Friday, April 9, 2010

Are You Seeking Pleasure, Happiness or Joy?

What do you want most for your children or even yourself? Really think about it for a minute… (Are you thinking?) I’ve heard a lot of parents say what they really want more than anything is for their children to be happy. To that response, I ask, really? Is the pursuit of personal happiness really the best and highest calling for your child (or yourself, for that matter)? What are you seeking for yourself—pleasure, happiness, maybe joy? What do these even mean?
Of course I don’t want my children to be unhappy, but to be honest, sometimes a little unhappiness is necessary for them to understand a lesson and to grow as people. The same goes for me, unfortunately. I don’t think we should expect to be happy all the time. Stress, illness and death are part of life. Work and sacrifice can be good qualities, but aren’t particularly pleasant. If we teach our children to pursue only happiness, why would they want to help others when it is inconvenient? Why would they strive to impact the world in a positive fashion? That just takes their focus off of their goal of happiness.
I’ve spent two years interviewing happy couples who have overcome significant obstacles from accidents and illness to infertility or separation for military service. Interestingly, the happiest couples I have interviewed have been the ones who are truly seeking to make their spouse happy before themselves. It’s a cycle and a process that continues to reward each of them.
Pleasure is often a good thing—enjoying the scent of the flowering trees as you drive by, tasting the grilled salmon that you craved for dinner, touching your spouse or children lovingly, hearing the sound of the birds outside your kitchen window. Opening our senses to feel and truly experience pleasure is wonderful.
Pleasure can also be very self-serving. A popular web site (whose name I won’t promote) calls itself “the world’s premier discreet dating service” and has a trademarked tag line: “Life is short. Have an affair.” They promise, “Join free, and change your life today. Guaranteed!” Yes, your life will be changed, but not for the better. Their invitation to “Sleep with someone else’s wife tonight,” may entice those whose ultimate goal is personal pleasure. But will these exclusive members experience happiness or joy?
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis, describes joy as a “technical term that must be sharply distinguished from both Happiness and Pleasure.” He says, “The only thing Joy has in common with the others is that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.” Where Joy differs, he continues, is that anyone who has tasted joy would never exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. “But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.” Yes, there’s the rub, joy we have to wait for, and pleasure (and even happiness to some extent) we can go in search of.
Joy, I think, is a much deeper satisfaction, bliss, the opposite of misery and regret, a connection to the divine. It’s not really within our power, but I think it can result from a multitude of right choices, even of self-sacrifice and love for others. It seems sort of counter-intuitive that by not prioritizing your own pleasure, you can achieve a deeper enjoyment, but I think it’s true. That’s not to say pleasure can’t still be a part of your life, but there are higher priorities.
In your marriage, in your financial decisions, in how you raise and instruct your children, what do you think is most important for them to learn? Where do you hope to lead your spouse and family, and what example will you show? I wish you Joy.
Lori Lowe provides research-based insights on marriage at She is also writing a narrative nonfiction book profiling married couples who were changed for the better after overcoming adversity. Lori finds joy in Indianapolis with her husband of almost 15 years, two energetic kids, one crazy cat and two aquatic frogs.

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