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How to Think about Pleasure (psyche.co)
141 points by nkjoep on June 23, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments

Schopenhauer is instructive here. First he argues that suffering exceeds pleasure in the world:

Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.[0]

He defines pain as the 'positive' thing in our lives, pleasure being negatively marked by the absence of pain. He remarks that when we are of perfect bodily health, it is the stone in the shoe that makes its presence known, not the 1 000 000 other things that are going well. He goes on to say that if men didn't suffer ('turkeys fly around ready-roasted' -- paraphrase) they would kill themselves out of boredom.

I've found the "Penguin Great Ideas" translations of his work to be brilliant. It must be mentioned that his views on women are unfortunate, and some insight into why they are so warped might be gained by looking into his life.

[0] https://www.atlasofplaces.com/essays/on-the-sufferings-of-th...

edit: this aligns with the Vedantic definition of pleasure, as the cessation of mental agitation, where mental agitation is thought and its further expression as desire.

I'm a practicing Zen Buddhist, and the subject being discussed here definitely relates, including the Shelley quote someone put in this subthread. From https://www.lionsroar.com/what-are-the-four-noble-truths/ :

What are the four noble truths? Buddhism’s famed four truths are called noble because they liberate us from suffering. They are the Buddha’s basic teaching, encapsulating the entire Buddhist path.

1. Suffering

Life always involves suffering, in obvious and subtle forms. Even when things seem good, we always feel an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty inside.

2. The Cause of Suffering

The cause of suffering is craving and fundamental ignorance. We suffer because of our mistaken belief that we are a separate, independent, solid “I.” The painful and futile struggle to maintain this delusion of ego is known as samsara, or cyclic existence.

3. The End of Suffering

The good news is that our obscurations are temporary. They are like passing clouds that obscure the sun of our enlightened nature, which is always present. Therefore, suffering can end because our obscurations can be purified and awakened mind is always available to us.

4. The Path

By living ethically, practicing meditation, and developing wisdom, we can take exactly the same journey to enlightenment and freedom from suffering that the buddhas do. We too can wake up.

I love this quote, but can someone explain to me what is meant with "Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim."?

I would read that sentence as: "If the whole point of life is to experience suffering, and nothing further, then life has achieved its goal. If the point of life is anything else, however -- even 'experience suffering to achieve some higher purpose' -- then regardless of what the point is, life has completely failed."

I think it means that the most notable aspect of life is suffering, so if we're aiming for something else to be the focus of life then we're not doing very well.

It's a way of saying suffering is the only guarantee in life. If you spend your life trying for anything other than suffering, you will inevitably fail.

This is again paraphrased at the end of the quote: "misfortune in general is the rule."

So Putin was right, huh?

We look before and after,

And pine for what is not:

Our sincerest laughter

With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn

Hate, and pride, and fear;

If we were things born

Not to shed a tear,

I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

- Percy Bysshe Shelley (contemporary of Schopenhauer), from "To a Skylark"

This poem is so beautiful, thank you. I will study it.

In my opinion this is a partial explanation for the rise in suicide in first world countries.

There's a whole field of Positive Psychology studying happiness (and pleasure) and yet the article doesn't mention it once.

The researchers have uncovered a tremendous amount about this topic (see Paul Bloom's "How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like", "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert and the multi-author paper "If Money Doesn't Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren't Spending It Right"), and philosophers have thought about this topic for centuries.

The best reconciliation of philosophy and (recent studies in) psychology of it all is by Michael Bishop and his book: The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychology of Well-Being


I've wondered whether there is a structural account of pleasure in the brain, in contrast and supplement to the "chemical squirt" hypothesis. Perhaps the alignment of brain rhythms could produce a kind of intrinsically pleasurable harmony, akin to music? The logic is that structural brain harmonies could support novel neural synchronies, which could in turn support Hebbian learning (cells that fire together wire together) and lead to pleasurable reinforcement (law of effect). In other words, perhaps the experience of functional neural growth and connection is itself pleasurable.

