And deep down we always knew this didn’t we? It’s a new year, and in the midst of everyone else’s desperate resolutions to deny themselves something vital in order to teach oneself a lesson (a convenient precursor to Ash Wednesday and Lent of course), my resolve is to make none of these resolutions. Yes, my resolve is to be happy and to enjoy myself because pleasure is good for you.
Oh no!! The world will end if we all took that tack, right? The Kantian imperative lives! Not so, says Blake Morrison of The Guardian. In his review of the book Sex, Drugs, and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure by Paul Martin, Morrison wonders why we’ve become so anti-pleasure oriented as a society when our forefathers and mothers indulged in pleasures far more frequently with none of the horrific effects that our religious purveyors warned us against. Sure, sure, there are exceptions, but moderate use never harms anyone. He writes:
The pleasure principle is, on the whole, a sound one, then: having what you like is fine so long as you don’t have too much of it in one go. But as a scientist by training, Martin is also keen to explain how the principle works in practice – the key being the way that pleasurable experiences release a neurotransmitter substance called dopamine in the nucleus accumbens region of the brain. The neurobiology is complex, but Martin keeps it bracingly simple, even when elaborating on terms such as anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), acedia (aka accidie or taedium vitae) and ataraxia (a state of serenity). Numerous experiments with rats are cited. What they mostly illustrate is a truth that writers and philosophers arrived at a millennium or two ago: that pleasure and desire are different things, since the former can be satisfied but the second cannot.
He goes on to explain the pleasure of drugs, sex, and chocolate and how Martin’s book is a feast of pleasure in itself. I think I might have to buy this book, just for the cover alone (Morrison describes it in the article).
Our aim in life should be improvement. But why must improvement always mean denial in all areas? Why can’t indulgence also be an improvement? I think that we take our Puritan ancestors’ advice to heart way too much. In conversation with friends, a discussion ensued about what teaches us more pleasure or pain? I’d like to think that pleasure could teach us just as much as pain does. And in fact one could argue, as some do, that we learn in SPITE of pain not because of it. What think you?