Happiness vs. Pleasure – Needs vs. Wants

Jesus began his enlightening Sermon of the Mount with: “Blessed [or Happy] the person who…” This great Sermon, and all his teachings, is really about being happy. It is particularly attractive because this is something we all seek… we all want to be happy.

So if Christian morality and holiness are about being happy and we all seek that, then why do so few people embrace Christian morality—even among Christians? Why do so few seek holiness?

Perhaps the predominant reason is that people confuse happiness with pleasure. We say to ourselves, if I have just one more cookie… one more drink… a true romantic or sexual experience… or I really give this person a full piece of my mind (or my fist)…then the pleasure and satisfaction that it will give me will make me happy. But pleasure never does. It may give us a temporary “high,” but not permanent happiness.

A few years ago a priest shared his experience of working with young addicts. He would speak at Catholic and public schools to dissuade young people from using drugs. On one of his school visits, this priest was waiting to speak to the younger grades after having given a talk to the middle-schoolers. The principal gave him an office to work while he waited. At one point the priest got a little antsy and approached the principal: “I would like to do a little experiment with the first-graders, to see if they can tell the difference between pleasure and happiness.” The principal replied, “But they are just first-graders… they are not old enough to know that.” The visiting priest replied, “That’s why I want to do this experiment, to see if it is really true or not.” So the principal took the visiting priest to the first-grade classroom.

The first-grade teacher had a similar objection but let the priest hold forth. The priest ask the children to get out a blank piece of paper and NOT write their names on it—this was novel as they were taught that you always write your name on your paper…

Next, he asked the children to write down three things they got from their parents recently. After they finished that, he asked the children to write down the letter “P” next to the word if it gave them pleasure or the letter “H” if it made them happy. Next he asked the children to an “N” next to the word if it was something they needed and a “W” if it was something they wanted. Finally he collected the papers and thanked the children and the teacher.

The principal and the priest went back to the office to review each child’s response. Some of the things the children had received from their parents were objects: jewelry, a computer game, a toy or doll… They all had “P” for giving them pleasure, and “W” for being something they wanted. The principal and priest noted other things on the papers too: I got a hug or kiss or smile… with an “H” to say it made them happy, and an “N” for being something they needed. One child even wrote: I got a “spanking” with an “N” next to it, saying “I needed that!”

So, first-graders really can tell the difference between happiness and pleasure, between needs and wants. It is us adults (and adolescents) who so often confuse the difference. Is this not why so many find it difficult to live Christian morality, because it seems to get in the way of our pursuit of pleasure? Yet our Lord tells us that Christian morality is about what will make us truly happy, both in this life and in our life to come in heaven. Ultimate happiness will come with our love and union with God…which is what we Need.

Catholic Order of Foresters Pro Life Insurance
Father John Waiss is the pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is also a member of Opus Dei, the prelature founded by St. Josemaria Escriva.