Whats Your Pleasure?

Epicurus deemed ataraxia, the experience of soul-satisfying emotional bliss, as the moral goal of his philosophy. This appealing state of mind was said to be strongly rooted in nature.  In our post-Darwinian era, it isn’t difficult to understand why.  Conscious pursuits that have had a proven historical basis for advancing genetic survival are naturally experienced as psychologically rewarding—why else would anyone be motivated to undertake them?

Yet, no activity is experienced as indefinitely pleasurable, otherwise one might be inspired to dedicate every waking hour to one single task (as in the case of experiments with laboratory animals that interminably depress a level to receive intracranial stimulation of their brain’s pleasure centers through implanted electrodes—see H.J. Campbell’s classic 1973 book The Pleasure Areas for details). Indeed, as Epicurus states in his eighth principal doctrine:

If every pleasure could be intensified so that it lasted and influenced the whole organism or the most essential parts of our nature, pleasures would never differ from one another.

The natural limitations to any one source of pleasure motivate us to pursue a variety of pleasurable activities—though not an infinite variety. Emotional satisfaction is perhaps optimized through a rotation of vital activities at the depth and breadth most appropriate for the human ecological niche—e.g., eating, bonding, mating, exploring, hunting, learning, contemplating, innovating, and everything else that consistently contributed to the viability of our species.

Ataraxia was likely accomplished as a matter of routine by our prehistoric ancestors, being that their simple existence was wholly compatible with the preceding millions of years of genetic conditioning that gave form to human instincts. But with the advent of sophisticated civilizations, human lifestyles became more specialized as “divisions of labor” multiplied. Individuals who did just one thing very well, interfacing through efficient systems of market exchange, created enormous breakthroughs in the availability of material resources. Yet, the resulting population-explosion had in no way erased a shared organic yearning to pursue a more “rounded” lifestyle.

So the rewards of specialization are not without an emotional toll—but this concession is not without a remedy. To mitigate the “daily grind,” humanity had simultaneously devised numerous diversions that we collectively regard as recreational outlets: vacations, the arts, hobbies, sports, clubs, parties, dating, dining, dancing, and many other facets of leisure. We find these pastimes intrinsically pleasurable because they incorporate essential attributes of prehistoric lifestyles. “Having fun” is how we pay homage our evolutionary heritage.

Pinpointing these attributes would invoke a puzzle with many possible variables and no single definitive solution. But even a rough abstraction may prove to be useful, if it can guide us towards achieving spiritual equanimity. This conceptual matrix, comprised of just six categories, is the product of my own attempt:














The lateral partition differentiates the external versus internal realms of experience, while the three columns characterize differing intensities of volitional effort. The resulting categories—sensation, adventure, mission, imagination, communication,and speculation—could be regarded as six fundamental routes to pleasures which invigorate the human soul.

So let us now survey this six-fold perspective in more detail:

Spontaneous presentations: the sensuous pleasures are derived from any sensory experience that we find to be gratifying in and by itself. Of these pleasures, quenching our sexual and stomachical appetites are paramount on the list of human preoccupations. But beyond the obvious examples of amorous encounters and delectable meals, we receive sensuous pleasures in many forms: a reuniting hug from a missed companion, a relaxing massage, hot tub, or steam bath; a wisp of fresh air, the savor of a refreshing beverage, the effervescent scent of flowers and greenery, the melodious or rhythmic sounds of music and nature, the sight of a charming woman, a handsome man, or a well-crafted work of art; a panoramic view of a city skyline, a countryside, the ocean, a sunset, or a skyful of stars.

Certainly it was because Epicurus stood for a philosophy of hedonism that the modern word “epicure” came to signify someone who is committed to sensuality—even though, as visitors to this website must already realize, Epicureanism encompasses a much broader array of concerns! Sensuousness, nevertheless, remains a core component of the Epicurean way of life, as made clear by the words of Epicurus himself:

For my part I find no meaning which I can attach to what is termed good, if I take away from it the pleasures obtained by taste, if I take away the pleasures which come from listening to music, if I take away too the charm derived by the eyes from the sight of figures in dance, or other pleasures produced by any of the senses of man as a whole. … I have often asked men who were called wise what they could retain as the content of goods if they took away those things I’ve mentioned. Unless they wanted to pour out empty words, I could learn nothing for them; and if they want to babble on about virtues and wisdom, they will be speaking of nothing except the way in which those pleasures I mentioned are produced. (from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations,3.41)

Interactive presentations: the adventurous pleasures are the experiences of sheer enjoyment we receive from exploring the unknown. We human beings delight in revelation—from the tracts of land laying beyond the next horizon to the cybernetic frontiers of the World Wide Web. We find it similarly gratifying to uncover the solution to any mystery, puzzle, problem, or riddle. The games in which we participate—either as players or spectators—also contain elements of surprise; part of what makes them entertaining is how the turn of events unfold. And we are perpetually fascinated with novelties—be they new people, places, and things.

