Pleasure as an Organizing Principle

The organizing principle of the modern world is pain. 

Avoiding it, yes. But also trading in it, taking refuge in it, and using it to justify our actions. Pain has so many uses. Why would you ever give up such a versatile tool?

We trade in pain when we use it to bargain for progress. We assume that the bigger the impact we want to have, the more dramatic the change, the more we have to suffer. Isn’t that how it works? Isn’t the depth of my sacrifice a measure of how much I care?

But the pain of suffering can become its own metric, and get optimized to an extreme as all metrics eventually are. In the face of a stubborn world that doesn’t yield to our efforts, it can be easier to use the pain we are enduring as a proxy.

We take refuge in pain when we use it to hide from our problems. Pain is all-consuming, a powerful distraction from the things we don’t want to face. Pain is self-annihilating, temporarily turning off the ego that accuses us of not doing enough, not being enough. Pain can be a refuge where the overwhelming complexity of modern life is reduced to a simple, pulsating throb.

We use pain to justify ourselves when there are no other excuses. Can’t you see I’m suffering? Can’t you see I’m at my very limit? Pain passes the buck to some other cause, some other perpetrator. It is the flag we waive in the face of all our accusers, especially ourselves. As long as I am suffering, I am shielded from responsibility for the consequences of my actions. But I have to keep suffering to keep that shield in place.

We’re told that our lives are better than our ancestors’ along nearly every dimension imaginable. We are healthier, wealthier, happier, and living longer than any previous generation. But in a different way, the very technology that has made these advancements possible has also raised the visibility of pain in the world.

Black Zen teacher angel Kyodo williams says “…our access to the global scale of suffering has become immediate, through technology, but we have not developed the capacity to be with that increased awareness of suffering.” Suffering has been globalized, just like everything else. We are awash with it, like a permeating fog, every minute we are online. And we spend most of our waking hours online.

Pleasure Activism

In her book Pleasure Activism, writer and activist adrienne maree brown offers a different possibility: that pleasure could be an organizing principle. That we could use art to make the revolution so irresistible, so scintillating and exciting, that justice and liberation would be among the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet.

The existing paradigm of activism, she asserts, revolves around pain:

  • That we should deny our longings and skills, in favor of work that fills hours without inspiring our greatness
  • That we need to compete with each other in a scarcity-based economy that destroys the abundant world we actually live in
  • That factors beyond our control – our skin color, gender, sexuality, ability, nation, or belief system – determine our path and quality of life
  • That we should swallow our tears and any other inconvenient emotions
  • That we should just be really good at what’s already possible, and to leave the impossible alone

Brown’s work is focused on movement building and social change, but in her description I see a perfect reflection of modern life as a whole. The truth is, we are all activists now. We all have the power to reach across the world through our networks, to make a difference with our technology, and thus the responsibility to do so. 

At the same time, we resist this inexorable shift toward responsibility. We already have more than enough on our plate. We are already consumed by the demands of a career or a family. Modern life is taxing enough as it is, and now you want me to defend the rights of someone on the other side of the planet?

Brown notes that “activism is so often associated with pain and suffering; really dire, serious people insisting we have to suffer, to sacrifice, to protest, to forego so many of the sensual pleasures of life.” She goes on: “…people are already so overwhelmed and depressed, why would they want anything to do with such a movement?”

I believe there is a basic switch happening at the heart of society, from pain to pleasure as the primary organizing principle. It is being driven by our desperate need for sustainability, in every sense of the word: sustainable bodies, sustainable careers, sustainable communities, and a sustainable planet. What is pleasurable is easy, and what is easy is sustainable.

What would it look like for each of us to make the switch from pain to pleasure as an organizing principle? It would require giving up the three uses for pain that we cherish so deeply. 

What would it mean to give up trading in pain? 

It would mean causing change in who we are being, not what we do. 

Trading pain for progress ultimately doesn’t work, because (as brown argues) “you cannot create change that you yourself have not experienced.” You cannot create freedom for others through your own bondage. You cannot empower others through your own demoralization. You cannot create a fulfilling life for others by draining your own of its color. You are a seed, and that is not how seeds work.

What would it mean to give up finding refuge in pain?

It would mean getting back in touch with the sensual desires of the body. 

“Pleasure is our natural, whole, and liberated state,” brown writes, and “one of the ways we know when we are free.” There is no way to expect to feel joy, satisfaction, fulfillment, meaning, or any of the other states we chase while denying the very essence of pleasure they all have in common. And pleasure begins in the body.

