Body Pleasure

Suffering is very serious. Death is very important. Let me instead talk about something else that is becoming both serious and important, as the world gets richer and more awesome: the problem of pleasure.

Excessive leisure time is a problem that has only become widespread in the past century. As non-human intelligences get more sophisticated, it may be the case that human work remains extremely important; however, it may also be that humans are faced with increasing leisure. If that is the case, the critical problem facing humanity will be how to enjoy ourselves. If that seems silly, consider your favorite dystopian images of the future: only humans who understand how to enjoy themselves can demand living conditions in which they are able to do so.

Let’s get some silly ideas about pleasure out of the way so we can get on to the interesting stuff. First, there is the Puritan idea that seeking pleasure (especially body pleasure) is immoral because it is presumed to substitute for doing good for others. In order to take this seriously, we must construct human effort as (1) an invariable lump (2) that is maximally engaged in doing good. Consider, rather, that energy and effort may increase with increasing pleasure, and that a person who experiences a lot of pleasure may be more inclined to deny his baser instincts (including laziness) for the good of others.

Second, there is the idea that pleasure seeking is necessarily selfish. Two facts undermine this assumption: one, the extreme connectedness of humans, such that they can readily share information about pleasure (especially given pleasure “quora,” meaning wide, if not perfect, agreement among humans about what is pleasurable and how pleasurable it is); two, the special information each person has about himself, such that he is most qualified to make adjustments about his own well-being. A norm in which each person is entitled to devote a certain percentage of his effort toward personal bodily well-being and pleasure is a highly efficient norm for maximizing average pleasure. Traditions like sabbaths, whether or not that is their intent, assign a proportional “floor” of time that must be devoted to loafing, if not precisely to pleasure. Any person who accepts a life of low bodily pleasure and poor affect, even if he does so for beneficent reasons, is failing to contribute to group learning about pleasure, and failing to contribute to a cartel in which humans demand a floor level of bodily well-being – in a sense, scabbing against humanity. And it seems intuitive that happier people are less misanthropic than unhappy people who take no pleasure in life.

Third, there is the idea that bodily pleasure seeking is not as important or sophisticated or valuable as pleasure-seeking of an intellectual, spiritual, higher status, or more abstract nature. Is body pleasure low and shameful? Is body pleasure a substitute for higher pleasures? Certainly, the idea that feeling good is a problem is reflected in the fact that “euphoria” is considered a negative side effect of pharmaceutical drugs. Pleasurable sensations are often packaged with health and spirituality messages (massage, yoga); this provides moral cover for pleasure, but also suggests that physical and “higher” pleasures often go together. Pursuing body pleasure may induce greater pursuit of more social or abstract pleasures. The “groove” of music is a bodily pleasure connected to the more social, abstract pleasure of group rhythmic entrainment. Music itself spans the distinction from bodily and personal, to abstract and/or spiritual (mathematics, theology).

Fourth, there are unnecessary assumptions typically made about hedonism, such as that agents would maximize short-term selfish pleasure at the expense of total expected pleasure, such as by breaking promises (and thereby becoming a less desirable cooperation partner). But only a very stupid pleasure maximizer would get himself addicted to heroin, trading short-term pleasure for long-term suffering. What are the best strategies for people who want to maximize pleasure in the long term? What is the best that human life can offer, at a very concrete and foundational level? These questions are little considered, in part because of Puritanical cultural norms, and in part because nobody thinks they are important.

Following Pleasure

If your goal is to experience more pleasure in the long term, it’s hard to know what to do. Markets are, at best, lurching blindly in all directions – offering “luxury” goods that are poorly connected to pleasure, and the same old sex toys, and an array of psychoactive substances limited by contemporary prohibition fashion. And there’s no reason to expect that effective pleasure exploits are easy to find. It may be that people have hedonic “set points” and can’t, in the long term, feel much better than their natural level through chemical or behavioral changes. Many body pleasures are themselves connected to maintaining homeostasis. For instance, exercise is experienced as pleasurable for only as long as the body can maintain levels of oxygen and lactate. The body adapts to changes imposed on it, which is why heroin addicts require more and more heroin in order to feel not quite as good.

