Is it good or bad to seek pleasure?

Everyone loves to experience pleasure; after all, it feels good doesn’t it? Advertisers know this and flaunt it with ubiquitous campaigns that offer a life filled with desirable experiences. New and exciting sensations are displayed as the way to live a happy life, as solutions to problems, as an escape from monotony. However, there are some risks involved in a hedonistic pursuit of pleasures and it is problematic whether short-term pleasures can contribute to long-term happiness.

A never-ending itch

One of the pitfalls in pursuing pleasure is it lasts for only a short time and its effects wear off fairly quickly, which leads you to look for the next fun thing to do … and then the next … “It’s called hedonic adaptation”, says yoga teacher and therapist Nikola Ellis. “It’s something that applies to extrinsic experiences — when we look for things outside of ourselves for entertainment or stimulation. The most obvious example of that would be drug use or alcohol. You have a drink and you start to feel merry and you have another one and you feel merrier and you keep going until you’re completely drunk.

“It’s the same with people who have addictions, whether it be drugs, alcohol, sex or even technology. What may have started off as a pleasurable hit, the next time you do it, doesn’t give the same pleasure because you’ve adapted to a level of intensity and you need to go one further. There is a famous text written by Patañjali called the Yoga Sutras and it’s what all modern yoga is based on. In the text, Patañjali writes about the causes of suffering, one them being trying to repeat pleasurable experiences. So this is a text that’s two-and-a-half thousand years old and it’s talking about hedonic adaptation!”

“There are chemicals called opioids in your brain that fire when you like something, and dopamine, which fires when you want something,” says Dan Weijers, philosopher at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. “With certain kinds of addictive behaviours dopamine fires a lot and makes you want to keep doing them, but actually you get less and less enjoyment from them, less opioid activation. So there’s a big difference between wanting to do something and enjoying doing something. When you spend all day playing poker machines, for example, you have just the right combination of things that keep you wanting to do it, but you don’t necessarily enjoy doing it.”

Separate brain mechanisms for wanting and for liking have been demonstrated in experiments with rats. “Originally, they thought that the brain had a reward centre and that if you stimulated the reward centre it would make you happy or feel pleasure. Then they got more precise,” says Weijers. “By injecting micro-canisters into specific areas of a rat’s brain, they worked out that they could stop the wanting function but leave the liking function going and vice versa. They can tell if a rat likes and enjoys something because of the behavioural response — it licks its lips. If it doesn’t like something it goes “agh agh”. Human babies do that as well.

“When they dulled down the wanting function and put food in front of the rat,” he continues,” it wouldn’t go for the food; it just sat there and eventually it died. But if they got the food and put it in the rat’s mouth, then it would eat it and lick its lips to show that it was enjoying it. When they did the experiment the other way around and dulled the wanting function of the rat’s brain, the rat just kept eating and eating but it would not do the licking thing to show that it liked it.”

Looking for dinosaur eggs

These experiments give us some clues to understanding the nature of pleasure, but learning also has a function because, once we identify what we like or dislike, it goes into our memory. What of continually trying out new, exciting and different short-term experiences that aren’t addictive? “It depends on the personality type,” says Weijers. “New experiences are good. They’re a chance to learn and develop and that’s usually associated with being a positive person, with being happier, whereas depression is usually associated with staying in your little bubble.

“It’s not [good] for everyone, but in general it’s a good strategy to explore new and different things. I don’t think that you adapt to the process of getting new and different experiences. I think the risk is more about always trying to do something different and then realising that you’ve never developed anything in a really big way.”

“One of the antidotes that Patañjali gives in his sutras is to pursue intrinsic challenges, ones that come from the inside,” says Ellis. “And yoga is intrinsic; you’re self-motivated to do it. Even though your reasons when you start might be extrinsic — like you want to lose weight or improve your fitness, for example — it’s an ongoing long-term challenge. Talking in 1933, Austrian psychiatrist W Beran Wolfe said, ‘If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his Garden or looking for dinosaur eggs.’ People who strive for something that is personally significant are far happier than those who don’t have strong aspirations.”

Knowing just what your aspirations are can be where you get stuck. Weijers says, “When you’re pursuing happiness right in front of you, you don’t think so much about the future and the consequences. Most people don’t know enough about what makes them happy in the long term. People have a good idea about what makes them happy in the short term but not the long term.”

Ellis agrees: “Finding authentic goals or activities is the fundamental teaching of yoga. You learn to still the fluctuations of the mind and, once you do that, you experience yourself as you really are. You let go of all the things you think you know about yourself, what other people have told you and the patterns you have grown up with.”

A sense of worthiness

Ellis continues, “When you follow goals or activities that are aligned with your values, you’re more likely to continue doing those things. You’re also more likely to gain lasting wellbeing and happiness from doing them. You need an ongoing challenge that asks you to discover new strengths and develop new skills and then bring those into social contact with other people.”

Lisa Williams, psychology lecturer at the University of New South Wales, has done some research into pride. “I developed the idea that maybe pride is the emotion that helps you to go after those things that require effort and push past initial failure. My colleagues and I got participants to do an ability assessment task, which we tell them is very important. When it’s completed we give them a bit of a verbal pat on the back. We say, ‘You got a score in the 94th percentile. Great job. That’s one of the highest scores we’ve seen. That way, we develop a sense of pride in the participants.

“We found that participants who were made to feel proud persevered significantly longer on a second, more difficult task than those who were simply made to feel positive in the moment. That was our first evidence that pride can be adaptive and that’s important because long-term goals are important. You can’t simply go about your life pursuing the things that make you happy now.

“But then we wanted to throw pride into a social interaction,” continues Williams, “because we know that relationships with others are also important and we also know that pride has negative connotations. So we did an experiment whereby we put the individual participants who were feeling proud into a group and had the whole group try to solve a puzzle together. And, sure enough, the person who was made to feel proud earlier was rated as the most likeable in the group. It seems, then, that pride is positive where there is justification for it, which is in opposition to pride that is not grounded in a particular success and results in arrogance and over-confidence.”

Says Weijer, “There are also theories about building stocks of happiness which make you more resilient to shocks. And if you just have lots of good experiences, then it puts you in a good mood at the time, which makes you more likely to take positive behaviours directly after that. And those behaviours are more likely to make you happy in terms of putting yourself in a positive cycle by doing those fun things in the moment for their own sake.

“If you want total happiness — feeling good, but also being satisfied and feeling like your life has value — you need a certain amount of security in terms of health and, most importantly, having a solid base of at least one but preferably five strong relationships. That way you have a kind of social security. If you can keep those things constant for a good part of your life, you can still explore different things all the time and maybe that would a good happiness strategy for a lot of people.”


Penny Robertshawe is a freelance writer based in Sydney.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

You May Also Like

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 24t110216.057

What to eat for balanced emotions

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 17t143950.232

Inside the spirituality database

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 26t150353.669

The Positive Power of Pets

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (2)

Soothing Inflamed Brains