This would make me feel better about the pleasure of meaning. I'd really rather that it be intrinsically pleasurable, in contrast to what is known as "the hedonic gloss" — that anything can be made pleasurable with the addition of certain brain chemicals.

VTA plays an important role in a number of processes, including [1]

- motivational salience ("want")

- associative learning (if a neutral/novel experience is paired with "painful" or "enjoyable" innate instinct, it elicits a response on its own: money or your favourite sports team winning)

- positively-valenced emotions ("happy", "content") emotions)

- orgasm

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ventral_tegmental_area

Via the mesolimbic pathway, from VTA dopamine is signalled to the NAcc, which also has similar functions: processing of motivation, aversion, reward (i.e., incentive salience, pleasure, and positive reinforcement), and reinforcement learning.

As of October 2017, hedonic hotspots have been identified in subcompartments within the nucleus accumbens shell, ventral pallidum, parabrachial nucleus, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), and insular cortex.

Microinjections of opioids, endocannabinoids, and orexin are capable of enhancing liking in these hotspots. [2]


The second Wikipedia link explains the difference between primary and extrinsic reward, "wanting" vs "liking", anhedonia vs aversive salience, and the known information about addiction and neuroanatomy so far.

I've had a strange year in which I've been living a very acetic lifestyle... Basically camping while I struggle toward getting permits... Long story.

The lack of comfort became too much. I felt like the "pleasures of the body" were a secondary priority and I didn't want to spend the money. It just wasn't possible for me to go on like that though. I had to find an actual house to live in.

I feel like I lost the mind over matter game, and didn't live up to the ideal that I had about myself. On the other hand, it's very nice to be out of the wind and rain and heat and bugs, even if I don't feel I earned it yet.

It's not good manners to point out spelling mistakes, but it took me a while to go from "acetic" (vinegar-like?) to "ascetic".

I kinda like the typo, it gives a very poetic / double meaning to the sentence :)

If someone makes the same spelling mistake repeatedly, it's not a typo, and IMO it's better to point it out, because they're probably carrying it over into more professional contexts and it affects how they're perceived.

Obviously in a personal context you'd try and do something like that in private, not in a group, but that's not really an option here.

If I repeatedly misspell something, or repeatedly use a validly spelled word in place of a homonym, I want to know.

It's a word I use so infrequently that I was unaware that I misspelled it. Thank you.

At some point, prescription is required for a language to be preserved.

If we're all online, then that's where it has to be.

The more interesting question is would you feel it if you didn't know any one who lived differently? Because I believe that comfort is very relative to others. If you don't know anyone living better -- you're happy.

If you are as comfortable as your peers, then you are not at a disadvantage when competing for mates, and neither are your own offspring, so yeah, it's a big deal. We have evolved with the understanding that we need to compete with peers in order to be able to pass our genes on. We are not competing against trees or even our former selves, just against peers.

I feel I'm naturally a problem solver, and I noticed that I wasted a good amount of brain power thinking about things like unconventional air conditioning and bug control because I couldn't use power or use my building. Unconventional bathing because I had no running water(look up strigil),etc.

It wasn't productive, because I can't sit around re-inventing things that work good enough in modern society.

Yeah but sometimes when the pain in my arm causes me to wake at night I don't really give a darn what anybody else is feeling. I just want the pain in my arm to stop.

This is an interesting thought. I sometimes wonder about those who live in squalor, how can they be happy knowing there are people like me living in nice middle class homes? But then I think that I am happy, despite knowing that in my same city there are people living in absolute mansions. So, I know that there are people nearby that live better than I do, but for some reason I don’t take them into consideration when it comes to my own happiness.

I feel it's way more relative to my own recent experiences, rather than what I see others having. I'm normally an absolute baby when it comes to even minor things because I'm usually quite comfortable. But for a short while after a major struggle, nothing minor bothers me.