Nociception is the sense of pain; there is, to my knowledge, no equivalent for pleasure. Pleasure is more complicated than pain. It has been popular for a long time to confidently oversimplify pleasure into its supposed chemical substrates: endogenous opioids, endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, endocannabinoids. However, producing reliable pleasure (as may be reluctantly desired in the case of anhedonia, for example) is not as simple as supplementing, or preventing the reuptake of, these chemicals.

Unlike pain, pleasure typically requires an appetite for a particular behavior (eating, drinking, sex, exercise). There is always the potential for pain; the potential for pleasure is more limited. Pleasure may occur during the interval over which this appetite is satisfied, and satiety itself may be pleasurable for a while. Appetites and their correspondent pleasures vary in how intense they are, and in how long they take to reset. Importantly, they also vary in how long the pleasure can last, both at a stretch, and in terms of hours per human week. Pleasurable states that are highly sustainable, potentially taking up a lot of hours that would otherwise be spent in a neutral or painful state, are especially valuable. Intense pleasures that evaporate quickly and take a long time to reset may not be so valuable. And the best pleasures would be ones that increase appetites for complementary pleasures.

Domains of Bodily Pleasure

By bodily pleasure, I mean to highlight pleasures that subjectively feel as if they are embodied – the pleasures of eating, sleeping, exercise, and sex, for example. This is somewhat of an arbitrary boundary; many of what might be called intellectual pleasures are highly interconnected with bodily pleasure. The beauty of the night sky, the smell after rain in the desert, the pleasurable tired-soreness after exercise, massage – these are bodily pleasures, though they may be associated with intellectual pleasures: astronomical awareness, environmentalism, health, high status.

Panteleimon Ekkekakis is one of the few scholars to study the relationship between exercise and pleasure (see the next section). When scientists attempt to study pleasure, it can be difficult to distinguish extreme scientific distance from personal ignorance. Am I, perhaps, a major outlier, or has the author of this paragraph never experienced exercise?

[E]specially among trained and physically fit individuals, a commonly used expression is that vigorous exercise “hurts so good.” Although this may be seen as supporting the notion of independence, an alternative interpretation is that these apparently conflicting responses originate from different levels of the affective hierarchy. The “hurt” may reflect the inherent unpleasantness of the bodily sensations that accompany strenuous physical effort i.e., basic affect), whereas the “good” feeling may reflect a sense of pride i.e., an emotion) sparked by the thought that, by exercising, one is doing something good for his or her health, fitness, or physical appearance.

Cooling down from a ten mile run last week, I noticed how pleasurable it was to climb stairs, and briefly wondered about the tallest buildings in town, and whether it would be possible to access their stairs. It didn’t feel good in the sense that I felt “proud” of exercising. The pleasure was purely physical; the soreness in my muscles felt as if it were being massaged out with each step. I am left to wonder if there are major categories of pleasurable experience that many people don’t know about. I will briefly outline what I see as the major sources of bodily pleasure. Many of these overlap; just as notes overlap synergistically in musical chords, pleasures can support each other and perhaps reveal better cognitive states.

1. Sex

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that, at this point, most people are adequately informed that sex and masturbation are pleasurable activities. It’s worth noting that, while sex and masturbation activities can’t take up a very high percentage of most people’s time, sexual fantasy and sexual display can potentially take up a great deal of time, and add frisson to other activities. Sexual display is part of why dance, costuming, and adornment are perceived as pleasurable, and sexual fantasy can relieve boredom during a period of cognitive surplus, such as waiting in traffic. Even weirder, sexual pleasure can result from patently non-sexual activities even without sexual fantasy.

2. Eating

Like sex, eating can only be pleasurable when there is an appetite. Smell and taste can be used to stimulate desire; saltiness, fat, sweetness, umami, or even drug content (as with caffeine) reinforce the act of eating as pleasurable. Desire is gradually replaced with satiety. This limits the amount of pleasure available from eating. Interventions that increase appetite – for instance, exercise – increase the amount of food that can be comfortably eaten. Appetite also increases the pleasure that can be derived from a given food; freeze-dried pasta, prepared on a peak after a long climb with a heavy pack, is more pleasurable than the most expensive meal at a restaurant.

