Are You Ready to Get Off the Happiness Treadmill?

Written by on December 3, 2017 in Self-Awareness



It recently occurred to me that happiness is a lot like Chinese food. No really, think about it. We enjoy moments of happiness, but that feeling doesn’t last, and soon we’re hungry for more.

In fact, once our basic needs are met achieving more of this elusive state is the single most persistent motivator behind the choices we make in life.

The curious thing is that as central to our lives as the pursuit of happiness is, few of us ever take the time to define what it will actually take to achieve it, or what our lives will look and feel like once we do.

Just for fun, try searching the online for images under the term “happiness” and you’ll find people cheerfully sharing a meal, laughing and having fun, jumping up in the air with their arms outstretched or running through a field hauling a bunch of balloons behind them.

These images are intended to symbolize what happiness looks and feels like, but in reality, they represent something very different – short-term pleasure.

And here’s why this should matter to you.

Understanding that there is a BIG difference between pleasure and happiness is the secret to finally getting off the pursuit-of-happiness treadmill.

Pleasure comes from something on the outside. Happiness comes from within. It’s a state you create by choice. It’s a decision. It is an act of will. ~Robin Sharma

How Pleasure Differs from Happiness

We experience feelings of happiness from pleasurable moments — a good meal with friends, a raise, taking a walk in nature and so on, but as enjoyable as these experiences are, they are not lasting.

The basic difference is that pleasure is dependent on external circumstances, objects, and people, while happiness is independent of them.

For example, have you ever felt down in the dumps and in an effort to cheer yourself up ate a pint of ice cream or some other normally forbidden goodie?

You probably felt great pleasure while eating this tasty treat, but in the end, you were still unhappy.

Another example is when you see someone who appears to have it all, happy marriage, a nice house, fulfilling career, etc., and you think to yourself, “If I had all of those things I’d be happy too!” 

This is how you get on the treadmill, always thinking that you need to have certain things, people or circumstances in your life in order to experience genuine happiness.

Sadly, many people never realize until late in life that they’ve been chasing a prize that was within them all along.

How Do You Define Your Happiness?

Our individual triggers for happiness are highly subjective and as varied as fingerprints, but there are fundamental basics for sustainable happiness that defy our individual and cultural differences.

It really comes down to the way you choose to live.

A significant factor is autonomy, a sense of control over one’s own life. Note I said a “sense” of control, rather than actual control. This is about believing you have the ability to determine the quality and course of your life, and that comes from taking responsibility for your choices as well as the consequences.

It also has a lot to do with the way you respond to life’s challenges.

Facing your problems head-on rather than settling for quick fixes, and accepting that change and adversity are neither good nor bad, but rather simply life’s way of offering you a new opportunity to grow and thrive.

Most importantly, it’s choosing to live a life of meaning and purpose that is in alignment with your values.

Happiness is a choice, not a result. Nothing will make you happy until you choose to be happy. Your happiness will not come to you. It can only come from within you. ~Ralph Marston

In other words, sustainable happiness is about focusing on being more rather than having more.

Will you be the passenger or the driver in your life journey?
About Marquita A. Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living click here.


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  1. Joy Healey

    Funnily enough, I just wrote about me being grumpy when I have no right to be.

    On a related topic, my Dad ran a shop for many years and one of his favorite sayings was “People think they’re enjoying themselves but they’re just spending money”. I didn’t understand it until I was much older.

    Great post – thanks.

    Joy Healey – Blogging After Dark

  2. Welcome and thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us Happy – great name!

  3. That’s a great reminder. It’s easy to forget some of the nuances of happiness vs pleasure. Since we want both, it can feel unimportant to separate them in our minds, but they’re not equal. As a person whose first name is “Happy”, I give a lot of thought to this subject. Good contribution to the conversation.

