Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Happiness Series: 2 - Seeking Pleasure, Avoiding Pain
The One Fundamental Truth
There is a fundamental truth about the behavior of living things—one simple element that controls every choice we make, from the very simple, to the very complex, and it is true for every life form from ants to geniuses.
It can be difficult to confront and accept, because I think on some level we all want to be more complicated. But we are not and this simple, overriding truth will affect everything you ever say, do or think, from birth until death.
Every single choice we make is governed entirely by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. There exists no other motive. Every choice, big or small, can be boiled down to either seeking pleasure, or avoiding pain.
However any choice that is difficult, has a complicated relationship with one or both of these things.
The Cupcake Dilemma
Lets take a cupcake for example.
Assume you have made a pact with yourself to get healthy and lose five kilograms. You want to feel better about your appearance, which relates to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The pain you are avoiding is the humiliation of feeling unfit, you are avoiding the perceived disapproval and disgust of others. The pleasure you are seeking is pride in your appearance, and a perceived increase in sexual attractiveness.
Its easy to want to lose weight.
Until there is a cupcake.
The cupcake present a dilemma. Sugary, salty, and fatty foods produce a rush of dopamine. Which makes us happy. We learn very quickly, within the first few days of life, when we are feeding on sweet breast milk, that food can make us happy.
So suddenly we are faced with a choice. Avoiding the cup cake now will give us more pleasure later on—when we lose weight. But it will give us pain now—we have to suffer through the agony of wanting something and exhibiting the self control not to take it with only the concept of later happiness to warm us.
It is unlikely, however, that the idea of later happiness will stay our hand. Rather, we know if we do eat the cupcake, we will experience much greater pain later on. Shame and anger at ourselves for ruining our diet, and more hard work to try and burn off the calories we ate.
Pleasure Or Pain
Why do we go to university? Most of us don’t enjoy exams and assignments, or studying for that matter. However we imagine we will experience a greater long term pleasure with a degree in our chosen field. We hope that getting a job we love will make us happy.
Why do we avoid looking at bills and let them pile up, even though we know it only makes things worse? Because we know when we open them and see how much we owe, it will make us stressed and we are avoiding that short term pain, even though it leads to greater long term pain.
Why do we go to the effort of throwing a party and buying nice gifts for our partners and friends? Their happiness will make us happy.
Why do we volunteer our time to charities? Giving back to the community makes us feel important, kind and generous. Which is a fantastic feeling.
There are some instances, where we might seek things that initially appear to be pain, but really they are a pleasure. BDSM is a good example, if you are simplifying this idea so much you think pain only refers to literal pain and pleasure only refers to literal pleasure, you have missed the point, please go back and start again.
For some people in some situations the pain IS the pleasure. BDSM is a very wholesome example. Particularly when I compare it to, say, creating drama and hurt for the attention. Someone who destroys their life and relationships may not seem to be getting any pleasure at all. However they are always getting something out of it. Attention can feel like validation. And the pleasure of that validation can be as addictive as heroin. Which is why both attention seekers and heroin addicts tend to throw away everything else good in their lives.
When you are in a lot of pain, like after a break up, you might also seek more pain as a form of catharsis. This is no different to throwing up when you feel nauseous, or lancing an abscess to relieve their pressure. Listening to sad songs and crying may SEEM like it is pain-seeking, but really it releases the pain and is actually a way of purging pain to return to equilibrium.
Every Moment Of Every Day
“What do you want for dinner tonight?” actually means “What would you enjoy? What would make you happy?” No one asks their kids or spouse: “What’s your least favorite, very healthy meal, lets have that.”
Furthermore, the reason we ask what people want to eat is also pleasure seeking. Cooking is often time consuming and difficult. If we cooked and no one ate it, or they complained about it, we would feel very bad. It would hurt. By asking what people want, we are maximizing the chance they will enjoy it and be satisfied, thus making the chef feel proud and satisfied.
When you choose what to wear on any given day, you are weighing up several factors that will maximize your happiness. Comfort, your own perceived confidence and appeal in that outfit, and the likelihood it will give you the desired social outcome. For example, maybe you feel comfortable in a onsie, sexy in your favorite jeans and your workplace expects formal dress. What you put on will then be dictated by what you are doing, because if you show up at work in your favorite jeans instead of a tie and blazer, you might be fired, or reprimanded, which would make you very unhappy. Likewise, if you are staying home to play video games, wearing your work suit will just make you miserable. You’ll be uncomfortable and probably feel foolish. Same goes if you wear the onsie on a date. The comfort you feel wearing it will be heavily outweighed by the misery of your date walking out of the restaurant in disgust.
However if you existed in a reality where everyone always saw you in the perfect clothes for the occasion, you would probably wear the onsie everywhere. Comfort would become the persistent deciding factor, because all other pleasure and pain factors had been eliminated.