The opposite of pleasure is not pain, brown notes. It is dissociation, the departure of mind from body into a fantasy of its own creation. As coping mechanisms go, it is an effective one. 

But with a cost, as she observes: “When you’re dissociating, it’s hard to know whether you’re doing something because you enjoy it, or because you’re just trying to escape reality.” Dissociation actually causes pain and pleasure to blur together into an endless search for stimulation.

What would it look like to give up using pain to justify ourselves?

It would mean taking responsibility. Not responsibility as blame, but responsibility as power.

We would need to take responsibility for our past, for our choices, for our behavior, for our lives. And taking that responsibility while leaving aside shame and guilt, which are just another form of pain disguised as justice.

Brown writes, “Pleasure is what allows us to make decisions aligned with our true selves.” Unless we know what stirs us, what provokes a longing deep in our belly, on what basis can we make decisions about how to lead our lives? Until we know what we deeply, truly want, we are at the mercy of externally defined obligations, which keep us docile and obedient.

By centering on pleasure, brown writes, “…we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like our only alternative in our society.”

Incorporating responsibility shows why pleasure as an organizing principle is not about excess and debauchery. It incorporates our principles and our values – the pleasure of treating others well. Brown notes that “Having resources to buy unlimited amounts of pleasure leads to excess, and excess totally destroys the spiritual experience of pleasure.” What we really need is to elevate our commitment to pleasure. To no longer be satisfied with the cheap knockoffs of sugar, Netflix, and social media.

Brown argues that “The idea is not to be in a heady state of ecstasy at all times, but rather to learn how to sense when something is good for you, to be able to feel what enough is…How much sex would be enough? How high would be high enough? How much love would feel like enough? Can you imagine being healed enough? Happy enough? Connected enough? Having enough space in your life to actually live it?”

The truth is, taking responsibility can be deeply pleasurable. It is a declaration of agency, of self-respect, of self-ownership. It is only when we take responsibility for a situation that we are free to shape it, and it is only when we shape our environment that we can be truly powerful.

Centering on pleasure

What if recycling was pleasurable? What if consuming less was pleasurable? What if voting was pleasurable? What if volunteering was pleasurable?

We wouldn’t need extra incentives, or special programs, or press campaigns. We wouldn’t need an overwhelming number of facts and statistics, nor guilt trips toward how others live. There would be nothing to enforce, nothing to advocate for. 

If these things were pleasurable then the revolution would be simply irresistible. We’d have to start a waiting list.

Beyond giving up our predilection for pain, what would it look like to center on pleasure as an organizing principle in your life and work?

It would mean embracing healing as the re-opening of the parts of ourselves that have closed

Healing needs some rebranding. It implies that one is sick, broken, in need of rescue. But there is a different way of thinking about it: as a continuous process of re-opening. We could think of healing as an expansive phenomenon, expanding your repertoire of how you are allowed to feel. And thus the sources of power you know how to access.

It would mean deciding that we are not going to spend our time doing things that don’t make us come alive

Liberation has to start with us. If we cannot liberate ourselves, what makes us think we can liberate the world? That doesn’t mean there’s no awkwardness or discomfort or, yes, pain. It means that we love ourselves too much to allow pain to be the defining experience of our days. To have the courage to ask ourselves, as brown suggests, “What is happening and why did we decide to endure it?”

Brown describes how she came to this realization:

“I just wasn’t satisfied with mediocre experiences in my life. I wasn’t satisfied with being places and doing things that I didn’t like to do, and while a part of me felt a little selfish, because a lot of our movement work can be based on this idea of sacrifice, I just kind of resolved for myself that I would find the intersections that worked well for me between my creativity and my commitment to my people.”

It would mean getting in touch with our desires, with our body

I’ve come to think of the body as a computer, taking in more data from more sources than we could ever consciously consider. Our emotions are a vast subterranean intelligence, drawing on not only our senses, but the genetic memories of our ancestors and endless layers of communal thought. 

The price we pay for accessing this intelligence is that we have to feel what it offers, directly and often without warning. As we expand our capacity to feel our emotions, brown says, “…we become more honest, because the body never lies.” We become better people not out of abstract duty, but because we feel the pain of others directly in our body. 