3. Co-Consciousness

Co-consciousness is the social experience of being conscious along with others. Part of what you’re paying for when you get coffee in a coffee house, in addition to caffeine and work space, is the feeling of being in the company of others. Co-consciousness seems to enhance many pleasures – humor, dancing, and all the pleasures mentioned above are typically intensified by co-consciousness.

However, an alternative pleasure is that of privacy. Well-designed human spaces allow for a balance between togetherness and solitude, recognizing that different people are most comfortable at different levels of exposure.

4. Muscle Pleasure

Pleasure felt in the muscles unifies pleasure from moderate exercise (see also next section), post-exercise movement, stretching (as with yoga), massage, exfoliation, temperature extremes, and rest. Muscle pleasure from stretching, massage, and saunas is most intense and available after moderate exercise. Washing with a salt scrub feels pretty good, but if your muscles are sore from exercise, it feels much more intensely and acutely pleasurable. Walking around is okay, but if you’ve just exhausted yourself, it feels luxurious. Same goes for sitting on one’s ass, or lying in corpse pose. As hinted at in the sex section, there may be a synergy with sexual pleasure as well.

Muscle pleasure is one of the strangest pleasures – as hinted at in the excerpt above – because it includes a sensation that’s easily recognizable as a kind of pain. It’s important to note that not all pain feels good in this state: stretching too far, or injuring soft tissue, still hurts; being thirsty is still unpleasant. But the “pain” and “soreness” of exhausted muscles, when those sore muscles are stimulated by massage, stretching, low-intensity activity, or exfoliating substances, is experienced as raw bodily pleasure.

Massage unites co-consciousness and muscle pleasure. In order to be perceived as pleasurable, stimulation from another, as in Swedish or Thai massage, must be slow, predictable, and rhythmic; or, more rarely, fast, predictable, and rhythmic (as in percussive massage techniques). Massage as a cultural ritual uses techniques to make touch more pleasurable and less intrusively intimate: covering the body, eschewing eye contact, limiting speaking, ensuring that massage strokes are away from rather than toward the breasts and sex organs, etc. Non-human muscle stimulators (e.g., vibrating massage chairs) do not seem to provide as much pleasure as humans, but that may change in the future.

5. Temperature

Temperature extremes are a common element of leisure and pleasure: hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms, cold plunges, rolling around in the snow, polar bear swims. These technologies either make maintaining homeostasis much easier (as with hot tubs) or challenge the temperature homeostatic process (as with cold plunges) such that the recovery process is enjoyable. I’m not sure why saunas and steam rooms are pleasurable. Sunshine, shade, and water, to the extent that they are pleasurable, are leisure components that help or challenge homeostatic processes.

6. Proprioceptive Pleasure

Proprioception is the feeling of where one’s body is at. By “proprioceptive pleasure,” I mean the exhilarating feeling of gliding while downhill skiing or ice skating; the pleasure of riding a motorcycle; the pleasure of Disneyland rides, of soaring or weightless falling; the pleasure of hang gliding; the pleasure of swimming underwater. Proprioceptive pleasure is why it’s fun to dance (other than sexual signaling, as mentioned above). Virtuosity, dexterity, and self-efficacy may intensify the experience, as with riding a motorcycle or skiing, but are not necessary, as with rides.

7. Drugs

Direct chemical adjustment is not so much a domain of pleasure as a shortcut to pleasure. When drugs are administered regularly, the body typically adapts; physical habituation is an important criterion in the “addiction” model of human behavior. Drugs that are administered too rarely for habituation to take place (e.g., psychedelics, ketamine trials for depression) might be the best candidates for long-term better feeling. Using addictive drugs (such as alcohol, tobacco, and opiates) rarely, or only as needed to relieve pain, is probably a better strategy for maximizing lifetime pleasure. Pain is extremely subjective, however; it’s impossible to know whether another person is genuinely in pain. We are each probably the best custodians of our own bodies vis-a-vis palliative drugs.

The one drug I think this doesn’t apply to is cannabis, for reasons outlined in the next section.

