Pleasure, and the prospect of more pleasure, are necessary for a happy and well-balanced
7 He who lives only for pleasures, and whose soul is not in harmony, who considers
not the food he eats, is idle and has not the power of virtue – such a man is moved
by MARA, is moved by selfish temptations, even as a weak tree is shaken by the wind.
8 But he who lives not for pleasures, and whose soul is in self-harmony, who eats
or fasts with moderation, and has faith and the power of virtue – this man is not
moved by temptations, as a great rock is not shaken by the wind.
Your enjoyment of the pleasures of desire,
Like drinking salt water, will never bring satisfaction.
The Lalitavistara Sutra
If we rely on pleasure to make us happy, it doesn’t work.
The pursuit of happiness written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence ... refers
to a state of satisfaction with the life one is living. This is a measurable state,
and studies show that beyond a certain basic income, material wealth carries remarkably
little weight. The standard of living has been rising steadily for decades, but
has it changed our happiness quotient? Not at all. Rather than money, success,
or fame, time spent with friends and family is what does people the most good.
Frans de Waal – “The Age of Empathy”
There’s a diversity of good things to be gotten: food, water, movement, rest, shelter,
sunshine, shade, discovery, anticipation, social interaction, play and sex. And
because gaining these goods is adaptive, evolution has equipped animals with the
capacity to experience their rewards. Like us, they are pleasure-seekers.
... there is plenty of evidence that many animals like getting stoned. Reindeer
are partial to the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom. Jake, an enormous, placid
bull, loved to sniff the fumes from the exhaust pipe of cattle farmer Rosamund Young’s
Land Rover. Elephants come running for the fermenting fruit of the marula tree,
which they can detect from 10 kilometres. Under its alcoholic spell, they will throw
the fruit at each other, and generally behave rowdily.
Among bird species known for gorging on fermenting fruits or berries, then showing
the effects of their alcoholic stupor, are waxwings and robins in North America,
and lorikeets and cockatoos in Australia. Cedar waxwings have a taste for fermenting
rowan berries. Heaps of the birds have been seen dead beneath these bushes and post
mortem examinations show they were drunk when they died and that they had acute alcoholic
liver disease. Such behavior is not likely adaptive, just as alcoholism is not in
Jonathan Balcombe, “Pleasurable Kingdom – animals and the nature of feeling good”
There are times when the attachment to pleasure can cause problems:
it may harm you or others in the short or long term.
it can prevent us from “doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done”.
if we rely on it for fulfilment, we are not fulfilled.
desire fulfilment may be used as a coping mechanism, when it may be more appropriate
just to cope.
perhaps we look for it in the wrong place, determined to get a buzz of pleasure “by
any means necessary”.
There are two kinds of pleasure: immediate (hedonic) and long-term (eudaimonic).
Eudaimonic activity involves working towards our main goals in life. Although it
may need time for our efforts to bear fruit, the process tends to bring immediate
pleasure in itself, especially if we appear to be gaining success.
Hedonic activity brings immediate pleasure. We may choose to put off hedonic activity
until a more suitable time and place.
The ability to control impulses and delay gratification is one of the hallmarks of
a mature personality and the result of a thriving reality principle.
Science tells us that the reason we ‘want’ is that we are driven by a chemical in
our brains called dopamine and when we get something we want, we reward ourselves
with a hit of it, which creates a buzz, a kick, a thrill.
– Ruby Wax, “Sane New World – taming the mind”
The sun don’t shine every day.
We can get this reward in all kinds of ways. Some are natural and adaptive, such
as achieving our goals, while some are artificial – stimulants which specifically
target the brain’s reward centre. So it follows that a good substitute for drugs
is to achieve goals. Of course, this is one of the attractions of gambling.
The promise of a dopamine hit motivates us towards a pleasurable activity. This
promise – the chase – and the reward itself, can become addictive. As soon as you
consume the reward, you want more. But over time this process becomes less novel;
the brain gets used to it, and wants more and more of that particular gratification,
like any drug addict.
This constant need for a fix to make you feel good prompts you to pursue rewards
over and over again and strengthens the behaviour that made you want to get them
in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle.
– Ruby Wax, “Sane New World – taming the mind”
It is possible to reduce our craving for something by “window shopping” – we can
promise ourselves that we may consume some of our favourite treat, not now, but later,
some time in the future. The brain then feels that the craving has been fulfilled
to some degree.
Pleasure as an existential motivation: a hypothesis
Like any biological feature which is fundamental and ubiquitous, pleasure must have
evolved because it confers an advantage in the individual’s ability to thrive, survive
The most plausible evolutionary explanation for pleasure – the way in which it confers
an evolutionary advantage to the individual – is as a motivation to stay alive and
reproduce. We are rewarded in the short term for adaptive behaviour, and motivated
in the long term.
To feel pleasure is to feel relief from hard times.
Likewise, it seems likely that pain and unhappiness function as a discouragement
against activities and states which lead away from thriving, surviving and reproducing.