If the boffins of the world were able to invent a machine that magically pulled everyone’s desires from their heads, analysis would likely show a motivating force more prevalent than anything else: pleasure. It pervades and influences much of our lives, acting as a primary catalyst for seeking out thrilling sex, delicious food, hypnotic music, and a glut of other experiences too numerous to mention. Sigmund Freud, the pioneering psychoanalyst who may have been a little too enamoured with his mother, developed a “pleasure principle” theory which posited that people have an innate desire to seek pleasure, and avoid pain. His insights demonstrate that pleasure is a huge and inescapable driving force in our lives.
Leap back a couple of millennia, and observe a philosophy that had pleasure as its primary goal: hedonism.
“Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night […] These things alone are the concern of men.” – Siduri
The hedonists believed pleasure to be the highest good, and a legitimate goal of human life. This might be construed as a mortally selfish philosophy, but social obligation and altruism were still considered important, containing hedonistic value in themselves. The world’s most famous wanderers – the Jews – also believed that mankind was created for pleasure, with “Eden” being a translation of the Hebrew word for it. This is the reason that God placed Adam and Eve in the perpetually pleasurable and shameless Garden of Eden. If it wasn’t for that pesky danger noodle sweetly hissing into Eve’s ear, we might not have ended up in such a terrible mess.
In many people’s minds, pleasure is synonymous with all things good. It’s the toothy grin that appears on your face whenever presented with a freshly roasted joint of lamb; the satisfaction that follows after realising that you’ve created an excellent piece of work; the erection that springs to life when presented with something soft and curvy. All truly awesome experiences, to be sought after and savoured. The problem occurs with imbalance, when your primary aim is solely pleasure and nothing else. Attempting to shut out every other emotion aside from pleasure is laughably foolish, sickeningly unhealthy, and completely unrealistic. Our minds and bodies are magnificently complex; we’re equipped to experience a huge range of astonishing, varied emotions, including those interpreted as negative. Many of these unfavourable emotions have a immense measure of utility, which if we just looked a little closer, could be employed to our advantage. Attempting to live your life at one end of the scale just results in disillusionment and burnout. You must take the good with the bad.
“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death’?” – Nietzsche
Pleasure and displeasure; joy and suffering; up and down – these aren’t mortal-enemy dichotomies, they’re part of a single, unbreakable scale. It’s impossible to eliminate one without the other. Remove pleasure, and displeasure must go along with it. What a dreadfully boring, grey world we’d live in if we just experienced pleasure and it’s accompanying emotions. It’s a place similar to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, a society in which negative experience is expelled, but at the expense of truth; of how our lives should be honestly lived.
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
A modern version of this idea can be found in the movie Demolition Man, which takes place in a “happy joy joy” dystopian future. Ironically, the entire movie is a gluttonous guilty pleasure.
One of the biggest issues to arise out of pleasure seeking at all costs is economic materialism. Buying stuff provides us with temporary pleasure, and this drives our capitalist economy at an increasingly devastating environmental cost. The relentless warnings from the scientific community don’t appear to be loud enough for our selfish ears, not when there’s pleasure to be had. How did humanity ever reach such a disturbing level of ignorance? The tipping point that we’ve reached can no longer be disregarded, and unless curbed, our greedy, implacable pursuit of pleasure will be what pushes us to self-destruction. Not only is this obviously our most foolish mistake, it’s also completely misguided, because accumulating more and more stuff has shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. Hungarian economist Tibor Scitovsky named this a “joyless economy”, in which people eternally chase after comforts, to the detriment of happiness. Research also suggests that when we deny ourselves a pleasure, the next time that we obtain it, we savour it much more. You’ll appreciate your delicious coffee more intensely if you can muster the willpower to have it just once a week. By curbing our substantial impulses towards pleasure, we’re not only making ourselves happier, but we’re saving our planet in the process. This isn’t to suggest that we should become hunger-ravaged ascetics, holding a firm hand up against every possible pleasure that appears before us, but instead take a more cautionary approach in our lives, and consider your own happiness before dive-bombing into temptation. Your life probably wouldn’t be better if it included a petrol-guzzling V8, regardless of the narcissistic pride you might feel when your arm is perched out of its side-window. Neither will it be measurably improved with a pair of fetching designer glasses. These things are ultimately worthless, and just for show.
Pleasure is a good thing when pursued at a healthy and responsible level. Life would be much less exciting without it. But when it presents itself before us, we must have the mindfulness to pause for a moment and consider whether it’s good for us and our planet in the long-run. We have a choice to make: voracious in-the-moment pleasure, or a balanced forgoing that could slowly tip the environmental scales back in our favour, ensuring our continued existence on this glorious planet.
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