8. Smell, Taste, Visual Beauty

I think that smell and taste mostly serve two functions: to motivate disgust, and to motivate desire. In and of themselves, they can rarely cause significant pleasure. Visual beauty is likely similar: motivating appetites, providing intellectual pleasure, but not providing much in the way of bodily pleasure on its own. Mess, I think, is visually uncomfortable; beauty, however, is probably only the absence of this kind of discomfort. Visual beauty is also easily worn out; we quickly get bored of looking at a beautiful view.

Exercise Pleasure

The pleasure domain that I see as undergirding all the other experiences of pleasure is exercise pleasure. Yet most people hate exercising, and associate it with pain.

This is because our exercise morality is ridiculous and self-defeating. Exercise morality suggests, with little evidence, that exercise promotes physical and mental health. Based on this, exercise is imposed on people beyond what is pleasurable for them – “no pain, no gain.”

Panteleimon Ekkekakis (mentioned above) is a hero simply for demonstrating that people enjoy exercise up to a certain level of intensity, which varies for each person. Most people who do low-intensity exercise feel better during the mild exertion. At the point when the body can no longer maintain levels of oxygen and (separately) lactate in the muscles, the exercise becomes so intense that basic affect (feeling good or feeling bad, the lowest-level evaluation of anything) plummets. Everybody feels terrible when they exercise too hard. Once people rest for a few minutes, they start feeling good again. However, this may not be enough such that people evaluate the entire experience as pleasurable.

Unfortunately, most on-ramps to exercise are at an intensity too high for previously-sedentary people to find them pleasurable. If people go to a fitness class, or focus on running a particular distance at a particular speed, they’ll likely miss the pleasure zone entirely. Refocusing on exercising only for one’s own individual pleasure, as slowly as one prefers, and only at intensities that are pleasurable, is more likely to motivate repeat and habitual exercising. At that point, the enjoyment of exercise pleasure can build on itself, motivating longer and longer intervals of experiencing the pleasure. I summarize Ekkekakis et al.’s result as: “learn to exercise out of extreme selfish laziness.”

Exercise pleasure is particularly valuable because, unlike other pleasures, it can be prolonged to take up a significant portion of waking life – up to hours per day, as would have presumably been the case in our environments of evolutionary adaptedness. It is also complementary with other potentially healthy pleasures, such as sunshine and eating food. If you believe that exercise is “moral” in some sense – good for mental health or weight loss, perhaps – you may be better off forgetting what you think you know, and pursuing exercise only for the way it makes your body feel. It’s an interesting hedonistic paradox.

Probably the only important thing that I have ever discovered is that using marijuana before cardiovascular exercise (running) massively increases the pleasure of exercise, and decreases the time and distance to “runner’s high” to as little as ten minutes and a mile or so (at a slow pace), respectively. At this point, it’s appropriate to be suspicious of claims about endocannabinoids “causing” runner’s high or jump-starting exercise pleasure, but after my own n=1 research over the past eight years, I think it’s worth letting other researchers attempt to replicate my results – especially as more states legalize marijuana for recreational use.

For the same reason that there’s no strong evidence that exercise causes people to live longer or experience less depression, there’s no strong evidence that frequent marijuana use causes people to become stupider. Even if it did, to the extent that marijuana makes exercise pleasure more available – thereby making pleasure from muscle soreness, food appetite, temperature extremes, and sex more available – frequent use may be worth the trade-off for some users.

Comfort Traps

Just as there are potentially pleasure exploits – ratchets, such as low-intensity exercise, that increase the amount and duration of pleasure – there are potentially traps that decrease pleasure even as people seek to increase it. For instance, consider softness, cushioning, and support. Softness (as with clothing, shoe soles, mattresses, pillows) is comfortable at first; it feels actively nice for a few minutes. However, in the long term, the sensation of softness degrades into no perception, and even potentially increases the risk of harm by masking sensation. The idea of “support” can be seen in the foundation garments of the 1950s, girdles designed to hold in stomachs and pudgy bits. Unfortunately, this style of garment decreases the need for the muscles of the abdomen to work to support the body (“core strength”). Similarly, shoes that “support” the arches decrease the need for the muscles of the foot to adapt to support the foot. I’m suspicious as to whether soft mattresses and rigid-yet-cushioned running shoes maximize comfort.

