Pleasure versus Happiness: Raising Joyful Children

Are pleasure and happiness the same?

What would you say the similarities are and how might they be different?

Children often see pleasure and happiness as one in the same. If they can have a yummy ice cream cone (a pleasure filled treat), they are happy. If they can play an extra hour of video games (pleasurable activity), they are happy. If they can sleep in an extra hour (pleasurable experience), they are happy … or so they tell themselves.

What happens when parents set boundaries on pleasurable things like dessert, videogames, and wake up times? How does your child respond when you redirect them to stop playing videogames and start their homework? What happens to their experience of happiness? 

Do your kids protest and / or tantrum when these boundaries are set? How do they view you as the boundary setter? 

Many children look at the parent(s) as a ‘buzz kill.’ By setting clear and firm limits, they see you as keeping them from doing something that makes them happy. Younger children often tantrum when boundaries keep them from pleasurable activities. With older kids, you may have heard things like, “You take the fun out of everything” or “You make me so mad … none of my friends’ parents have these ancient rules … you are so unfair.”  These common reactions reflect a battle of wants versus needs (this will be covered in a future blog).

A defining feature of maturity is being able to differentiate between happiness and pleasure. Pleasure involves a short term positive experience. Fueling this positive experience is often a release of brain chemicals (dopamine and serotonin). This makes the pleasurable experience not only emotionally reinforcing, but also biologically reinforcing. However, once the experience is over, so is the pleasure. 

Happiness, on the other hand, goes beyond a pleasurable experience. It is a longer lasting, more sustainable experience that is not situationally dependent. It involves thinking more about the bigger picture. For example, the idea of doing homework instead of a videogame is not pleasurable in the moment, but the child understands that this is needed in order for continued and sustainable happiness.

Emotional maturity helps foster happiness. Though many kids do not like giving up videogames for homework, those that are able to put their needs before their wants are often happier kids. 

So, how can we help our kids mature and discern between pleasure and happiness?

Here are some practical tips and suggestions:

  • Anticipate that your kids will experience boundaries as a form of rejection of what they want to do. This experience may lead them to feel like you are keeping them from feeling ‘good’ or ‘happy’
  • Teach your children about the process of emotional maturity. Help them see that part of growing up and experiencing long standing happiness involves doing what is needed before what one wants to do.
  • As a parent, remember emotional maturity is a process AND takes time. Do not force this process. 
  • Validate your child’s emotions as they struggle with becoming more mature. 
    • If your child protests boundaries on things they find pleasurable, validate such emotion – remember validating their emotion / experience does not mean you are validating their behavior.
  • Talk with your partner or a trusted family member about what emotional maturity means to you.
  • Praise your child when they show signs of being more emotionally mature. 
    • Many kids are not able to make the connection that emotional maturity leads to sustainable happiness.

If you are interested in more information on this topic, please check out the book, Values Grounded Parenting: A Framework for Raising Healthy Children.


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