  4. You bring up a couple of good points William. There is plenty of research that points to the fact that we do experience a greater level of contentment as we grow older. My personal opinion is that a lot of that has to do with giving up the pursuit of many things that seemed so important when were younger. Anyway, to your point about which comes first, pleasure or happiness. There is no question that when you are genuinely happy you’re more open to experiencing pleasure in the simpler things in life. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who are miserable and still manage to experience great pleasure – albeit short-lived – from having lots of stuff in their lives. This is the whole point of the treadmill metaphor. Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation!

  5. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us Jordan!

  6. Hehe, I”m glad you liked that RoseMary. 🙂

  7. I’m glad you enjoyed the post Sonal. 🙂

  8. William Rusho

    It does bring up some questions, Do pleasurable moments bring happiness, or does happiness bring pleasurable moments? I think as you stated, hapiness does not need good things to happen to be there.
    For me, I think back in my military days. It was the hardest work I ever did, and dangerous. And looking back was one of the happiest times of my life.
    Now that I am older, no matter how a bad day I had, I am happy. I think I realize it is easier to be happy, and nicer to be around, then angry or upset.

  9. Jordan Ring

    Are you the passenger or the driver in your life journey?

    I definitely used to be a passenger up until a few years ago. I am still digging myself out of the trouble that was caused by being on autopilot for so long… Now, I am in charge of my perspective and make it a goal every day to seek my potential.

  10. Glad I waited until today to read this because I woke up early, which was great, read a bible study, which was inspiring … but after I rolled out of bed, I was grouchy. No good reason. I smacked myself around a few times and said: You’ve got everything to be happy about–so there you are. I think!

    PS. Totally cracking up about the Chinese food analogy–you are so right! And how I love to dine upon it.
    RoseMary Griffith recently posted…Christmas Stroll – Red Lodge, MontanaMy Profile

  11. Sonal Talwar

    Hi Marquita
    Great post!
    enjoyed reading it. It is thought provoking. We need to understand the difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is short-lived. Happiness is long lasting.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Sonal Talwar recently posted…14 Amazing Health Benefits of Cinnamon and HoneyMy Profile

  12. Oh Debra, what a terrific story! I could not agree more with your point about how we handle life’s challenges being the key. Several years ago I found myself having to visit a doctor in Honolulu on a weekly basis and it was just the most depressing place because people didn’t go there unless they had serious problems. So I made it my goal to cheer everyone up so I started bringing homemade chocolate chip cookies and little bunches of flowers and chatting up the other patients while we waited for the doc. It not only made them feel better, it made me feel better and laughing is truly one of the great medicines of all time. Thanks so much for sharing your beautiful story with us. 🙂

  13. Debra Yearwood

    What a great post! I have never run through a field with balloons in my hand, yet I consider myself a happy person. I think how you handle the challenges that life gives you is the biggest indicator of your happiness not how many awesome things you.

    Last year I wanted to set the tone for the year by having a perfect January 1st. I had left my job and was contemplating my next steps so I wanted to be super positive. Instead, our basement flooded and the grossest things backed up into the basement. Our puppy was put outside while the plumbers tried to find the problem. When he came in we discovered that he had found a patch in the garden where the snow had melted. Unsupervised he dug in the dirt to his heart’s content. By the time we could bring him in he was covered in mud. Of course, the plumbers could not fix the problem and so we had no water to clean him. The kitchen, where we had to keep him was vying for the basement for worst place in the house by the end of the night.

    We had to stay in a hotel. Sitting in our hotel room with our unimpressed teenage daughter (my son took off to a friend’s house) My husband and I looked at each other and laughed.

  14. Your examples are spot on Donna, all of them. Even though they surely contribute to your happiness, things like a walk with your husband and petting your dog are moments of pleasure because they depend on external circumstances, objects and people. People who don’t have a nice house, fulfilling work, a loving spouse, or a close family, etc., see such things as the source of happiness and that’s precisely how they end up on a treadmill forever pursuing external sources of stimuli in the false belief that once they have them they will also be happy. This is why you hear people who achieve their goals asking “Is this all there is?” Thanks so much for taking the time to contribute to the conversation. 🙂

  15. Donna Merrill

    Hi Marquita,

    There sure is a difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is eating a good meal, buying new shoes, etc. Whereby happiness is long lasting.