On the other hand, compressive running clothes (tight tights and sports bras) do seem to improve the experience. They turn the body into a simpler system, such that the jiggly bits fit more smoothly in repetitive proprioception.

Part of comfort is simply freedom from pain. The pursuit of comfort alone may reduce pain, but fail to maximize pleasure; from the outside, it’s extremely presumptuous to tell a person he or she would be better off with an objectively different body management strategy. I think that the best we can do is to take pleasure seriously, to share strategies for body pleasure management, and ideally, to increase the ease with which everyone can pursue a pleasurable and pain-free life – not just a meaningful life.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. I think you’re right to place exercise pleasure at the root. I have had this idea that this is related to symmetry production.

    It struck me a few years back that little children almost never walk if they can help it. They skip or hop or turn cartwheels or run back and forth ahead of their parents. A docile child walking along with an adult is probably depressed or sick.

    My theory: kids have way surplus energy relative to the information they hold that’s worth processing. The surplus can’t really be stored so it has to be worked off. The working off of an energy surplus with low information to accompany its expression leads to “supersymmetric” behaviors so to speak, like skipping.

    Supersymmetric behaviors are those that have more dimensions and symmetry than is functionally necessary to do whatever you are doing. If you’re just walking along, skipping (two foot-falls per step) adds no information to the behavior being expressed, but adds an empty dimension to it. If as a signal variable, you treat stride length and frequency (wavelength and frequency) as the 2 bits encoded by a walk, a skip encodes another harmonic to it (mathematically I think only one more variable… the skip length and frequency are related because it’s a gravity bounce you can’t entirely control).

    To use language you like, a skip “decompresses” a walk by s empty information structure to it.

    More broadly, this kind of decompressive expansion is how we add symmetry-beauty to anything. If you exclude the sexual display element of dance, that’s all symmetry decompression. At the genetic level, beauty is display of energy surplus through supersymmetric decompression (which also has the side effect of exhibiting proof-of-parasite-freedom via costly signal).

    Verbal behavior is on the cusp between physical and intellectual pleasures. I think I get actively physical pleasure from random bits of eloquence, and again there’s an element of exercise pleasure there. Alliteration, word-play, poetic pattern making — it’s all surplus energy expressing itself through supersymmetric decompression.

    Stepping back I think the way to understand this aspect is to view pleasure as the lived experience of potential. We normally make a distinction between potential and actualization at a broadly metaphysical level. Potential is something that can never be experienced because the moment it is actualized in behavior it is no longer potential. But possibly exercise is the closest you can get.

    Think of Newton’s cradles… those pendulums knocking back and forth. The mechanism retains potential energy strongly but cycles it through some minimal kinetic energy (“exercising it”).

  2. Maybe hypersymmetric is a better term than supersymmetric to avoid confusion with the physics concept.

    Two other points: the Puritan position is like pleasure mercantilism, and should be called the lump of goodness fallacy by analogy to lump of labor. Exact same sort of logical error.

    And it struck me that the co-consciousness point and your remark about scabbing against collective pleasure pursuit via disruption of norms or non-participation, makes you a sort of pleasure-communist. This does lead itself to a worker’s paradise interpretation of leisure. Marx did call this one. Perhaps the only meaningful post-capitalist leisure society is communist in structure. That pairs nicely on the economics front with Puritanism being at the root of anti-pleasure economics.

    So a synthesis might be: pure capitalism fallaciously forgets pleasure in the equation and produces lump-of-goodness Protestant work ethics. Pure communism forgets work in the equation and produces lump-of-labor Communist work ethics. The fundamental mistake there may very well be that work itself is pleasurable and as capitalism progresses, the pleasure quotient of work increases until it becomes indistinguishable from play. Hence the “sufficiently advanced work is indistinguishable from play” idea (due to Seb Paquet which I’ve quoted in various places).

    The post-capitalist worker’s paradise may never work in the sense of collective idling norms and alliance against scabbers like you suggest. Why go to (say) the 5-day weekend if there’s enough energy surplus to work-play in much more complex ways?

