What exactly is pleasure? How does pleasure differ from happiness? We know that pleasure can be physical (a hot bath, a good meal, a massage), emotional (connecting with friends, laughing, listening to music) or intellectual (reading, solving a puzzle, or debating ideas). While we might not be aware of all the pleasures we experience in our lives, we generally don’t have difficulty recognizing the absence of pleasure. People suffering from depression or mourning a loss often complain about their inability to find pleasure in activities that once gave them pleasure. A good way to understand how they feel is to imagine losing your sense of taste so that all food was bland.
The concept of pleasure is intertwined with happiness but there is an important distinction between the two. Pleasure is, by its very nature, temporary whereas happiness better describes a state of being. Pleasure, unlike happiness, has a tipping point. A pleasurable experience will become unpleasant if overindulged. For example, if we stay in the hot bath too long, eat delicious food until we feel sick, get tickled till we can’t breathe or pursue a behavior at the expense of everything else in our lives, we will ultimately destroy the pleasure we were seeking. We may enjoy eating a fabulous piece of cake, but we will not enjoy eating the entire cake in one sitting. To put it bluntly, we have the power to take any pleasurable experience and make it anything but pleasant. I can’t think of anywhere that this observation applies more than to those who engage in addictive behaviors whether it is gambling, over-eating, alcohol or drugs.
In pursuing the definition of pleasure I came across something called the pleasure paradox. The label is a misnomer. It should be called the happiness paradox. The paradox is that the pursuit of happiness doesn’t lead to happiness. Happiness is thought to be an unintended side-effect of an experience, engagement, or accomplishment. It can only be obtained indirectly. And therein lies the paradox. The Declaration of Independence says we have a right to the pursuit of happiness but, if we believe the paradox, we must pursue something other than happiness in order to achieve happiness. Note, the Declaration doesn’t say we have the right to pursue pleasure. The paradox does not apply to pleasure; pleasure is sought directly.
The ancient Greeks were strong proponents of pleasure. They believed that one should devote themselves to finding pleasure and they proudly called it hedonism. The Roman emperors were unabashed hedonists. The Greek word ‘hedys’ means ‘sweet.’ It reminds me of how often I hear young people use the same word to describe something they like. “Sweet!” The Greeks also had a word for those who could not experience pleasure from normally pleasurable experiences; the word was ‘anhedonia.’ And that word is still used today by psychologists and physicians to describe persons who cannot find pleasure. It is, in fact, identified as one of the major symptoms of depression.
Does pleasure bring us happiness? No. A pleasurable experience, when received in a reasonable dose, will bring us, well, pleasure. I may indulge myself in the pleasure of eating an ice cream cone but that will not place me in a state of happiness. Ask any dedicated smoker who finds pleasure in smoking a cigarette. He doesn’t find happiness in his cigarette; he finds pleasure. And if you ask him if smoking makes him happy, he will likely say he wants to quit. On the other hand, can we find happiness in the absence of pleasure? I don’t believe we can. I think we humans need a certain amount of pleasure in our lives. But pleasure itself doesn’t bring us happiness any more than a sexual climax brings us love.
Often when discussing the subject of addiction, we accuse the addict of engaging in ‘pleasure seeking behaviors.’ Pleasure seeking behaviors are equated with any and all attempts to get high. While the addict will experience a temporary escape from withdrawal, they will not experience pleasure from their high. Like the person who eats the entire cake, the pleasure is long gone. Personally, I think addicts suffer from a complete absence of pleasure. I surmise that addicts progressively eliminate any and all pleasure in their lives. They become immune to physical and emotional comfort. They are cut off from engaging encounters. Eventually they don’t read, go to movies, cook, listen to music, discuss ideas, follow world events or sports or politics. They don’t laugh or sing or dance or meditate. Their lives become void of art, poetry, science, adventure and ideas. They don’t have hobbies or take on projects. They cut themselves off from family and friends. Eventually there are no hot baths, warm beds, clean clothes, brushed teeth, combed hair or the slightest hint of comfort.
So here is my question; how important is pleasure in our lives? How important is it in the lives of recovering addicts? I have, for a very long time, wondered about this. If a person has no pleasure, can they ever recover? Can anyone find a state of happiness without some pleasure in their life? How much pleasure do we need? Can a person regain lost pleasures? If so, how?
Many addicts go in and out of treatment programs over long periods of time. Relapse is a constant threat. We say that relapse is a part of recovery. Is it? Or is that our way of justifying the revolving door in almost all recovery programs. Every relapse is a risk of death. Here is what I think. It is not enough to quit using a substance of choice. It is not enough to do the 12 Steps. It is not enough to take medication to squelch the cravings. Offering more treatment is not a solution if treatment doesn’t alter the outcome. In no other field of medicine would insurance companies cover treatment that has such a dismal outcome.
Maybe pleasure is insignificant. Maybe pleasure has nothing to do with achieving a successful recovery. Perhaps pleasure, once lost, cannot be regained. But could we at least ask the question? If I ran a treatment program, I would have art and writing classes, music, meditation and poetry. And maybe it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. We offer all kinds of comfort to patients in other areas of healthcare so why don’t we offer comfort to addicts in treatment? Is it because we perceive them as guilty of ‘pleasure seeking behaviors?’ I have never heard anyone in the world of addiction treatment say ‘pleasure seeking behaviors’ in a positive light. Is it possible that deep down we believe they don’t deserve pleasure? Here is an exercise: sit down and imagine yourself taking a perfect hot bath. Think how good it feels to melt in the hot water. Smell your favorite soap. Envision your favorite towel, all warm and fuzzy. In your mind, select the music you will play as you relax in the tub. Now get up and go take a very cold shower.