    Once we take control of our lives (a lesson that took me a long time to learn) and take responsibility of our choices made, happiness will creep in.

    To me happiness, is like contentment. It something that slows you down and makes you appreciate the moment. A blue sky, a forest, holding hands with your husband, and petting my dogs. It is something that fills your heart with joy all during the day.

    That’s my two cents 🙂

    Donna Merrill recently posted…The Best 3 Ways To Get Your Blog NoticedMy Profile

  16. You’re messing with my mind now Phoenicia. Let’s back up. The point of the post is to clarify the difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is temporary, on the other hand, if you do it right, happiness is sustainable. I am aware that the lines between the emotions of pleasure, happiness, and joy are often blurred, with the possible exception of the Bible. I based my article on psychological studies where more often than not joy is referred to simply as an intense, less common, level of happiness. I chose intentionally not to go into the issue of blurred lines to prevent confusion and because the truth is the “words” don’t matter as much as understanding that the ability to feel good about life regardless of circumstances comes from within rather than being based on external circumstances, people, and objects. Not bad considering I haven’t had my first cup of coffee yet! Thanks my friend. 🙂

  17. Phoenicia

    I too believe happiness is short lived. Joy stays with you as it is from within and so much more than a feeling, more of a knowing. Some pursue happiness and they look for people to fill the void or perhaps an event or a purchase. It then becomes a constant pursuit of happiness.

    Society today places a lot of emphasis on consumerism. People believe once they have the house, car, long haul holiday, gadgets etc then they will finally be happy. We only have to look at the rich and famous to remind us this is simply not true.
    Phoenicia recently posted…Turn your challenges to good!My Profile

  18. I know it’s been a journey and a half for you Jeri, but I have to say that it’s been a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to follow along on as you continue to grow and come into your own. Thanks for sharing with us, always appreciated.

  19. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us Jeannette, always appreciated.

  20. Thanks for contributing to the conversation Elise!

  21. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us Doreen, always appreciated! 🙂

  22. Glad you enjoyed the article Mark! Hopefully readers will take away that pleasure enriches our lives, but it is temporary and if we base our concept of happiness on it we’ll forever be searching for that next thing to make us feel good. 🙂

  23. Jeri

    I’m getting better at driving my life all the time. I hate that word codependent, but that’s one of my core issues. I’m getting better at being more responsible for my own happiness in sustainable and healthy ways.

  24. Jeannette Paladino

    I, too, believe happiness comes from within. That’s not to say that pleasure isn’t a contributing factor. I bought a piece of hand-blown sculpture over the weekend at a crafts fair. I had been looking for something decorative for my cocktail table. I got a lot of pleasure searching for the piece, buying it and placing it on the table. It gave me pleasure, but in and of itself it could never bring me lasting happiness. “Things” seldom bring happiness even if you have all the money in the world to buy them. Having nourishing relationships is the key to long-lasting happiness in my view.

  25. Elise Cohen Ho

    Happiness and responsibility go hand in hand, in my opinion. I feel that unless you take responsibility for your life and your choices you can never be truly happy.
    Elise Cohen Ho recently posted…Who Is Your Ideal Client? What Is Their Call To Action?My Profile

  26. Excellent post, Marty. I love your closing sentiment: “In other words, sustainable happiness is about focusing on being more rather than having more.” Sustainability is the key!
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…enter the world of chocoMe, chocolate genius from Budapest, HungaryMy Profile

  27. Mark

    This is an awesome post M!

    And I love your analogy about Chinese food!LOL! And thanks for sharing and defining, the subtle differences, between pleasure and happiness.

    Basically, it’s crucially important for us to never forget and or to take for granted, we can and must, always control what makes us happy, from the inside out.

    And not rely on external factors, which we clearly do not have 100% control of.

    Thanks for sharing another truly enlightening post M! It was truly eye opening.

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