Joy vs. Pleasure

Opinion by Alex Bayer
May 20, 2013, 11:01 a.m.

What if we managed to turn a blind eye to suffering, let ourselves fall into an electro trance with the help of some chemicals? We would no doubt experience something tantamount to joy. But would it be the same joy you might feel as you finally kiss the person you have secretly loved for two years? Would joy amongst nightclub strangers be the same joy experienced amongst your closest friends in the same nightclub? I say there are different degrees of joy, and the more hard-earned a moment of joy, the more expansive and blissful it is. Zadie Smith writes a great essay on the difference between pleasure and joy. Pleasure can be found quite easily: in a sensation of warmth, a cookie, a hug. I would say “living mindfully” or “in the moment” is a matter of turning insignificant moments into a series of pleasures.

My own experience tells me that joy is much harder to capture. It arrives rarely, unexpectedly, and it is the product, perhaps, of many pleasurable threads coalescing at once. So the point is: joy is a build-up. I still remember, distinctly, a rush of joy as I walked into the Sydney airport after a three-week student trip in Australia. Why joy? It was the sum of many parts: perhaps the thought of dancing with my tween crush last night, the the feeling of being abroad, the wildly promising knowledge that there was a world, full of hope and novelty, beyond the iron bars of middle school.

But such joy would only be possible if I knew what it was like to hate middle school repression, for there would be no bliss in encountering a free world’s possibilities if in fact I had no concept of an insular, repressed one. Likewise, there would be far less bliss in dancing with the boy I liked if it were not preceded by two weeks of stifled, unspoken attraction – and far less bliss if in fact I had never previously known the sting of not being liked back. Does a child, who has no concept of pain, experience never-ending joy throughout childhood? I certainly was happy as a child, but happiness, like pleasure, can exist without ever having suffered. Joy is joy because it is earned; to get there, you’ve got to know its antithesis. To revel in being loved, you must know how it feels to be rejected. To stand on stage with an Oscar in your hand and feel pure elation, you’ve got to know what it feels like to feel unworthy and untalented. Depression, darkness – these make the reverse proportionally more elevating. Thus one can never experience the heights of joy without venturing into the depths of misery.

But all this is easier said than done. When you’re down in the dumps, you wonder if the few and fleeting moments of bliss make it worth it. But let’s return to the dance floor, where joy, it seems, flows to no end. But the catch is this: We mistake what is actually a monotonous stream of pleasure for a joy. A stream of pleasure is very different. If you think of joy and depression as the opposite spectrums of a pendulum, I would even argue that constant, static pleasure precludes the chance of achieving joy.

Callicles and Nietzsche may refute me. A life of ongoing hollow pleasure, he may say, is better than a life of sorrowful contemplation sprinkled with but a few moments of joy. I would still take the second option, and though some may not, I imagine most people would do the same as me. This pursuit of joy, I would even hypothesize, is what moves us. For why else would we allow ourselves to fall in love, knowing full well that more than likely there is a horrible break-up at the end, that the person you love most may wind up being a perfect stranger? Who would take this risk if not promised those moments of unequaled joy found only in mutual love? Who on earth would climb Mount Everest, expose oneself to ungodly wind-chill, potentially lose a limb to frostbite (or else fall off a cliff), if it weren’t for that moment of joy at the summit? At any moment, we could reach for immediate pleasure (sex, drugs, donuts), but human history shows that we voluntarily suffer and endure because we know that the light at the end of the tunnel possesses a pleasure of a different species, fantastic enough to justify all the suffering that came before it.

Contact Alex at [email protected].

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