Vedana. What is pleasure in Buddhism? Having some doubts with the teachings on vedana after re-reading Plato

I recently watched an interview (Hacking the American Mind) with Robert Lustig (an endocrinologist at U.C. San Francisco). His view is that society has conflated pleasure and happiness.

He defines some qualities of pleasure: short lived, visceral, involves taking, can be obtained with substances, can lead to addiction.
Happiness on the other hand is: long lived, ethereal, involves giving, cannot be obtained with substances, does not lead to addiction.

From the perspective of our brain chemistry he says that pleasure seeking stimulates the production of dopamine where as cultivating happiness increases serotonin. Increasing dopamine down-regulates serotonin so the more we engage in pleasure seeking behaviors, the less happy we become.

I think in Buddhism, sensual pleasures, or worldly pleasures equates with Lustig’s use of pleasure. These days that would include everything from drugs to food to social media. Any kind of stimulation we seek that becomes addictive. While ‘unworldly pleasures’ refers to a more refined or rarefied version of Lustig’s happiness. Some years ago I read an article on Positive Psychology where they stated that the highest form of happiness for people was found through generosity. It is interesting that this is where the Buddhist path essentially begins.

So it may be that the pleasurable feeling that lingers after a good meditation is long lived happiness and not a pleasure (using Lustig’s definitions).


Vedana is unfortunately usually translated as “feeling,” but I tend to think of it as reactivity - something happens, you react immediately and always, with “want it,” “don’t want it,” or with total ignorance, BUT you DO react each and every time (as right now!). Then you try it out with perception - “what do I know about this, how can I use it.”

Many have reacted with relief upon seeing and working with this chart by Andrew Olendzki:

Best wishes and much metta, Fred


Thanks, that’s interesting. I thought of happiness as pleasurable mental vedana (for Buddhism - as far as philosophers are concerned they give different definitions depending on their theories) but I’ll reflect on this definition by Lustig. I must say I am not really a fan of his; his campaign against sugar and refined food is probably useful but I think everybody knows that these are bad for us. When you go more into the details of what he says it becomes more dubious. For example on one occasion (I think at the end of his talk at Google(?)) he said that the amount of sugar contained in different fruits is proportional to the fiber they contain, the only outlier being raisins. I researched this and it seems totally inaccurate; actually plainly false. On another occasion in conversation with Peter Attia he spoke against high levels of uric acid. It’s true that with high uric acid you have a higher chance of getting gout, but you also have a lower chance of getting multiple schlerosis. So he has lost some of his credibility with me; it seems to me that besides the obvious truths that sugar, fizzy drinks and refined foods are bad, most of the other statements made by him (or other nutrition experts) seem to me quite dubious since the truth is more nuanced and complicated than they make it appear.

I think this is often the case with any specialized area of study (EBT’s included). The main take-away for me from his talks was to eat real food and avoid anything that comes out of a factory. I thought I was eating very healthy but made this change about 6 months ago and within 3 weeks my many years long encounter with high blood pressure disappeared. I agree with you that most people already know that sugar and refined foods are bad but I think it is kind of like in the late 60’s and 70’s how everybody knew how bad smoking was - but many did it anyway. I don’t think we really understand just how vast the problem is right now - how crippling the costs are and how many diseases are related to processed foods and sugar.

But the reason I brought this up is because I think he points out how our society, our culture is engaged in creating and strengthening addictive behaviors in every way it can - simply because it is very profitable. And I don’t think this is hard to see if we stay vigilant and try to catch ourselves falling into these traps. My sense is that if something causes agitation and restlessness as a result of not having it - and that could be tv, some new consumer item, an on-line game, facebook, food, etc. - then right there is stress that makes happiness and contentment all the harder to cultivate. The proof of the pudding is in not eating it? I was out camping a couple of weeks ago and I found myself thinking ‘where can I go that will still have a good data connection’ - that’s pathetic!