Proactive presentations: the mission-oriented pleasures are evoked by the thrill of the chase. Among the most ancient human missions was surely the hunt—and even if there are few left among us who waylay wild animals as a means to survival, humanity as a whole remains perpetually engaged in pursuing objectives that give us a “sense of purpose.” For instance: honing a skill, planning a trip, seeking out a special place to call home, shopping for merchandise or for mates, growing a garden or a business or children, fashioning crafts, artwork, and other handiwork, procuring a practical education, researching an elusive topic, or authoring a treatise, a poem, a web page, or a computer program. Games of all kinds—from card games to board games, from video games to outdoor sports—invariably entail the accomplishment of some objective—either cooperatively or competitively. Life itself can be played as the ultimate game—when there is a goal that is well-defined.

Spontaneous representations: the imaginary pleasures emanate from the realm of fantasy. The biological fact that we dream away our sleeping hours is sufficient proof that the theatre of the imagination plays a pivotal role in the human psyche—and we no less readily dream away many waking hours. Our reveries incite us with emotion, bestow us with inspiration, and spur innovation. The cinema, the fine arts, and meditation can often accomplish similar results. Moreover, the acting out of any role, be it on the stage, on the playing field, or on the job can also make us feel an integral part of something larger than ourselves. And in fact many elements of our lives can be made more entertaining if we choose to awaken the “Walter Mitty” within us, so that the rush hour commute becomes a race track, the drum set in the garage seems placed on a concert stage, the play-money on the betting table becomes a pile of wealth, the chess board becomes an explosive battlefield, or the computer screen becomes our virtual reality. As children, we find no difficulty immersing ourselves in fantasy, and we are no worse off if we find appropriate occasions to do so as adults.

Interactive representations: the communicative pleasures are derived from all facets of shared experience. Most human communication occurs through the symbolic means of language, be it written, spoken, or signed. We most easily enjoy brainstorming, gossiping, and other freestyle forms of conversation. “Confession,” is also rightly said to be “good for the soul,” especially when we are confiding in our most trusted friends. Literature, letters, and now e-mail are more structured forms of symbolic communication that can potentially deliver similar pleasures across any gap of space and time. Meanwhile, the news media often capitalizes on its discovery that its audience relies on “news” more so as a form of entertainment than a source of information.

Communication can also be carried out through touch and action. The lover’s kiss and caress are often more than just sensual delights, but also explicit expressions of affection. The performing arts constitute yet another outlet for meaningful expression beyond the use of words. Talents may also be put on demonstration for the elucidation of others, whether the lesson is about how to prepare a recipe, mend a broken pipe, or swing a golf club—the physical example of going through the motions communicates much more than verbal narration could ever allow.

Proactive representations: the speculative pleasures emerge from predictions about the future. The keen ability of the human mind to model reality naturally entices us to contemplate “what-if scenarios” as a prelude to decision making. The institutions of investing and gambling allow us to place stakes on how precisely the outcome of real events conform to our expectations. Winning many kinds of games in general often depends upon how good we are at outguessing our opponents. Speculation also facilitates the advancement of knowledge, since by doing so we lay the initial groundwork for discovery. There also exists a great human fascination with prognostication—even when the methods employed are known to be dubious (such as astrology and other forms of fortune telling). To have expectations about the future, any expectations about the future, seems better than to forgo any prior mental rehearsal.

Thus stated, these six fundamental routes to pleasure are sufficient to keep ourselves happily occupied in perpetuity. Balance is the key, rather than intensity. For just as maintaining proper nutrition simply requires that all essential vitamins to be sufficiently present in one’s diet—the same principle applies to maintaining the vitality of one’s spirit: nutrition is maximized by a balanced diet, and happiness is maximized by a balanced regimen of pleasurable activities. When an essential vitamin is lacking, mega-doses of other vitamins cannot make up for deficiency. Similarly, when we neglect some aspect of our nature, we cannot fill the void by stepping up our devotion to other aspects of our nature.

This analogy hints at the reason why the pursuit of happiness so often goes awry for so many people. It is because they plunge into their favored routines with counterproductive voracity, so that sensations become obsessions, adventures become misadventures, missions become crusades, imagination becomes escapism, communication becomes clamor, and speculation becomes rumination. Spiritual equilibrium is overlooked in favor of “living on the edge,” and what results is emotional “burnout” rather than emotional fulfillment.