Brown writes about what it is like to move toward this kind of self-awareness in her work:

“I got clearer on what I could offer. I got in touch with a feeling of restlessness and wandering that let me know when I didn’t want to be somewhere or with someone or with a political project. I could also feel the distinct energy of moving toward, or forward, that let me know when I did want to be around someone, did want to join in an effort from a place of authentic alignment, rather than obligation…I am able to stay present in my yes. I can feel the yes in person, I can feel it at a distance. I can feel my face flush, my heart pound, a smile I can’t swallow. I can feel my body get wet and warm, open. I can feel myself move toward an idea, a longing, a vision. I am a whole system; we are whole systems. We are not just our pains, not just our fears, and not just our thoughts. We are entire systems wired for pleasure, and we can learn how to say yes from the inside out.”

It would mean developing our capacity to be seen and to be wrong

This is the one I’m working on for myself, and am barely beginning to understand what it means. But brown notes that “When we learn to be seen, we realize that our mere presence is by itself a contribution.” Not just what we produce or what we know. And that “when we learn to be wrong, we get to be in relationship in real time, instead of defending the past.” 

One measure of personal power is how much time elapses between when something happens, and when you are able to feel it. The shorter that span of time, the greater your ability to respond to what is happening in reality now, instead of the story you create about it in your head.

We are in an imagination battle

Nothing in this essay or in brown’s work is meant to devalue or deny anyone’s suffering. She writes, “Suffering is a massively important and absolutely true part of life, a spiritual reality. But I deeply believe we were not placed on this gorgeous, sensational planet to suffer. It is not the point.”

That assertion is not falsifiable. You can’t prove or disprove what “the point” of our existence might be, or whether we have one. But this highlights an important aspect of modern times, as brown puts it, that “We are in an imagination battle.”

Not a battle of facts, or a battle of power, or a battle of wills. A battle of imaginations. Stories are pitted against stories, and they don’t win or lose based on their logic. They succeed according to their ability to paint a future worth living for. To organize reality in such a way that we are drawn toward that future, instead of pushed away from it.

One of the biggest influences on brown’s work has been the science fiction of Octavia Butler, who wrote a series of influential sci-fi novels in the 1980s and 1990s depicting futuristic scenarios exploring gender, race, power, and pleasure. Brown sees such work as a tool for social justice, because it had the courage to envision something that seemed almost impossible: a world where black people are liberated. She recounts that, as a young black woman, she felt like she was trapped inside someone else’s imagination. An imagination where people like her were dangerous, dispensable, and worth less. And that she had to use her own imagination to break free.

If we are all activists now, then we have much to learn from the disempowered, dispossessed, and oppressed of this world. They have spent many years perfecting the skills that will be required of all of us now. They know how to infiltrate alternate realities, access the full range of their communal power, and reach through the pain of injustice to the pleasure of overcoming it together. 

Embracing pleasure is, paradoxically, a little painful. Few ideas that I’ve discussed with people have received so much pushback, so much skepticism. I think we fear that we’ll lose control, that we’ll go off the deep end of self-gratification. It feels almost impossible to escape the moralistic framing of pain as somehow intrinsically good, and pleasure bad. Brown offers, “I think because most of us are so repressed, our fantasies go to extremes to counterbalance all that contained longing.”

But as writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde put it, caring for ourselves is “not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Brown notes that “our misery only serves those who wish to control us, to have our existence be in service to their own.” It is worth asking who or what our suffering serves, and whether that is an allegiance we want to continue.

Self-preservation is an act of defiance in a world organized around pain. But you get to be part of the future you are creating. You don’t have to be a casualty of the transformation you are seeking. Your freedom and pleasure are essential ingredients of the freedom and pleasure of the world. “True pleasure – joy, happiness, and satisfaction – has been the force that helps us move beyond the constant struggle, that helps us live and generate futures beyond this dystopic present, futures worthy of our miraculous lives,” brown writes.

Sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson wrote, “We live in a present mixed with various futures overshadowing us. In essence, we live in a science fiction novel we all write together.” 

We get to decide what the organizing principle of the future will be. Perhaps before we move to sustainable sources of energy for our industries, we need to move to sustainable sources of energy within ourselves. If pain and pleasure were equally effective, neither inherently good nor bad, wouldn’t pleasure be the obvious choice?

Thank you to Mike Elias, Jeremie Rykner, Sivasuthen Sivanesarajah, and the attendees of Refactor Camp 2019 for their valuable feedback and suggestions. Click here to watch the live talk that inspired this essay.

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About Tiago Forte

Tiago Forte is the founder of training and consulting firm Forte Labs. His main interest is the intersection of design, technology, and modern work. Follow him at his blog or on Twitter


  1. romeostevens says

    I see it as a generational thing. As each generation ages their narratives turn from growth to decline. The younger generation has to find a way to break out from that frame. The boomers are very rich, having been the subject of the highest parental investment in history, having lived through the largest economic expansion in history, and having borrowed from the future at the highest rates in history. They invested heavily in exploring visions of the future. Their eschatologies are thus very hard to break free from. They’ve put danger signs on all the exits. WARNING: unsustainable, WARNING: immoral, WARNING: childish.

