In Depth

Happiness vs Pleasure: the sad legacy of Hugh Hefner

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Happiness versus pleasure? Hugh Hefner? These might seem strange topics to cover on a food/lifestyle blog that promotes human wellness, but I promise it’s relevant…

Hugh Hefner’s legacy and interpretation of human relationships bothers me. On one hand, I’m happy to live in a society that affords the freedoms necessary for consenting adults to objectify each other or turn themselves into a sexual product – so long as that’s not a decision that’s being forced upon them.

On the other hand, it’s incumbent on others in an open society to analyze, understand, and share critiques of a “Hefneresque” interpretation that makes choosing such interpretations less desirable to other people.

Love vs lust, happiness vs pleasure: what’s the difference? 

Words can convey powerful distinctions, and in some cases, individual words actually speak to unique biochemical responses in our brains. Here are some words to consider: love versus lust; happiness versus pleasure. The meaning of these words is often conflated, but they’re quite distinct and denote different physiological responses in our brains.

Your nucleus accumbens is the reward center of your brain. When you look at porn, snort cocaine, eat junk food, etc. it releases a huge load of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes our brains go haywire with the immediate sense of pleasure. Lots of it. We want more of it.

Without understanding what’s happening or exercising discipline, we pursue that dopamine hit again and again, but a problem happens…

Your brain downregulates those dopamine signals, meaning you have to keep taking larger, more frequent doses of that thing in order to get the same dopamine response/sense of pleasure.

This is how people develop addictions to things that trigger a large dopamine response. In short: they’re consumed by pursuing immediate pleasure, rather than happiness.

What is happiness?

Happiness is a sense of well-being and personal meaning that’s long-lasting. You have to develop it. It takes work and thought. 

Happiness doesn’t give your brain a huge hit of dopamine; instead it produces low sustained doses of serotonin. Happiness is the feeling you get when you look at your spouse and are swept over by joy at how much you love them. You don’t get addicted to serotonin, even though it feels incredible.

An addictive life is not a happy life

Hefner pursued and promoted sex and pornography addictions. He became rich from it.

Personally, I find that as awful as the people who get rich from selling cocaine or Big Macs or sugar soda. (Ironically, Coke uses the hashtag #choosehappiness while they refer to their best customers as “heavy users” and cause hundreds of billions of dollars worth of health problems.)

If your success is dependent on degrading human potential and causing harm, I don’t want you to be successful. Whatever financial success you achieve comes at a high cost to others. 

How do individuals living in free, open societies defend themselves against toxic ideas and addictions? 

Now the bigger question is how do we defend ourselves against such toxic products and ideas in an open society?

Certainly, public policy has a role to play. Taxation, age limits, use restrictions, etc.

However, no matter what policies we implement, individuals will still have to make good, rational choices for themselves, or act in our “enlightened self-interest.”

We might like to think that religiosity could inoculate individuals against these addictive tendencies, but unfortunately the data indicates otherwise: fundamentalists consume more porn and are more obese than the general population.

I think the reason for this is they’re prescribing a form of legalism without meaning. The directives are not truly internalized.

An external moral commandment means nothing when you’re alone in your room in front of a computer or hungry at night driving past a fast food restaurant or sitting in front of a bottle of liquor alone after an emotionally challenging day.

However, if you know how your brain works and you’ve made it a goal to pursue happiness instead of pleasure, love instead of lust, you’ll be less prone to succumb to short-term pleasures that lead to long-term unhappiness. You’ll know how you work. More importantly, you’ll know how you want to make yourself work, rather than being easily hacked by people who benefit financially from your poor choices or addictions.

That means we need public awareness. That means we need science and business education that also speaks to ethics. That means we publicly call out people and companies that degrade us whenever and wherever we see them.

I’d like to challenge you to choose to pursue happiness, while understanding why and how you’re doing it. You’ll be glad you did. #IChooseHappiness


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