In his book Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about two distinct types of experience that make life better: pleasure and enjoyment.


Pleasure and enjoyment

Pleasure, he explains, is a form of homeostasis. We respond to a need for something (food, water, sex, sleep), reducing a physiological imbalance. The degree to which pleasure can make our lives better is limited because in achieving pleasure we don’t grow — we simply return ourselves to balance.

Personal growth, he suggests, is vital if we’re to make our lives rewarding. Rather than simply returning ourselves to physiological balance, a person needs to “go beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieve something unexpected”.

These experiences of personal growth are what Csikszentmihalyi calls enjoyment. Unlike pleasure, enjoyment is “characterised by forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment”. Enjoyable experiences may not be particularly pleasurable as we experience them, but we’ll look back on them incredibly fondly. They leave us with lasting memories and a sense of fulfilment.


Finding enjoyment

Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t suggest that pleasure is bad but rather that it’s somewhat shallow and fleeting. Enjoyment, on the other hand, leaves a lasting footprint.

Pleasurable experiences can also be enjoyable but a degree of effort is usually required in order to experience the enjoyment. Eating, for instance, is pleasurable — you’re satisfying a biological need — but it isn’t always enjoyable. In order for it to be enjoyable, you need to exert some effort in paying enough attention to the food that you’re eating and the sensations that eating provides you with.

This level of effort isn’t always easy to achieve, particularly when our craving for simple pleasure is incredibly strong. If we’re very tired, it can be very tough to find the required effort to make a task truly enjoyable. We’re more likely to default to the pleasure of simply relaxing.

At other times, however, we may be perfectly capable of the effort but revert to simple pleasure out of habit. It might seem counterintuitive to exert effort when pleasure can be achieved with little or no effort at all. But by settling for simple pleasure we’re effectively short-changing ourselves, taking the easy option when the effortful option will ultimately be far more rewarding.


The power of self-discipline

On first glance, self-discipline can seem to be at odds with the desire to make our lives better. But the reality is that it’s a vital ingredient for achieving personal fulfilment. By developing the self-discipline to seek enjoyment in addition to pleasure, we can make our lives far more rewarding.

I’ll be using this idea as a source of some serious motivation — it’s a great reminder for those times when you know you need to sacrifice a little pleasure for some more long-term enjoyment.


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Also published on Medium.

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