Pleasure, the Spice of Life
When we think of happiness we often associate it with pleasure. Pleasure is the spice of life. We are all drawn to pleasurable activities. One way of defining something as pleasurable is that you would want more of it. Pleasures comes in may different forms. There are the raw sensual pleasures associated to taste, touch, or smell. We all enjoy tasty foods; we are turned on by gentle physical touch or sexual stimulation; we are drawn to the smell of a flower or freshly baked bread. Other pleasures are less physical, like the enjoyment of a beautiful sunset, hearing great music, or remembering a special moment with a loved one. Life without pleasure would be dull.
The problem with pleasure is that it is fleeting. Human beings are designed to adapt to their environment. If we live in a big city we learn to tune out the many background noises. If we are traveling the same road all the time we stop paying close attention to the scenery and go on automatic pilot. Adapting is a good thing in many ways, as it allows us to free up attention to focus on other things. However, it also creates problems for us when it comes to pleasure because we adapt to that too. The tenth spoonful of ice cream is not going to be as sweet as the first one was. Buying the new car, the new flat screened TV, and the big house are nice- for awhile. But then we start taking them for granted and need to get something else to have the same experience again. This leads to something called the hedonic treadmill: having to do more of something to continue to get pleasure.
The Dark Side of Pleasure
The dark side of pleasure is addiction. Because we tend to adapt to pleasures, to continue getting pleasure from an activity we need more and more of it, or more intense versions. People who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, overeating, shopping, etc, all started out getting pleasure from their activities. Over time, to counter the effects of adaptation, they had to do more and more to get the same level of pleasure. David J. Linden in his book, The Compass of Pleasure, describes that with addictions things get to the point where the person's capacity to experience pleasure gets worn out, they are less capable of experiencing simple pleasures, and need increasing amounts of whatever they are addicted to to feel any pleasure at all. This leads to needing to do more and more but getting less and less from it. Eventually the addicted person needs their addiction just to feel normal, and this only lasts as long as they are using.
I believe that few of us would want to experience only pleasure all the time. Many of the things we value require postponing immediate pleasure to achieve a later reward. If we only sought pleasure our lives would eventually become devoid off all activities we normally see as meaningful. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 are two novels that explore a world focused on pleasure and I believe few of us would want to end up in the societies these stories describe. A life of only pleasure would probably be pretty dull too.
What Would Goldilocks Do?
In the classic fairy tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks ventures out and come upon the home of the three bears. She goes inside and sees three bowls of porridge on the table. She tries each one and discovers that one is too hot, another is too cold, but the third is just right, and she enjoys that one. She goes on and practices the same approach to deciding on a chair to sit in and a bed to sleep in. What does this teach us? First of all, venture out! Do different things. Having variety in our lives counters the tendency to adapt to our pleasures. Second, we need to pay attention, notice what we are doing. Goldilocks was mindful of what she did, she took the time to taste the different bowls of porridge. We need to slow down and pay attention. Our lives are filled with potentially pleasurable experiences if we just stop to notice them. Lastly we need to seek some moderation in our pleasures. We don't want to eliminate pleasure but we also don't want to over-do it either. We need to look for what is “just right” for us.
Martin Seligman Ph.D., one of the leading researchers and champions of Positive Psychology, in his book Authentic Happiness talks about how we can expand what he calls the Pleasant Life. He suggests that we can learn how to take the sting out of the past through forgiveness, increase our enjoyment of the present through mindfulness and gratitude, and improve our perspective of the future through cultivating optimism. So stay tuned, I will be covering these approaches and much more in future blogs.
So enjoy, until next time,