    I’m getting really speculative here, but the idea of a leisure society past a post-scarcity threshold seems like the idea of tachyons existing past the speed of light barrier. Possibly we can never get there. But just as subliminal particles have their mass increasing to infinity as they approach the speed of play, maybe pleasure increases to infinite as the the proportion of play in work increases.

    Okay I’ll stop now.

  3. Excellent post. I mostly agree with everything said, though I suspect you’re projecting just a bit on the centrality of exercise to all pleasure. ;)

    You’ve rediscovered (or explicitly recapitulated) a number of concepts here, from Stoicism to hormesis, which are all related. Stoicism is very much about lowering your pleasure setpoint deliberately, such that everyday sensations can become pleasurable. They advocate negative visualization, but I much more strongly believe in negative actualization. :)

    I think you’re right that you can follow pleasure gradients to certain healthful behaviors, but in my own estimation, higher pleasures are available by pushing into noxious stimuli from time to time. Life can do this on its own sometimes, but deliberately seeking high intensity exercise, fasting, hot and cold exposure, and other such things, will both generate the adaptive response (maximize potential pleasure) and reset your setpoint (evaluate more of the range as pleasurable). I also suspect this maximizes robustness of the system, thus increasing lifespan, healthspan, and area under the curve of total lifetime pleasure.

  4. “(body pleasure) is presumed (by puritans) to substitute for doing good for others”

    While this indeed sounds like the rationale that a Puritan would give after the fact, it fails to touch on the core of why many (Americans, seemingly especially) have a gut aversion to surrendering to pleasure, even going so far as to rebuke the one who “offered” (read: threatened). An example that’s obvious to women at least is the Madonna/whore complex, where a woman can never seem to be either classy and sexy enough (yes, either/and). This general, rigid attitude is ingrained in the culture, and perpetuates itself insidiously. Consider that parents who opt to have a doctor (NB: painfully) remove nerve endings from their neonates’ undeveloped sex organs, whose sole function is to facilitate pleasure later in life, only do so with earnest intentions.

    Pleasure is acceptable to American/ized men* as long as it’s kept under their control (that the POWER to direct or to end it never slips from their unflinching grip), and that it’s imposed upon oneself practically against the body’s will. If you surrender to it, you’re assuredly homosexual. I believe that the homophobic impulse has nothing to do with caring about society, but is nothing more than masked pleasure-shaming, a la, “giving in is gay”: crying over a movie, dancing enthusiastically; in general, doing anything with sincerity. It could be that homophobes are hung up on the anal phase, that the base pleasure of passing stool became a “no-no” since it angered the ones who could, and seemingly would, annihilate them. Perhaps any body pleasure, but especially those involving anal stimulation, become a perceived existential threat.
    *It seems that this attitude has its genesis in men, though it can be imposed onto others with enough persistence, like a Trojan horse. Their personalities are usually a bit grating at first, they seem a little overly critical, but after a while you’ll be damned if your brow isn’t furrowed along with his. All criticism is self criticism: the “stench” that disgusts them comes from themselves.

    In short, puritans don’t care about altruism, that’s an intellectualization. They hate the threat of intense feelings that would require them to surrender, feelings they can’t control. They hate that they can’t be allowed release their tight-ass, lest someone see and threaten them with annihilation – the social annihilation of being branded a “Fag!”.

    I realize this seemingly minor point I quoted is something you only wanted to “get out of the way”, but consider that the social acceptance of actually surrendering to the various pleasures you detail may be stymied by those who would police pleasure-seekers to make sure they aren’t “giving in” to a full release, threatening them with shaming, reprimand, or other forms of ostracisation. In general, the article is very much aligned with the principles of Alexander Lowen’s form of psychotherapy, which I support. I’ll resist the urge to write further until it’s clear that the point is even getting across!

  5. To Nick’s point — people who know how to access pleasure easily are harder to control, because there’s less “carrot” you can offer them as a reward for going along with your control system.

    • Thus, Lawrence, “The System” continues to optimize itself to hold people in yearning by suppressing their impulses and offering “acceptable” outlets of implied relief, ones that involve monetary transaction, but don’t actually relieve the fundamental unease that afflicts them.

