The Happiness Guru: What’s Your Pleasure?

By Jon Scheffres

And what does it have to do with being happy?
“I believe that God made me for a purpose… But He also made me fast.
And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

—Missionary and Olympic gold medalist Eric Liddell,as portrayed in “Chariots of Fire”

happinessguruAfter reading the title of this column in Catalyst’s September issue a friend looked at me wryly and said, “So, what — now you’re the ‘Happiness Guru’?”

I’d been expecting something like this. “Uh, no,” I answered. “The idea is that each one of us is the ‘Happiness Guru’– on some level.” She chuckled, clearly suspicious. I heard a voice in my head: “Don’t think, even for a second, that you’re somehow going to get your hands on the Holy Grail.” To this part of me (the doubting part), any effort to crack the “happiness code” seems in itself audacious, arrogant, another in the series of ego bubbles that are just so much fun to burst.

“Who are you to be happy?” the Skeptic in me jeers. In fact I wonder if we Westerners have an unhealthy obsession with happiness. Did our ancestors toiling in fields to eke out a living or hunting for boar in some dark jungle think much about happiness? What about citizens of third world nations for whom survival is a daily preoccupation? How happy do they expect to be?

Or have we in this post-modern world taken too material a view of the subject, supposing that more conveniences, more physical comforts, more technology might secure the keys to the kingdom? Perhaps those who live with less enjoy more happiness precisely because they expect less comfort and security, because the circumstances of their lives have forced them into a more direct and unadorned relationship with existence.

So what is happiness? Is it a state of mind? An emotion? A quality of consciousness?

I asked people around me what they believed. A colleague of mine pointed out a difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure, he reasoned, is a temporary experience, not necessarily related to any lasting sense of fulfillment—whereas true happiness lives longer in us and changes us permanently, irrevocably.

In this case, I think my colleague uses the word pleasure to refer to the satisfying of appetites, both physical and psychological. Here’s an example: It may give me an emotional boost to win a game of Scrabble, but I don’t expect that feeling to greatly improve my quality of life. Then, too, the satisfying of appetites may have negative consequences: The almost magnetic pull of sensual pleasure on the body can get us into trouble, from gaining 10 pounds after indulging in good food on a cruise ship for two weeks to losing a marriage as a result of a brief but passionate sexual affair.

Often people feel guilty about satisfying a physical or psychological urge that seems at odds with their values —hence the phrase “guilty pleasures.” In this case, our pursuit of pleasure can actually detract from our long-term happiness.

From a yogic point of view the experience of pleasure is mostly a conditioned response to some stimulus, a habit of the mind developed over many years (or lifetimes) which actually limits our awareness and distracts us from a purposeful life. The yogi is the one who has freed her mind from attachment to pleasure or the reflexive avoidance of pain. Through meditation, she develops the quality of neutrality, making her impervious to the “law of opposites” and the mind’s dualistic formulations of “right and wrong,” “good and bad,” “this and that.” This neutrality liberates her into an ongoing, moment-to-moment experience of What Is. And yogic disciplines promise that the Is-ness of who we are is the ultimate source of our satisfaction and bliss.

It all sounds good—but also a little too abstract and impersonal. One trap of the yogic or contemplative lifestyle is that it can be used to discredit the very psyche which embraces it.

I like pleasure. Pleasure is personal and earthy and comprehensible. We seek pleasure because our whole organism wants it. Pleasure lights us up from the inside or, like a hard rain, penetrates to our roots, reviving us when the soil of our life has grown overly dry with custom and routine. If it is true that we live for happiness, then perhaps pleasure is how happiness is registered, how it leaves its mark, indelibly, on the soul.

“Chariots of Fire” is one of my favorite movies. The quote above may  be fictional, but in any case it captures something brave and true about the human spirit: that we are at our best when we feel the pleasure of a calling—and respond with all our passion and dedication.

The movie focuses on Eric Liddell, the great Scottish runner who won a gold medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell, as portrayed in the movie, is a spiritual athlete, one who tied his natural athletic gifts to his spiritual mission. In his mind, running is a way to honor God, for it is God who bestowed him with these gifts in the first place. While others doubt the wisdom of engaging in competition, believing that earthly pursuits might divert him from his calling as a spiritual leader, Liddell maintained that pleasure can be a signal from God that we are on the right path after all. His “chariot of fire” is not only his natural speed but his conviction that God speaks to us through pleasure, that what we enjoy with the fullness of our being is what we were born to do.

In my private practice I’ve discovered that people have by and large marginalized the pleasure-seeking part of themselves. I am constantly surprised by how much we distrust what gives us enjoyment, delight and satisfaction. Often when I ask the question of a client, “What do you really want?” or “What would make you happy?” I get a quizzical or confused stare in return, as if the question were illegitimate or a trick of some sort.

I have the feeling that after four centuries we Americans are still struggling with a conflict that is essentially puritanical in nature: Though we live in bodies and minds that seek pleasure, we hold pleasure itself suspect. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, pleasure is the devil’s way of manipulating us and betraying God.

Psychologically, admitting what we enjoy to ourselves and others puts us in a vulnerable position— if people know what we want, they can deny us what we want.  Desire and pleasure are signs, after all, that we are truly human, that we are not completely self-contained or self-reliant, that we depend on certain experiences to make us feel more alive and complete.

Try an experiment. Choose someone in your life—a friend, a lover, a family member—and spend 10 minutes talking to that person about a deep desire you have, something you would like to experience or create that you believe would make you fantastically happy. If you want more of a challenge, tell this person what they could do for you to help make your dream come true. Notice if you can do this without laughing uncomfortably, losing your train of thought, playing down your desire, or discounting it all together. Not easy, is it?

When my friend asked me that question about being the “Happiness Guru” I wanted to say, “Yes, I’m searching for happiness—and I think I may be on to something.” Because thinking and writing about happiness gives me pleasure. The truth is, I want to be utterly and unreasonably happy, a fool who lives joyfully and dies that way, too. So maybe if I start behaving more like the Happiness Guru I’ll find myself getting closer to whatever it is that grants this kind of happiness. 

This article was originally published on December 1, 2006.