We are in a very similar situation. We've given up so many niceties of modern housing to be able to build. Currently we live in a trailer that was in disrepair years ago. It's a stepping stone to our eventual home.

I feel you on the losing the mind over matter aspect. I simply cannot let that happen to myself though, since for some reason it's deeply ingrained in me.

Often I do exercises to try and extend my ability to overcome the internal desire for creature comforts. Things like swimming through the ice in frozen lakes, staying in the sauna beyond my pain threshold, fasting, picking a particularly difficult physical exercise and pushing my limit (common in weightlifting, pushing past the burn), things like that.

I try to make sure I'm not finding pleasure in the pain, however, since that is in the realm of masochism and I feel that is the path to self-destruction.

Does anybody else do this? What else do you do?

I like to think of the pursuit of pleasure as having a critical time dimension for determining if that pleasure is 'bad' or 'good'. Think of this as short-term pleasure (bad or dishonerable) vs long-term pleasure (good or honorable).

This is in contrast to the article which makes the good/bad distinction from a more Stoic perspective: "The pleasures of the mind are good; the pleasures of the body, not so much". And as the article goes on to explain, this idea gained traction with Christians through the ideas of Kant and others, who thought the pursuit of pleasure in doing good was not noble in itself. But this is countered by more recent 20th century writers like C.S. Lewis and more recently John Piper who make a point that the pursuit of joy in doing good is noble (see Christian Hedonism: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/christian-hedonism )

But back to the time dimension of seeking what is pleasurable in the short vs. long-term. I've come to the realisation that most good things are the result of pursuing what is pleasurable in the long-term. Short-term vs long-term thinking. Think one-night stand vs lifelong marriage. Or the pleasure of enjoying junk food snacks in the short-term, vs self-discipline to savor desserts only after a meal. Or an example more from the realm of the mind, think watching sitcoms or playing video games vs finding pleasure in the discipline of self-study to pursue a long-term productive project. I see some of these ideas expressed in culture today through fasting apps and similar tools to help people control short-term pleasure impulses and instead pursue better long-term goals that are more beneficial.

Edit - I would just add that I see this more in terms of an economic calculation - people do what is in their best interest, and if you factor in a long-term approach to pleasure, it can help explain the benefits of choosing altruistic behavior over a short-term decision to do something that only pleases oneself. What is best for others usually turns out to be best for oneself in the long-term. A lot of cultural ideas like 'what comes around goes around' or karma, etc all stem from this concept.

This doesn't seem like much of a realization where you've concluded to just restate the usual batch of Christian puritan morals and sins about sex.

To be fair, I don't think they did. Nothing they wrote precludes polyamory and lots of sex, I think what they say is if you are gonna get sex, better try to be really good at it.

I think bigger problem with their perspective is that it is very egotistic. For example, the pleasure of playing a video-game really well (a long-term goal) is more important than a pleasure of spending an ad hoc evening with a loved one (a short-term one).

I suspect most humans have evolved to not only be happy about reciprocal altruism, but to give unconditionally. Because if you are just happy with reciprocity, then the resulting equilibrium can be cooperation or lack of it, both are possible. If we are (as social creatures) rewarded for both reciprocity and giving unconditionally (or perhaps, seeing reciprocity realized for others), the equilibrium is more cooperative.

The ad hoc evening with a loved one is a long term one in order to keep the relationship healthy.

In this case one evening may be short but the relationship itself is what is long term.

It seems materially different to me because he doesn't appeal to any deity or authority as an unquestionable article of faith. Nor does he actually say anything about morality or sin or insist that not obeying these tenants will lead to some eternal torment. Instead what the op argues is that if you accept the postulate that long term gain is better than short term gain then you arrive at a certain set of conclusions about what is "good".

Instead of advocating for Christian moralism, it explains many aspects of Christian moralism using a secular first principal. Of course the religious practices that happen to correspond with long term gains outcompeted the others. The religions which told you to maximize hedonism and minimize work died out.

