirred up to seek all manner of amusements, and they did not have nearly so many ways of gratifying their thirst for pleasure.
Then, too, modern methods of advertising are continually urging people to satisfy their craving for pleasure and are developing new wants that are profitable to satisfy. Notice the advertisements on billboards for a single day, and observe how many of them are given over to creating or stimulating your desire for pleasure. You are invited to smoke, to eat candy, to chew gum, to go to the movies, to read magazines and books that are principally pleasure-giving, or to have a good time in general. Consciously or unconsciously, you react to these incitements. The power of suggestion is immense, and you are constantly being tempted by suggestions to do things for the pleasure of doing them — things not wrong in themselves, perhaps, but which take just so much of your energy, your time, and your means.
Let us get this whole subject straight in our minds. Pleasure in itself is a good thing, and a certain amount of lawful pleasure is necessary for us. We need a certain amount of exercise and a certain amount of amusement, just as we need a certain amount of sleep and of food. The need for pleasure is not so absolute as the need for food, but it is still very real. The pity is, however, that we are so constituted that we never get enough pleasure; pleasure always leaves us unsatisfied and begets a desire for more. Therefore, the temptation of our day is to pursue pleasure for its own sake, which means to neglect duty for the sake of pleasure.
Those who seek pleasure for its own sake are somewhat like people who take drugs. At first, they experience some gratification, but after a while, they take the drug simply to satisfy a terrible craving. They are no happier with the drug than they once were without it. On the contrary, they are far more unhappy now, because the drug is gradually undermining their whole nervous system. But they keep on taking larger and larger doses, simply to keep themselves going, until their constitution breaks down.
Pleasure is not a drug. It is a very useful thing in itself when employed as a means to an end. But when it is taken in excessive doses, for its own sake, it takes on some of the characteristics of a drug. Pleasure-seekers sacrifice more and more for the sake of pleasure, and, in the end, they find themselves broken down in character and sometimes broken down in health, and essentially unhappy, because they are essentially dissatisfied. The only thing that will keep them going is more pleasure, and pleasure itself has palled on them.
Such is pleasure, but what is happiness?
Happiness is an inward movement
Happiness, as we understand it, is the inward contentment, the peace and satisfaction, the moral well-being that comes to a person of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, who does his work and discharges his duty to God and his fellowmen with patience, fidelity, uprightness, and kindness. Pleasure is merely the passing gratification of some faculty. One may get pleasure by eating and drinking, by going to a show, by reading an interesting book, or by engaging in sports, but happiness is a lasting state of inward contentment.
Just as health of body requires a balance of the faculties — so that a person experiences a general sense of physical wellbeing — so happiness comes from health of soul and mind and heart. It results from a balance of moral qualities. A person cannot be happy if he has a bad conscience, lacks self-respect, or is aware that he is shirking his duty toward God and man.
Hence, happiness of mind and soul, like health of body, must be secured by a balance of our faculties, by keeping in a state of spirit that will enable us to be happy. It is easy, then, to see the real conflict that exists between following pleasure for its own sake and seeking happiness.
We are so constituted that, if a person deliberately seeks pleasure for its own sake, he is sure to neglect his duty, and this is true even of innocent pleasure. The time that he ought to give to work is stolen for pleasure. The effort and ambition that he ought to devote to doing his duty is spent in pleasure-seeking. If this is true even of innocent pleasures, it is tenfold true of pleasures that are wrong. To seek these in any degree is ruinous, because a man thereby loses his self-respect, neglects his duty, and goes directly against the requirements we have laid down for happiness.
But even as regards innocent pleasures, you have to choose between using them moderately and with self-control and seeking happiness, or seeking them for their own sake and inevitably ceasing to be happy. This is a distinction of such tremendous importance that no one can calculate how many lives are ruined and how much is sacrificed by its neglect. You are quite free to choose one or the other, but choose you must.
If you seek pleasure for its own sake, you cannot be happy. If you wish to be truly happy, then, you must moderate and control your thirst for pleasure.
Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from a chapter in Fr Garesché’s The Catholic Book of Character and Success which is available from Sophia Institute Press.