  2. The idea of the opposite of pleasure being dissociation rings surprisingly true for me, I’ll have to think about what is going on there, but it’s pretty striking.

    I think one problem of focusing on pleasure is that pain is universal, and pleasure is surprising and particular, especially the refined experientially tuned form you talk about here, for pain, even as abjection kicks in and we recoil from our capacity to identify, the capacity to experience suffering is a universalising thing (see Buddhist compassion, or work war stories), but our pleasures? To someone consumed by their own problems, the sense that someone else might actually be enjoying their life can produce a kind of unreasonable envy, not of the pleasure itself, but the implied lightness and absence of suffering that would come with it.

    Perhaps that is fixable too, if you have forms of pleasure that still recognise the same realities that also lead to suffering, constructive improvements in life can spark hope. (I’m guessing the books you read go into this part a lot)

    But that’s still not really about pleasures; about moments that will resonate with one person in 2 million, perhaps needing to be wrapped and braided together or possibly just retweeted. I’m not sure how those can connect in a loop to the infrastructural universal constructor that is freedom. Creating spaces of excess capacity and space for affective steering and experimentation sustained over weeks and months of little idle moments can produce new moments of pleasure, but those aren’t marketing (if they were, wouldn’t we be directing it to looking like we are enjoying ourselves rather than actually being so?) so it feels like there would have to be some aesthetic of respect for incomprehensible enjoyment itself, some capacity to recognise it at a second order, even if the pleasure itself does not translate.

  3. Watching the talk too, very interesting connection there; if emotions are interpretations of bodily processes, what is the process or processes connected to pleasure, or more specifically, for what is the connection between bodily feedback and more pleasurable/less pleasurable?

    The old answer that comes most easily to hand for me is the “algedonic” model, a niche cybernetic model where pleasure and pain are feedback loops that break abstraction layers in our bodily system; each subsystem of our body solves delegated or compartmentalised problems interacting indirectly or directly with the same environment, and pleasure marks those times where different layers of compartmentalisation align.

    In this model, we can say that there are things that certain subsystems of the body “want”, by virtue of their functional structure and their immediate history. Systems can go through cycles of activity and inactivity, sending out normal signals of hunger or fullness, and pleasure is produced when those cycles are particularly operating within their optimal values, or possibly exceeding previous norms of stability or effectiveness. (Such as the pleasure felt when existing constraints are suddenly removed) So pleasure isn’t the absence of hunger, or exceeding satiation, but from a rhythm of hunger and satiation coherently produced.

    In this model, “feeling good” in the moment is like the tiny feeling of resistance that someone picking a lock gets, a sense that there is capacity there for a further alignment. It is, or should be, both an encouragement towards immediate tuning and more general model building.

    This kind of stability focused model would seem to be miles away from a sensation based, creative or sensual model of pleasure, and there is a place for that which I will get back to, but it’s interesting to observe how shifting to functional model can open up new possibilities for pleasure; touch for example, is sometimes thought of as a sensory process, a symbolic recognition of connection between individuals who interact on a whole system basis, not something from which the skin itself can benefit. And yet massage means improving circulation to muscles, and at a lower level of intensity, careful slow touch with a sense of gentle pressure assists lymphatic circulation, loosens ligaments, and I suspect, assists in bodily awareness and building an appropriate body model by continuously shifting localised sensation.

    Even in a non-sexual context, shifting from skin as a surface for sensation onto which you send messages to a functional organ you are acting to benefit can lead to concrete changes of pleasure for your partner or self.

    As to how this relates to more creative pleasures, my assumption would be that our capacity to create new conceptually driven connections to the environment, new practical contexts, provides synthetic pleasures when these new ephemeral distributed organs are operating within their own limits. We have the capacity to discern the “health” of our tools, mathematical models, and gain satisfaction when they are polished or cleaned to new effectiveness. This extension of pleasure and pain to things that do not actually have nerve or hormonal connections to our body has a variety of downsides, as other articles here have recently been talking about, but I would not be surprised if a well tended garden or a satisfyingly completed project produces pleasure in some parallel and analogically generated ways to well treated skin.