He takes it a step further. Religion is silent on junk food, sitcoms, video games, and any other modern "vice". The principal of long term vs short term gain can be applied equally well to modern times. The fact that many people independently feel like certain activities are bad habits, without any religious framework or persuasive argument telling them these habits are bad, seems to suggest that short term gain at long term expense is a root cause of the feeling of "vice". In other words, the feeling of "vice" is just a utility function baked into our neural network.

What the OP has written is infinitely more interesting than an arbitrary list of 10 sins with no explanation of why one should obey.

@XorNot I see it more from an economic perspective. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations popularized the idea of self-interest as being the "invisible hand" that motivates people in society to make economic (and other) decisions.

I think self-interest is just another way to explain pleasure, or what pleases a person. Essentially these are all used interchangeably: Pleasure, Joy, Self-interest.

I wouldn't simplify the concept of preferring long-term vs. short-term self interest as being a restatement of puritan morality. I think there is a fundamental realization to be had that a person can then apply to investing, relationships, health... many areas of life.

( Re self-interest, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_economicus ).

Have you read Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments? It applies the same kind of thinking found in Wealth of Nations (deriving systemic social principles from individual human motivations) to the moral sphere. He first introduced the phrase "invisible hand" in this, earlier book.


Yes! Thank you for the reminder. Years ago I did read it in grad school studying economics, and this conversation has me looking for it, I plan to read it again. As a side note, I found the work of Joseph Schumpeter also incredibly insightful, he coined the term 'creative destruction'.

Christianity precedes the Puritans by about 1500 years. “Usual batch” doesn’t comunicate a whole lot.

> And as the article goes on to explain, this idea gained traction with Christians through the ideas of Kant and others, who thought the pursuit of pleasure in doing good was not noble in itself.

You need to go back a little more, Socrates and Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) were also concerned about the vices of pleasure.

FWIW, I get long-term satisfaction from playing a couple of video games that I've become deeply knowledgeable and skillful in. I have a community of friends in each and the process of improving and having a good match is the fun part, rather than the simple act of playing itself. Think of it like becoming really good at chess for the deep games.

I've picked up Fallout 4 again, and have managed to complete it at Survival difficulty, without dying once. I really enjoyed that new challenge.

I think about about it more pragmatically.

Not "pleasures of the body vs pleasures of the mind" or "long term pleasures vs short term pleasures"

but "healthy pleasures vs unhealthy pleasures"

Alcohol is a bodily short term pleasure I'd consider bad, because it's not a healthy pleasure and will shorten my life.

One-night stands are also a bodily short term pleasure, but I'd consider it good, because I think sex is a healthy pleasure and will probably lengthen my life.

> "The pleasures of the mind are good; the pleasures of the body, not so much"

Applied to modern terms: twitter and gaming is good, dancing is not.

The classical definition of "pleasures of the body" is "sensible pleasures." That is, pleasures that require the involvement of the senses. So, by that definition, gaming and twitter would be bodily pleasures since you cannot have them unless you optically engage theses things.

Weirdly hard to define, much less to feel OK about it, pleasure is a tricky creature. Can philosophy help us lighten up?

Maybe it’s just an absence of annoyances?

Asking me if I’m “Enjoying psyche?” with a popup literally after I scrolled past the article header wasn’t a pleasure. No, I haven’t had a chance yet. Who on earth approves this bs?

Scanning through, they do cover the Epicureans and pleasure as an absence.

Random thoughts on the topic:

- I tend to roll my eyes a little bit whenever stoicism is mentioned. Internal checks and balances for emperors/nobles/incredibly wealthy and powerful men don't really apply for the average guy. Depending on circumstances you might be in need of the exact opposite advice lest you jump out of the office window Saturday at 9 PM.

- without dopamine we wouldn't do anything. So arguing against pleasure in general can't really make any sense.

