Pleasure, Pleasure, Pleasure – Oh baby!

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Pleasure! - Attribution: Gabriel S. Delgado C

“I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.” – C.S. Lewis

Is there anything better than the taste of a mouth-watering steak, the feel of your partner’s bare skin, the joys of a new purchase, the elations of sex, or perhaps the euphoria created from mind altering substances? Life is filled with blissful pleasures that affect your brain in positive, and not so positive ways! How you value and utilize pleasure in your life will determine if it’s healthy… or not!

Pleasure is the zing that keeps us coming back for more. The reason we experience pleasure in the first place, is so we are rewarded for our good behaviors, or rather, what the brain thinks is good behavior. Can you imagine what the world would be like if pleasure didn’t exist? In short, you’d probably be dead, the economy would crash, and the world population would dwindle into extinction. Too dramatic? The good news is that the brain ensures we are amply juiced and encouraged to indulge in our primal survival needs of feeding and fornication. But we tend to desire much more than this, don’t we?

If I were to fully indulge myself in the topic of pleasure, I would need another website. Fortunately for you guys, I’ll be limiting it to the juicy stuff and keep it short enough for you to finish that cookie and go back for another.

Let’s dig in shall we?

 

A Simplified Example of the Pleasure Response

Bernard bought a paper and sat down for his morning coffee and donut. The newspaper’s headline read, ‘Clinton Sex Scandal’. Geez, why can’t this guy keep it in his pants? he wondered. Looking at the TV Guide section he noticed that his favorite show was on at 8pm, cool. He then proceeded to stuff his donut into his mouth just as an attractive woman was walking by. His eyes quickly chased after her only to have the strawberry filling squeeze out the back of the donut and land on his lap. Argh! He started to clean it up, but before he even finished cleaning himself he couldn’t resist taking one last glance before she passed out of view. Nice.

Isn’t it intriguing that when we see something visually appealing (or sexy), we feel the urge to look more than once? Why can’t we just hold on to the original feeling and be satisfied with it? Additionally, why does food seem to taste better when we are hungry? Why do we have to watch our weekly episode of Glee or Law and Order? Why do people cheat on their partners? So many questions, so little time.

The brain has what we call… wait for it… the pleasure pathway! The pleasure pathway is the route the brain uses to send signals that activate the pleasure response, and its primary messenger is a lovely neurotransmitter by the name of dopamine! When we have an experience worthy of pleasure, our brain releases dopamine that slides through the pathway like a 5-year-old on a slip-and-slide, hitting a ramp at the end, flying over the fence, and landing in the neighbor’s pool. All of this, just so you can feel all happy and giddy about it.

In the story, why does Bernard have the urge to look at the ‘pretty lady’ more than once? Come on now, we are all guilty of this! When his eyes see her and he likes what he sees, dopamine is released into the pleasure center of the brain and the feeling is enjoyable. Ten seconds later, Bernard’s memory of the ‘pretty lady’ doesn’t release near as much dopamine and isn’t as pleasurable; he must renew his dopamine dosage by taking another gander just in time before she leaves.

This response is the same for eating, having sex, doing drugs, etc… as well as the desire for more and more. Drugs typically have a surge or rush of dopamine which is impossible to duplicate naturally and is the culprit of their addictive qualities. The same level of pleasure can never be reached by the remembrance of the experiences. Rather, recalling the experience will remind your brain of the pleasurable reward you once received, which then engages your desire to reenact the behavior again! Additionally, the more we want it, the better it feels! That’s why donuts taste so much better in the morning after 8 hours of not eating! It’s a vicious cycle isn’t it?

We are pleasure driven beings and this can be easily seen by looking at pleasure-giving or entertainment businesses.  They do very well!

Moving on!  We know why and how we receive pleasure, but what about pleasure’s effect on the rest of the brain?

 

Pleasure Be Good, Pleasure Be Bad

Our brain loves balance. By itself, it does a pretty damn good job of it. When we interfere with the brain’s natural chemistry, we throw it off balance and the brain’s ability to adapt is engaged. Too much interference of the brain’s balance can change the expected status quo of the brain, leading the brain to believe it needs what you are giving it, whether it be cocaine… or a cookie! Once the brain believes this, it starts to cope, rebalance, and see this new ‘balance’ as normal.

So what happens when the drug (or cookie) is taken away? The brain is not able to duplicate this disruption of supply and places itself in a state of distress. Anxiety, stress, sweating, lack of mental clarity and function are all signs of this distress and the only way to put a pacifier in this brain’s mouth is to give it what it wants, OR, fight the distress for a duration of time that will cause the brain to struggle, but then return to its original balance. This is NOT an easy task, and even after recovering, the brain will always be more susceptible to the stimulus that once made it so happy (aka relapse). (And don’t get me wrong, I know a cookie and cocaine are a little bit different in terms of addiction… depends on the cookie I guess.)

So when is pleasure good? Well, it’s quite simple and I suggest you think of it this way. Pleasure is good when it promotes your overall survival, health, and brain balance. Secondly, too much of a good thing can have its consequences. So it goes back to our original primal needs of feeding and fornicating and restraining from over indulgence. On a side note, sex has so many health, emotional, and relational benefits that it borders on ridiculous – but we’ll save that for another time!

