The Difference Between Happiness vs. Pleasure and Why it Matters at Work

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the difference between happiness and pleasure in organizational culture

To understand how individual happiness and pleasure impact collective culture and purpose, we must first answer a few big questions:

  • Is happiness important? (Yes)
  • Is happiness a universal human feeling? (Yes)
  • Do other animals experience happiness? (Yes)
  • Is there a scientific basis for happiness? (Yes)

If you substitute the word “pleasure” for “happiness” above, the same answers apply. Now we must ask:

  • Are happiness and pleasure the same thing? (No)
  • Do people sometimes equate pleasure with happiness? (Yes)
  • Is there scientific evidence that differentiates the two? (Yes)

This post illuminates the science behind happiness and pleasure, sourced in the fields of neuroscience, medicine, and psychology. It draws heavily on research summarized in the book The Hacking of the American Mind, by Dr. Robert Lustig (2017). This post extends Dr. Lustig’s insights into the realms of organizational culture and business strategy.

One key insight from the book: U.S. culture tends to confuse happiness and pleasure. Fortunately, Dr. Lustig enumerates seven differences between the two. Quoting him from a 2017 interview with University of California TV, he clarifies the seven key differences:

  1. Pleasure is short-lived; happiness is long-lived.
  2. Pleasure is visceral; happiness is ethereal.
  3. Pleasure is taking; happiness is giving.
  4. Pleasure can be achieved with substances; happiness cannot be achieved with substances.
  5. Pleasure is experienced alone; happiness is experienced in social groups.
  6. The extremes of pleasure all lead to addiction, whether they be substances or behaviors. Yet there’s no such thing as being addicted to too much happiness.
  7. Finally and most importantly, pleasure is tied to dopamine (the pleasure biochemical/neurotransmitter), and happiness is tied to serotonin (the happiness biochemical/neurotransmitter).

-- Dr. Robert Lustig


Dr. Lustig goes on to explain WHY understanding these differences is of vital importance. One chief reason: excess dopamine can lead to addiction, which erodes both present and future happiness. In simple neuroscience terms, dopamine downregulates serotonin. The result, states Lustig in the same interview, is that “the more pleasure we seek, the more unhappy we get.”


Related: 3 Elements for Creating the Right Culture for Employee Happiness


Let’s switch gears and apply Dr. Lustig’s insights to organizational culture as a means of delivering happiness – the neuroscientific definition of happiness.

Keep in mind: pleasure has its place. The key is the proper proportion of pleasure relative to happiness. The goal is a balance of both.

Which organizational activities and policies tend to produce dopamine (pleasure), and which produce serotonin (happiness)?

This table sheds some light on this question. The last two columns share insights into organizational business culture, based on our new understanding of the science of happiness and pleasure.

 robert lustig seven differences pleasure and happiness organizational culture

Note: Adapted from The Hacking of the American Mind, by Dr. Robert Lustig (2017)


What other examples can you think of as applications? Tell us in the comments below! 



How can your company create more happiness for your employees? Take our DH Culture Pulse Assessment to see where your company culture is at, and how you can improve it!



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A note from the author…

In full transparency, I have not met Dr. Lustig, nor do I receive anything for writing about his book. Despite its foreboding title, I found The Hacking of the American Mind to be quite optimistic, given its informative contents. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in living a happier, healthier, more purposeful life. This recent interview with Dr. Lustig summarizes it nicely. He also narrates the audiobook, which I recommend.


About the Author

Gabriel Kauper

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