The Difference Between Pleasure and Enjoyment

Pleasure is a fast-food meal. Enjoyment is the process of cooking your masterpiece cake for a friend’s birthday. I feel that I could stop there, but in a world where you can scroll Facebook from the top of El Capitan, I feel that further elaboration is needed – it’s important educationally.

Pleasure is passive; enjoyment is active. Pleasure is a destination; enjoyment is a process, a journey. The reason that this is a distinction worth making is that enjoyment is the key to long-term happiness. One of the world’s foremost ‘happiness’ researchers, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, wrote at the end of his seminal book Flow:

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.

When we think about trying to make our kids or students happy, how often do we think about stretching their body or mind to the limit? More often, we think about giving them something that will make them happy, right? I know I do it with myself – when I want to reward myself or create a smile I tend to buy myself a cookie, not embark on a journey to finish a Thesis paper or run a 100-mile race. But the pleasure of a cookie – or of scrolling Facebook and checking the number of likes on your last post – doesn’t compare to the process of enjoyment, and in today’s world it’s easy for us to mix the two up, leading to less productivity and happiness in the long run.

While the Luddite in me would love to construct an argument that our ubiquitous iPhones are contributing to this confusion, I would like to point out that in many ways, our language plays a role in our confusion. English, specifically, has the effect of forcing Americans to focus on destination rather than process or journey because of the inherent bias built into the structure of the language. Alan Watts, the great philosopher of Eastern thought distilled for a Western audience, illuminated the difference between Mandarin and English:

The reason why Taoism and Zen present, at first sight, such a puzzle to the Western mind is that we have taken a restricted view of human knowledge. For us, almost all knowledge is what we would call conventional knowledge, because we do not feel that we really know anything unless we can represent it to ourselves in words, or in some other system of conventional signs such as the notations of mathematics and music. Such knowledge is called conventional because it is a matter of social agreement as to the codes of communication. Just as people speaking the same language have tacit agreements as to what words shall stand for what things, so the members of every society and every culture are united by bonds of communication resting upon all kinds of agreement as to the classification and valuation of actions and things.
Thus, the task of education is to make children fit to live in a society by persuading them to learn and accept its codes – the rules and conventions of communication whereby the society holds itself together. There is first the spoken language. The child is taught to accept ‘tree’ and not ‘boojum’ as the agreed sign for that (pointing to the object). We have no difficulty in understanding that the word ‘tree’ is a matter of convention. What is much less obvious is that convention also governs the delineation of the thing to which the word is assigned. For the child has to be taught not only what words are to stand for what things, but also the way in which his culture has tacitly agreed to divide things from each other, to mark out the boundaries within our daily experience. Thus, scientific convention decides whether an eel shall be a fish or a snake, and grammatical convention determines what experiences shall be called objects and what shall be called events or actions. How arbitrary such conventions may be can be seen from the question, “What happens to my fist (noun-object) when I open my hand?” The object miraculously vanishes because an action was disguised by a part of speech usually assigned to a thing! In English the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs – so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.

Thus, the structure of our language itself causes Americans to think in terms of entities (that can be owned) rather than processes. If this is the case, then it is no wonder that we think we will just be happy when we have x amount of money, y model of car, or iPhone model z. If this were indeed the case, then it would seem logical for us to shortcut the process of getting that object! Of course, the true nature of humanity is that it is the process of pushing our body or mind to its limit in order to achieve the object we hold so dear that makes us enjoy life, not the end result of getting the object.

If we can embrace the journey of enjoyment, we will have achieved a new perspective that may be the most important lens through which we will ever see.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Row.
Watts, A. (1957). The way of Zen. New York: Vintage Books.

2 thoughts on “The Difference Between Pleasure and Enjoyment

  1. It seems that perhaps modern technology and the ease at which our modern society operates has made ‘pleasurable’ activities too accessible. My wonder is this: have young people been so bombarded with pleasurable activities (phones, iPads, video games, etc) that they know significantly less about what enjoyable activities are?


  2. It seems that perhaps modern technology and the ease at which our modern society operates has made ‘pleasurable’ activities too accessible. My wonder is this: have young people been so bombarded with pleasurable activities (phones, iPads, video games, etc) that they know significantly less about what enjoyable activities are?


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