Who’s in charge here? A call to consciously fill your pleasure cup
Updated: Aug 31, 2022
In my previous posts, I've written about the positive impact of pleasure on our everyday lives and what it means to live a pleasure-oriented life. I’ve also touched upon some of the reasons why we may feel resistance to pleasure. Whether it's shame, not resonating with the narrow definitions of "pleasure" imposed upon us, or having "more important" things to do. There are plenty of reasons why pleasure isn't a priority for most people. However, I want to speak to the dangers of NOT consciously addressing our need for pleasure.
We as humans, like other mammals, are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Pleasure-activated networks are widespread in the brain, involving many brain regions and neurotransmitters that work as a functional integrated circuit or system. Whether you think you are prioritising pleasure or not, your brain certainly is!
We are constantly motivated by our WANT or desire to experience pleasure, whether that’s through food, sex, or other means. Our brains respond to “rewarding stimuli” - or even the anticipation of them - by releasing dopamine (the so-called “feel-good” neurotransmitter), which is thought to help us encode memories about how and where to find that reward again. Put simply, dopamine motivates us to do things that we think will bring us pleasure, which is quite handy when we are hungry and need to get up and find food!
However, this reward system is not linked to our experience of pleasure or LIKING. This is how we can “want” and seek a reward without necessarily “liking” it. This irrational “wanting” without “liking” occurs especially in addiction, where it is possible for us to continue wanting something that we actively dislike because our want mechanisms can run separately from our conscious desire and ability to plan.
If this seems like a bit of a stretch, perhaps think for a moment of a time when you have caught yourself endlessly scrolling on social media or working your way through the “share size” bag of chocolate. At some point, you may realise that you’re no longer really enjoying it but somehow you struggle to tear yourself away. That’s because you are caught in a reward-seeking loop in which you are getting a big dose of dopamine for all of the stimulation it offers.
So, you may ask “what is the problem if our needs are being met?”. On one hand, this is a valid point. We will indeed survive if we are taking care of our needs and our friend dopamine will sure as hell do its best to motivate us into doing so. But if the means for meeting those needs aren’t bringing us experiences of pleasure then we cannot be truly happy in the long run.
Going back as far as Aristotle, happiness is thought to have two key aspects: hedonia (pleasure) and eudaimonia (a life well lived). Contemporary psychology still holds pleasure and meaning as the primary aspects of happiness, along with a third - engagement, which relates to feelings of commitment and participation in life.
When we are meeting our needs or surviving without the felt experience of pleasure, it can lead to us feeling a constant longing or emptiness. My non-scientific assumption here would be that this relates to the disconnect between the sense of satisfaction in our brains (which see the need as met) and the felt sense of still being unsatisfied in our bodies. To go back to the example with our phones, our brains may be led to believe that our needs for validation, attention, and connection are being met when someone likes our posts, but our bodies still long for a hug or the full sensory experience of being with our friends and loved ones in-person. I think in the last few years this has become more obvious than ever.
It’s no surprise really that when we feel unable to experience pleasure, lose our sense of meaning, or don’t feel as though we are able to fully participate in life, we turn our attention to alleviating negative emotions. Our brains are, after all, also hardwired to avoid pain. Many of us will have developed strategies to activate our reward systems and numb out some of the discomfort. Whether it’s with our phones or Netflix, alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, binge eating, overworking, or something else. These strategies can give us a short-term fix but risk leaving us never satisfied. Over time, they take us further and further out of connection with ourselves and what our bodies truly need. The more we choose to avoid discomfort, the less able we are to face it when we inevitably need to.
“We’re losing our capacity to delay gratification, solve problems and deal with frustration and pain in its many different forms.”
Dr Anna Lembke (Author of Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence)
This is not to judge the use of these strategies but to highlight the futility of trying to meet our need for pleasure when we are not doing this in a conscious way. Even with our finely-tuned pleasure-seeking machines (our brains) working optimally, if we don’t know what it is that we like, it’s going to be close to impossible to find it! We are much more likely to turn to these readily-available options in an attempt to meet our needs.
What I am getting at here is that by familiarising ourselves with our likes, not only will we experience the felt sense of pleasure that we are actually seeking but also contribute directly to our own happiness. And this is really on you, individually, to learn about and seek out your own pleasure. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post: “pleasure (and what causes us to feel it) is unique to each of us - it’s not a universal concept”.
Awkward analogy time! I'd like you to think for a moment of your need for pleasure in the same way as our need to drink fluids. And now imagine that we each carry a cup around with us in which we can capture experiences that will satisfy this thirst. When we don't know what we need, it's like having a cup with a big hole in the bottom - it doesn't matter how plentiful and thirst-quenching a drink someone pours us, we will still be left thirsty (and possibly irritated by having wet feet!). What I’m trying to say is that we cannot expect someone else to give us the answers.
“The cup you choose to fill has no bottom.”
Kung Fu Panda
Discovering your own routes to pleasure is like creating a really solid and sustainable structure to that cup. When we are able to notice what we like, even ask for it, and be present when receiving it, the cup begins to fill up. We can benefit from every drop that is poured into it because not only is our need being met, but we are also able to take our time and savour that sweet wine (or herbal tea, if you’re like me).
In follow-up posts, I’ll explore more around the other sides to this as well, such as when we do know what we like but - for many different reasons - choose not to seek it. For now, the invitation is to start looking out for where you may have formed strategies or reward-seeking loops to activate your reward system. Do you notice any feeling of disconnection between your WANT and your LIKE? If you do discover something, try not to judge it harshly and instead see it as an opportunity to start actively and consciously choosing your experiences for happiness.