Psychology Blog: Pleasure vs. Enjoyment

You may be aware that I co-host the weekly podcast Unsung Leaders. What you may not realize is that I am also an avid listener, as podcasts present wonderful opportunities to hear and absorb wide-ranging perspectives. I recently revisited the groundbreaking book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by tuning into a chapter-by-chapter companion podcast moderated by Oprah Winfrey in conversation with the book’s author, Eckhart Tolle. Deep into this discussion, there was a brief but extremely helpful mention of the difference between pleasure and enjoyment.

Below is a general retelling of the podcast’s explanation, along with my own specific observations and understandings. Knowing the difference between pleasure and enjoyment can be pivotal to your overall wellbeing!

Pleasure = Please Assure Me

According to Tolle/Oprah, Pleasure is specifically tied to external circumstances: We experience pleasure when we:

  1. Are positively perceived (reinforcement by another).
  2. Successfully complete a task or goal (reinforcement through accomplishment).
  3. Achieve distinction (reinforcement by society).

We also find pleasure by going on exotic vacations, buying brand name items, or bragging about our children.

Pleasure is an emotional state that scans outwardly for its payoff. With this in mind, I came up with the following phrase: Pleasure = Please assure me!

Don’t get me wrong: pleasure-seeking can be a fun-filled companion within our lives, but if seeking pleasure begins stealing focus from life’s bigger picture, you may need a perception tune-up. Here’s why:

“Tell me about your childhood…”

Sigmund Freud saw the roots of this conduct as a developmental stage behavior. Coined the Pleasure Principle, this phase is our early attempts to avoid pain through external validation. Infants instinctually do this out of biological need: A baby wets himself, which creates discomfort. This irritation triggers his need to call out – which then prompts the parent to hear the cry and come to the rescue.

The Pleasure Principle is a brilliant adaptation for little ones who cannot yet take care of themselves. However, as we mature, our developmental task is to leave these dependencies behind in exchange for more self-sufficient means of monitoring and modulating our wellbeing.

Arrested Development

Unfortunately, many of us never wean ourselves from the pull of comfort-need or the desire for external reinforcement. Freud’s groundbreaking concept is readily apparent in today’s instant gratification culture. Being noticed behind the wheel of a fancy car or demonstrating a perfect lifestyle on Facebook becomes a fertile playground for “pay attention to me” behavior – creating within us a constant longing for external stimulation and gratification. This sets a never-ending hamster-wheel existence of delusion and perpetual dissatisfaction, as we must always seek nurturing and reassurance from others in order to feel “enough.”

Enjoyment = In Joy Meant

In stark contrast, enjoyment is a psychological process that is independent of external variables. It’s a feeling of satisfaction that’s internally-generated. Enjoyment is a positive viewpoint not affected by the varieties of life’s circumstances. I remember the definition this way: In Joy Meant or Joy meant internally.

Enjoyment is the acknowledgment of an ever-stable sense of solid presence. To riff on a Deepak Chopra analogy, imagine a room in your house. Notice that this space may seem to be made of walls, a floor, and a ceiling. Yet, if these elements were destroyed, the space and this place would still exist – it would just look different.

Similarly, when we learn to grasp our internal validity, we find a force that transcends the externals of life – even as our bodies age and our circumstances change, the valid space of “us” still exists.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

We create To Do lists or fuel our ambitions through a mindset of proving ourselves to ourselves and others: this relinquishing our self-esteem only to try to externally win it back is just foolishness. I invite you to adopt the following behaviors – not as a test of merit, but as a deserved experience:

Enjoy every moment of your life. Fold your clothes with awareness, approach your accounting with curiosity, acknowledge others without judgment. Approach your life as if you are already enough.

Bringing an internalized sense of satisfaction to your experiences is the best way to create authentic happiness. – and can be implemented regardless of the challenges or the accomplishments you experience during the minutes/hours/days/years of your life.

Realize that you are already complete – and “In-Joy” your life.