I watched a fascinating interview by Susan Spencer of CBS recently on the pursuit of pleasure. What causes us to feel pleasure? We all have our favorites; sunsets, pastries, travel etc. Pleasure is defined as “an instantaneous feeling of something good”. Some pleasures are basic like food, sleep and sex. One author says that pleasure is actually a very complex and deep subject.
Paul Bloom, a psychologist, has written a book on the subject: “How Pleasure Works”. He says that it’s not just our reactions to how it looks, tastes or smells but rather to our beliefs about what it’s real essence is. He cited a study done at Stanford University and Cal Tech with wine drinkers being offered junk wine or very expensive wine. When they thought it was expensive wine parts of their brains associated with pleasure and reward lit up like a Christmas tree. He goes on to say that we all need water. If you are walking your dog and you stop for a drink of water the dog could care less if its tap or bottled. But we will enjoy the water more if we believe it is filtered.
People get enormous pleasure out of spending enormous amounts of money. Think of the celebrity auctions. Is Michael Jackson’s jacket really worth 1.8 million or Eric Clapton’s guitar worth about a million dollars? Mr. Bloom says it’s the essence of a person that we perceive as being contained in the object that gives us more pleasure. Curious!
Some pleasures are actually weird. Like stinky cheese or hot peppers. Babies would reject hot chili’s. They actually create a pain signal from the mouth to the brain. Paul Rosan calls this “Benign Masochism“. It’s the same reason he gives for why we love horror films that scare us or sad songs that make us cry. It is mind over body. The body says this is bad news get out of here. The mind knows however that we are not in danger.” I am mastering this negative experience and my mastery of it gives me great pleasure”. We are pushing the limits and enjoying it. With chili peppers he says what we like best is just below the level of what we can’t tolerate. This would be the same for roller coaster rides or other thrill seeking adventures.
Professor Gregory Burns of Emery University talks about how we can maximize pleasure. He did an experiment where he gave subjects alternating drops of water and juice. Their brain activity showed preference for juice. When the juice came at unexpected intervals and it was a surprise they liked it even more. His advice is to surprise ourselves! We have to take risks to experience great pleasure. In his opinion that is why people say the first time they experience something is the best because it is truly a surprise.
There is always room for something new if we stay open to it. Keep pushing the envelope, keep being surprised. That is the eternal conflict between the reptilian brain that wants to do the same old, same old, and the higher brain that wants more experiences.
Maybe that’s what bucket lists are really about. We want to pack in as many new surprises as possible. Something to think about!