Happiness Is ... Not the Same as Pleasure

What Women Really Think
March 16 2011 3:54 PM

Happiness Is ... Not the Same as Pleasure

Emily, I’m so glad that you shared the WSJ story on the study that shows that " eudaimonia " or well-being, is far more important to our health than "hedonic well-being," which means something closer to pleasure. I feel like it’s an incredibly important distinction that is lost not only on much of society, but on the headline writers for the WSJ piece, which is titled "Is Happiness Overrated?"

It seems as there is a new "happiness" study out almost every week (the article notes that the field of "positive psychology" is exploding. Yippeee….) and many of them are based on the premise, as you state, that people find themselves mired in misery after having kids.


And every time I see one of those studies, I can’t help but think it’s because people are confused about the difference between pleasure and happiness. Maybe it’s the questions that are asked, but good studies should be asking intelligent questions. I suspect it’s more that the respondents equate pleasure-tropical vacations, unencumbered evenings out-with the deeper rewards of happiness-earning a promotion you’ve worked for, watching your child overcome an obstacle. Technology has made our lives vastly more convenient: Amazon and Netflix first made trips to a store unnecessary and have since eliminated the need even to walk to the mailbox. Our phones can turn out our lights if we leave them on, or start our cars . TV comes to us on 500 channels instead of three. Pleasure is easy.

But … kids. Damned things haven’t kept up with the times. They still insist on not sleeping for six months, pooping in their pants, and forcing their parents to dine out only in establishments that offer crayons and balloons. They stubbornly refuse to utter complete sentences until they’re almost 2. And just when they become a little more self-sufficient, around the age of 5 or so, then you have to worry about the REALLY hard stuff: Is my son an overconfident bully? An underconfident target of bullies? Why can’t my kids remember their library books? Why is the 8-year-old neighbor kid teaching them cuss words and showing them how to play Call of Duty ? (I live in fear of the not-distant-enough teenage years.) We live in an instant-gratification society, and there’s no way to make children low-maintenance entertainment devices. Happiness can be hard work.

I doubt such studies will deter most people who are planning to have children. But, like you, I do worry about smart, loving couples who would make wonderful parents but are on the fence. Are they going to miss out on one of life’s potentially greatest rewards because they’ve heard repeatedly that kids will make them crazy?

I think, in some ways, we would all be a little happier if there weren’t so many studies telling us how to be happy, or why we should be happy, or why we’re not happy. In the absence of that, I’ll settle for more studies that at least know how to define the word.

Rachael Larimore is Slate's managing editor.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

iOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. Then I Married Someone Like Him.

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 12:02 PM Here It Is: The Flimsiest Campaign Attack Ad of 2014, Which Won’t Stop Running
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 1:59 PM Ask a Homo: Secret Ally Codes 
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 1:26 PM Hey CBS, Rihanna Is Exactly Who I Want to See on My TV Before NFL Games
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 1:01 PM A Rare, Very Unusual Interview With Michael Jackson, Animated
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 12:35 PM IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.