The Love of Pleasure and Loss of Happiness

Enough science, here’s some food for thought. Pleasure is not happiness. Happiness is not pleasure. Yet, some people treat pleasure as a temporary replacement for happiness. On the other hand, true happiness can increase pleasure, and pleasure can increase happiness for an otherwise happy person, but pleasure cannot create happiness from scratch. Read that a few times until it clicks! Smile (read the About Section to understand my definition of Happiness)

Think of it this way: A one night stand is temporary gratification that leaves you no happier the next day, perhaps even worse off emotionally. I’m sure some may argue this point, but then again, addicts never are able to admit it! Smile Eating that last burrito from Taco Bell does not make you any healthier, and watching another episode of ‘Lost’ will not make you smarter, even IF you think you fully understand how the Smoke Monster kills people.

Pleasure is great. But have you noticed how overt pleasure-seeking behaviors, addictions, and the need to be satiated can cause problems? There are two big problems that can arise from pleasure, the first is this:

ANY pleasure in life, when overly indulged, will always leads to pain and loss of happiness.

Think about it:

  • Eating – Yum yum. Food can be amazingly delicious and eating is a necessity, win-win! BUT, Overeating leads to obesity, clogged arteries, diminished brain function, and increased health issues.
  • Sex – Great for the body and the brain.  BUT, seeking too many partners leads to STDs, loss of relationships, and inability to control where you direct your sexual energy.
  • Drugs (including alcohol) – Not recommended, but recreational use can be managed and pleasurable. BUT, over use and abuse can lead to dependence, imbalance in the brain, and loss of family and friends. Drug-seeking becomes the primary objective in life and confuses your reality.
  • Entertainment – Can be relaxing and comforting to let go and forget about life’s complication for a while. BUT, overstimulation through entertainment leads to a lazy brain, decreased ability to focus, and the addiction to what I call the ‘What Happens Next? Syndrome’.

The second big problem, in the words of Ayn Rand:

“If ever the pleasure of one has to be bought by the pain of the other, there better be no trade at all. A trade by which one gains and the other loses is a fraud.”

This doesn’t just apply to other people, but also oneself! One can sacrifice the liver for the enjoyment of alcohol, the lungs from the pleasures of smoking, or the arteries from the excitation of overeating.

In short, if the results of acquiring pleasure have consequences and creates pain for another person (or oneself), whether it be physical or emotional, can have disastrous results and I would deem as selfish and cruel. Don’t use someone else as your own personal scratching post!

 

Summary

How lucky we are that we can experience so much pleasure in our lives! Pleasure is a powerful force that many people don’t consider something worth worrying about, or how we can fall victims of our desires. Don’t blame the brain though; he (or she) is simply doing his best to make you happy! By being aware of where our thoughts are leading, we can deduce what area of the brain they are originating from, and decide if we should follow them or not.

Enjoy life, enjoy the pleasures you are blessed with, but be sure to use the smarty-pants area of your brain and you’ll be a happy camper!

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What do you think? Does the science not align with what you believe? Can pleasure make you happy? Is pleasure not addicting?  Tell us your thoughts!

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Here are a few quotes to think about:

“Do not bite at the bait of pleasure, till you know there is no hook beneath it.” – Thomas Jefferson

“With the catching ends the pleasure of the chase” – Abraham Lincoln

“Pleasure is the greatest incentive to evil.” – Plato

“For let me tell you, that the more the pleasures of the body fade away, the greater to me is the pleasure and charm of conversation” – Plato

“Perhaps all pleasure is only relief.” – William S. Burroughs

This post was written by

Greg has written 69 articles on Student of Me.

Greg is the creator and primary writer for Student of Me. He probably spends way too much time on the computer writing, researching, programming, and working on his photography. He loves escaping from screen-time to travel, ride his motorcycle, experience the outdoors and spend time with loved ones. You can contact him at greg (at) studentofme.com!

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7 thoughts on “Pleasure, Pleasure, Pleasure – Oh baby!”

  1. musicman says:

    An interesting read. The need for moderation and balance in ones life is a concept that is becoming lost in today’s culture. A little education and internal reflection can go a long way when trying to maintain balance 🙂 oh and BTW.. I DO know how the smoke monster kills people!

    1. Greg says:

      @musicman – Yes, moderation is very very important! Today’s culture loves entertainment and distractions, and most of us need a wake-up call 😉 Thanks for sharing!

  2. Sunshine says:

    Ditto: for the above comments made by musicman..

  3. Maaike says:

    Isn’t it our lack of happiness, that makes us seek for pleasure?

    1. Greg Yung says:

      Yes and no 🙂 We all enjoy pleasure regardless of happiness levels. It’s the flavor of life that makes your brain say ‘hell ya!’. But yes, pleasure-seeking behaviors increase when we feel we are lacking in our lives, and happiness is a big hole to fill. We seek the quick fixes that allows us to feel ‘something’ that distracts us from our current woes and takes us to a ‘happy place’ that is very short-lived.

      Lack of happiness is a big reason for seeking pleasure, but is far from being the only one.

  4. Maaike says:

    And if so: do we need to say no to pleasure to be able to discover what truly makes us happy?

    1. Greg Yung says:

      That I cannot answer 😉 This is a much debated question and there is no right answer, but I’d attest that limiting your indulges definitely helps! Personally, I don’t think you CAN remove pleasure from life because pleasure is a response in the brain that is activated from life all around us – eating food, admiring beauty, going for a walk, having sex… anything in life that makes your eyes open a little wider from excitement/enjoyment.

      That being said, you can definitely separate out all the more addictive pleasures that ultimately bring you pain (specific too you alone) and say no to them – this could be ranging from the extremes of drugs, alcohol, sex to the less extreme such as chocolate, coffee, or television. Partaking in these things do not specifically hold you back from happiness as much as the reliance on any one of them.

      This is a fun question, perhaps someone else would like to share their thoughts!

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