- observing different people I think by nature and/or nurture some have a healthy/moderated relationship with pleasure and some become addicted with all the features: over indulgence, build of tolerance, withdrawal, etc. I could never understand for example how some people can smoke a few occasions per year. I went from 0 to 1 pack instantly. And I noticed I mostly socialize with addictive types too.

- they didn't have video games, social media and Netflix when they made the distinction between pleasures of the body and of the mind. Hard to argue nowadays one is clearly superior to the other.

"for emperors/nobles/incredibly wealthy and powerful men" Epictetus was a disabled slave and he predates Marcus Aurelius

On Stoicism: I suggest to avoid poor remixes (e.g. Ryan Holiday) and pop-Stoicim videos like the plague and seriously engage with the originals for at least two years (yes). See my other comment here[1] for suggestions on robust English translations.

Also, Marcus Aurelius is overtaken by macho guys and business people. Why not? It's nice to associate yourself with a Roman emperor (hence the book titles like "How to think like a Roman emperor" -- avoid this). How about associating with a crippled ex Greek slave, Epictetus, who had a profound influence on Marcus? Doesn't have the same ring to it.

Further, many people don't know that Marcus was a deeply melancholic man. I don't recommend at all to start with his work. I'm saying this after I've read a few translations and a scholarly treatise on his work. (If you wonder where to start, might want to have a gander at this[1].)

And here's the cherry on top from science: the celebrated neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky in Behave (and Joshua Greene in Moral Tribes) talk about experimental evidence on how "virtue ethics (Stoicism is an example of it) is on to something", in a cheerful sense.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22990579

Partial to Epicureanism myself. The Stoic model can be helpful in certain ways such as there principles echoed in CBT, but it does have flaws.

The article mentions Epictetus (incorrectly as "Roman"; he's actually Greek). While he's fantastic[1] on his own, I think Seneca (the Roman Stoic) writes more beautifully about pleasure and virtue—particularly in his essay 'On the Happy Life', a letter he wrote to his brother. Two out-of-context quotes from it (excuse the length):

"But pleasure is extinguished precisely at the time when it delights. It does not have much space, and so it fills it quickly and it becomes tedious, fading after its first onset. And nothing is ever stable whose nature consists in motion. Thus there cannot even be any substance to a thing that comes in and passes through so speedily, and will perish precisely in its usage. You see, it hurtles toward its cessation, and even as it begins it looks to the end."

"Just as in a field that has been plowed for corn some flowers grow up in between, yet all that work was not undertaken for this little plant, however much it pleases the eyes (the sower had another outcome in mind, and this supervened)—so too, pleasure is not the reward or the motive of virtue but an accessory [...]"

Read the essay in full, it contains evocative "word pictures" and several parts of it are laugh-out-loud funny.

(The translation I used for the above quotes is 'Hardship and Happiness'; Chicago University Press.)

[1] I strongly suggest to immerse yourself into this edition 'Epictetus Discourses, Fragments, and Handbook' (Robin Hard and Chris Gill; Oxford World's Classics). This is the most accurate and readable English translation.

Note that both the collected Dialogues (letters) of Seneca and Discourses of Epictetus are available from Standard Ebooks for free. I can't speak to the quality of the translations, but as far as e-books go they are always fantastic productions (compared to just grabbing the text off Project Gutenberg).



Unless you absolutely cannot afford to, I firmly suggest to invest in a solid English translation. A bad translation is a deal breaker. For Seneca's works, I recommend these:

'Letters on Ethics' (University of Chicago Press) – I consider this to be the definitive English translation; it's done by two of the foremost scholars: Margaret Graver and A. A. Long. This has the full set of 124 letters. It reads extremely well, has a solid introduction with excellent notes throughout, and it's also wonderfully typeset. It can't get better than this. (This costs about 40 euros; if it's a tad pricey for you, see the alternative below. )

'Seneca: Selected Letters' (Oxford World's Classics) — This is a curated list of letters by a reputed scholar, Elaine Fantham. A compelling aspect about this edition is that at the beginning of each letter there's a short summary of it.