      And when this way of living (it’s a stretch to call it living) becomes so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche that they start imposing it on each other, well that’s what corporatists see as a win-win situation.

  6. Italymich says

    It seems as if Ms. Perry has been deeply influenced by Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race — albeit he is far from her hyper-analytical way of thinking and expression.

    “Second, there is the idea that pleasure seeking is necessarily selfish.”

    What isn’t? I mean, we are not in front of a crowd here — this is why truth is thinkable and allowed.

    Is there a concept as philosophically hard to pin down as “selflessness”?

    (Brushing aside the question of what is the “self”, that’s another topic.)

  7. Kyle Hipke says

    “there’s no strong evidence that exercise causes people to live longer or experience less depression…”

    This is contrary to everything I’ve heard and read and I’d like to see something substantial to back this up.

  8. A very interesting post. I think people tend to underestimate the amount of enjoyment in our lives, in part from missing the kinds of simple ubiquitous pleasures you list here. Often I’ll see a sentence that mentions and contrasts pain and pleasure, with an example given for each, and almost inevitably the example for pleasure is needlessly evocative (and therefore infrequent) — “orgasms”, or “eating a fancy meal”, or something even rarer and more absurd like “getting a promotion”. Rarely or never do I see mentioned experiences like “being around other people”, or “looking at non-messy things”, or “feeling your body as you walk”, or “thinking about sex”, even even though these make up so much more of our lives than do promotions and orgasms.

  9. I certainly could stand to add more pleasure to my dour existence. But I do think Sarah is lumping a bunch of complex states in with “pleasure” here: “Pleasure is more complicated than pain.” Hedonists are always lumping all preferred states into “pleasure” to the point it becomes a tautology. Preferred states are preferred.

    Exercise is a actually a great example of a thing that includes pleasure along with pain, thirst, exhaustion, soreness, etc. Yet she seems to be privileging the pleasurable aspects of this experience. I value the entire dynamic range of exercise, the fact that I am putting my body through its paces, enacting the evolved capacities as it were.

    The exhaustion state has it own value independent of the pleasure. The development of capability and skill is almost always accompanied by unpleasant experience and yet I value these in and of themselves because they contribute to persistence in the environment and represent the actualization of potential. Not because I’ve done some hedonic math that predicts greater net pleasure long term.

  10. Barry Kelly says

    This is a peculiarly American-centric article. Don’t get trapped by thinking an intellectual approach is free from ethnocentrism. The whole thing about selfishness / morality, and about the value of exercise, are cultural concepts that have their most extreme expression in past and current American culture respectively.

    I, for one, get most of my pleasures from thinking, visual, the combination, sex, and eating, in that order. I don’t know any pleasure higher than problem-solving, and it’s a self-appetizing pleasure. The challenge of the problem creates the appetite that the solution feeds. The visual – whether it’s actual real-life vistas, or more likely, photographs, cinematography – these strike deep into my heart and almost make me cry at their beauty.

    The combination of the visual and thinking, with an element of exercise: riding a motorcycle on a twisty road, or a slower bike in thick traffic: the whole information / position / speed / gear / acceleration feedback system in incredibly rewarding. It doesn’t create muscle pain, but I physically get antsy if I’ve been off a bike for more than a couple of days, and I feel a year has been wasted if I haven’t journeyed thousands of miles and seen new sights and roads on a bike.

    I don’t identity with your preoccupation with the accusation of selfishness – to me, all things are selfish, including altruism: people seek a feeling of moral superiority, or group membership, or love, in their mind. People are hard-wired to be “altruistic” in ways that are evolutionarily beneficial way, and the mechanisms are actually selfishly pleasurable, when you analyze them closely.

    I also don’t identity with the preoccupation with exercise. It’s one of the most deluded cults of modern times, as far as I’m concerned. It makes no sense to me whatsoever. There’s a lot of drivers to it, but they’re mostly fashion. Exercise for pleasure in itself, rather than to be perceived as a particular kind of healthy by some subgroup you want to impress, is niche and not particularly interesting or elevated beyond an appreciation for architecture or music or one of any number of other specialisms.