    In that context, social withdrawal, dissociation, and so on, would reflect a reaction of the brain to situations in which broad affective connections that could generally be categorised under the label “care” seem too costly to be sustained, and too disconnected from a capacity for effective practical shifts. If we by externally or internally imposed constraint limit the capacities under which we can respond to changes in these internal signals, or the impending environmental changes that produce them, if we for example must walk for long distances in ways that damage our feet or strain our metabolic systems, then being connected to our grounded in our bodies is just a recipe for absorption in those bodily signals, potentially to the detriment of our goal, unless we are very good at contextualisation and interpretation.

    I suspect that the antonym in this sense to not pleasure itself but the process of seeking pleasure, is discipline, and the dissociation referred to is not a general class of dissociation including dreaming or drug trips, but the dissociation of putting aside warning signs and going specifically where you are ordered to go, or indeed where necessity or duty demands.

    There are those who enjoy marathon length running, and by a process of carefully tuned discipline and practical adjustment expand the ranges in which they can still feel pleasure, have a sense that their body is operating together towards the same goal, even in situations that are otherwise extreme, and there are also those who “heroically” push through suffering that others have trained or engineered out of their experience.

    I think there is value in developing the capacities that allow us to act in extremis, outside of the domains of our comfortable feedbacks, but I think it is also true that getting used to transforming the acute into the chronic is probably less helpful than seeking to turn the extreme into the enjoyable.

  4. Karl Verhosfstædtler says

    Intriguing thinkings Tiago!!

    Question: what is Black Zen? Is that different to Zen Buddhism?

  5. I think pain as a dominant organizing principle is taken for granted, but I think the discussion is incomplete without mention of the temporal aspects of pain/pleasure.

    Namely, we often have to suffer today (pain) to get what we want tomorrow (pleasure). The narrative does not suggest pain forever, so suck it up – rather, pain today for pleasure in the future. I suspect there is good reason for this. Pleasure keeps us optimizing in the gardens we are familiar with, which doesn’t work very well when the outside world changes. Pain helps us adapt to this world (our mental models break!).

    So yes, while we have unduly glorified pain in many circles- I agree – it is an extremely necessary component of life I’d argue. The better question I think is: how should we conceptualize this intertemporal pain/pleasure tradeoff? How does it depend on the context and on the individual? How do we offer conceptualizations of this tradeoff that adapt to the individual, rather than offer a one-size-fits-all model of it?

    • Sarah Perry’s been talking about this stuff for a while now, and I commented something before about more complex dynamics where we do not merely recognise patterns of pleasure and suffering in the moment but, like you say, the intertemporal relations between them.

      What I missed saying at the time was the good bit; that these temporalised affective models are stories. Or perhaps, that stories already function in our society as sources of temporalised affective models, establishing arguments for what kinds of suffering or pleasure may result from certain kinds of situations and actions within them.

      This actually explains why people simultaneously wanted a game of thrones that is plausible, surprising, following previous precedent, gritty, absorbed in suffering and that also gives in some way a “good ending”; (yes because people are demanding, but also because that demand results in something coherently valuable;) a story that has historically driven twists embeds into its structure grounds to take more seriously its affective arguments, whether tragically or positively, and so increases the value of investing empathically in characters, despite simultaneously apparently “betraying” that investment with tragic deaths. And tragedy is the word, the paradox is that people are perfectly happy to explore a story of tragedy if the supervening causality powering that tragedy is for example invested in a plausible extra-individual system of interaction that is investigated like logistical or interpersonal problems, alliances etc. (Rob Stark, immediate victory vs preserved strength when supply lines stretch + political vs romantic marriage => red wedding).

      Investment and “representation” are extremely common currencies at the moment, and part of that is people wanting immediate gratification in the form of symbols of success, but longer term, I suspect it is about people seeking proposals for how to construct lives, that plausibly include dominant causal factors of their own experience. They want stories that function for them, and are not rendered hollow, as tragedy, epic, comedy or fairy tale, by relying implicitly on models they feel are invalidated and unsatisfying.

      According to this model, a “good” story in this sense is any accounting of events that keeps attention to the emotional state of characters involved within it in a comprehensible way, allowing you to understand how you differ from or are similar to these people in your emotional responses and priorities, and whose payload is the connection it makes between those character’s actions, a set of patterns in the world – or indeed the world’s capacity to break patterns – and the emotional rollercoaster that can result from it.

      • Exactly. Purpose (coherent narrative structure) is king. I don’t think pain/pleasure is.

        Matt Maier at Ribbonfarm’s Refactor Camp was a good exploration of this. People can endure anything if they have an adequate “why” (why means: thinks are coherent & make sense).

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