'Seneca: Dialogues and Essays' (Oxford World's Classics) — This contains some of Seneca's famous essays on bereavement consolations, on tranquility of the mind, and more. Translation by John Davie; it reads very well. (I also consult an alternative excellent translation, 'Hardship & Happiness'; this was also, like the full set of letters above, commissioned by Chicago University Press; and translated by several scholars.)

And FWIW, I've written[1] last year about suggested English translations for broader Stoicism-related works. Translations matter.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22990579

Thanks for the recommendations, I'll check them out. It's too bad the older translations aren't as good, I love that so much classical work is available for free, which greatly increases the accessibility of it. Some people won't (or can't) consider paying any amount of money to try something they may only get a few pages into.

"Pleasure is never settled. Indeed, pleasure itself suggests a process, a fluidity, a striving. Pleasure once attained, whether bodily or intellectual, tends not to last. It is pleasing to kick your opponent’s ass at chess; it is pleasing to have finished working out – but, like the great majority of pleasures, these quickly fade, then to be sought after again. It is the seeking – the pursuit – of pleasure that usually matters more than the nature of pleasure itself. Behaviour, always tinged with ethical value, is more shaped by the seeking and maintenance of pleasure than anything else."

The fact that pleasure is fleeting is why both Plato and Aristotle reject pleasure as that-which-man-is-made-for (to use Scholastic language, man's final end, his telos). People pursue pleasure because they think ... it will make them happy. People reject the world and become hermits because they think it will make them happy. People become tyrants, become artists, become saints, because they think it will make them happy. Happiness is not sought for any other reason.

But that kicks the can down the road. What is happiness, this thing which is sought for its own sake by all mankind equally?

That, detective, is the right question.

Program terminated.

Can you elaborate on your thoughts here for us? It seems like you’re leading somewhere.

There's no need to lament that pleasure is some ill-defined or undefinable abstract anymore.

Modern neuroscience has teased apart the concept of pleasure into wanting and liking. The implementations of those modes or modules of affect are pretty well conserved across mammals as are the physical expressions of that facet of pleasure when they are activated. Very specifically the liking is mediated by the shell of the nucleus accumbens and the ventral pallidum by glutamergic cells. Whereas the wanting aspect, or in the jargon the "incentive salience", has a lot going on but is mostly implemented by dopaminergic cells projecting to those 'liking' neural populations (among other places).

If you want to know more I highly recommend Kent Berridge's publication list. There are a few good lay reviews mixed in with the technical papers too. https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=WIRQRN8AAAAJ...

Does modern neuroscience get us any closer to assigning utility to any given pleasure? That seems to be the focus of the article, not merely defining pleasure.

You can never just assume that a biological process actually has any utility. Some things have evolved to be just by random chance and also have no impact on your ability to survive. It would be like trying to find the utility to any given hair colour.

"Utility" in this sort of discussion is a philosophical jargon meant to encapsulate everything that might go into a rational creature's decision-making process. I.e., reason or experience may be able to tell you what actions will lead to what results, but you need something else: You need to know what results you actually want. So the goal of every rational being is to maximize its utility; and utilitarianism, a popular ethical system, defines morality as choices which maximize global utility. In economic jargon this would be "preferences"; in more everyday language it would probably best translate to "happiness".

So yes, in this sense, every hair color has a "utility", in the sense that it will make the person who has it (and the people around them) happy or unhappy to some extent. It doesn't matter why you prefer redheads to blondes -- whether it had some evolutionary advantage now or in the distant past or whether it's just a random chance; you prefer one more than the other, and so the one has a higher utility.

I'm fairly positive he's using the term "utility" in a normative sense. Like Bentham's principle of utility, which aims to quantify pain and pleasure in order to better architect a "utilitarian" (obviously) function with which to steer law.

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