But What About Logic?
So. Maybe now you understand the concept. There is no choice, big or small, that doesn’t revolve around pleasure or pain. Which is fine, except most of us have ourselves convinced all our choices stem from logic, not emotion.
That is completely untrue. There is no such thing as a logical choice. All choices are pleasure maximizing/pain minimizing. Anyone who says they only make logical choices is just completely and dangerously oblivious to their own emotions and shouldn’t be trusted with anything, the same way you wouldn’t trust a toddler with a knife. They’re going to hurt themselves, you and everyone around them and make a bloody mess in the process.
Even when making choices for people in other places, we try and project pleasure and pain. If we are a kind person, we try and project what would make us happy in that situation. If we are not, we try and imagine how we can benefit, even if it will never affect us.
For example, lets say we get to vote on if women in a remote village of a foreign country get tampons and menstrual pads delivered for free, or for a minimal sum. If we project ourselves as those women, we would choose the sanitary items be delivered for free, since that would maximize happiness and minimize pain. If we can’t project ourselves into the roles of those women, we might imagine we are the ones providing the items, even though we are not. We would then chose the fee, because we imagine ourselves making a profit, thus maximizing our happiness.
Always remember this when listening to politicians be ‘logical’ about a situation. Logic is usually just a code word for a lack of empathy.
What Are You Seeking? What Are You Avoiding?
So, lets assume you now accept and understand the concept. You realize that every choice you have ever made in your life, and every choice anyone you have ever known has ever made in their life, as been on a basis of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
This is when things start to get ugly. Because what I want you to do now, is consider every choice you make for the next few weeks and be honest with yourself about what you are seeking and what you are avoiding.
This shouldn’t be something that brings you shame or discomfort. Everyone else is making the same choices as you for exactly the same reasons. You don’t want to make that phone call because you’re afraid you;ll get bad news, that someone will be rude to you, that the connection will be bad and you’ll have to repeat yourself, that you’ll say something stupid and regret it, that it will be out of office hours or you’ll be on hold for ages. There are lots of things to avoid on the phone.
But you might come up against some choices and reasons that make you say: “Hang on, why?”
Why are you eating cereal for breakfast? Well, the commercials for this cereal show healthy people and you have a positive association. There is even someone doing a triathlon on the box. But when you check the sugar, its 16mg in every 100mg. That’s 16% sugar. Not very healthy.
Why did you buy this foundation? Why do you even use foundation? Because you saw a magazine advert with a sad woman with bare, pocked skin on one side and a beautiful, smiling woman with foundation on the other. Society taught you to be ashamed to sell you a product.
Advertising relies almost entirely on this fundamental seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. First it makes you feel bad, then it offers you the solution to that. It is no different to me stabbing you, then offering you discount surgery to repair the stab wound. And we all accept it over and over, every day.
But its not just adverts is it? When you start to really look at what you are avoiding and what you are seeking, you’re going to see at lot of things you didn’t want to. A lot of things that suddenly seem stupid or selfish or unproductive.
Make Conscious Choices
From now on, when you have a decision to make, I want you to pause a moment, and ask yourself what pleasure am I seeking? What pain do I want to avoid? And make intelligent, educated decisions. Don’t just let the kind brain bang away without any self awareness.
Changing the quality of your decisions will have a huge impact on your life going forward. Just identifying the real reasons for decisions, without lying to yourself and saying it is the ‘logical’ choice, will make a huge difference in your life.
Give yourself a week to ruminate on this post and begin self aware decision making, because next week we are going to tackle and even more uncomfortable truth: You Would Rather Be Right Than Happy.
If you are going to give up on this series, it will be next week. Because no one wants to hear it. However once you accept and believe it, everything can change for you overnight.
Jake, In Summary:
Sometimes, being able to consider the pleasure/pain benefits of a situation is the only thing that keeps me moving forward. It means even when I am too sick to enjoy anything, even when I am hurting and can’t imagine a reality where I am ever not in pain, I can keep making sensible choices. Choices that will reduce long term pain and increase long term pleasure.
I did, however, get a bit fixated on the long term. To the complete disregard of the short term. In fact, I reached the point where I was always choosing short term suffering for long term gain.
…And tomorrow never comes.
Always choosing tomorrow over today meant I was always making myself miserable. So lately, it has been my mission to sometimes choose short term pleasure.
Sometimes, when I have a choice, I stop and ask myself: “What would make me happiest right NOW?” To be honest, the answer is usually a surprise. I’ve been doing a lot more cooking, gardening and reading since I started asking myself this.
I think most of you would use the word ‘driven’ to describe me. But its not always a good thing. I’m not aiming for hedonistic, but I am aiming for happy. How about you?