Pleasure can be defined as positive subjective emotional states. There are different kinds of pleasure and different intensities, so that the pleasure you feel when you are getting a foot rub is different from the pleasure when your football team wins the grand final, and different again when your girlfriend agrees to marry you. There are individual differences and preferences as well. To each his own, as they say.
Why do we feel pleasure? What is it for? The so-called negative emotions are likely to be an aid to survival. We get angry when we are attacked so that we are better able to defend ourselves. We feel fear when threatened with something much bigger or more dangerous than we are. So perhaps the positive emotions – pleasure – are useful to survival as well. We enjoy eating, sleeping and having sex so we try to perform these activities as often as comfortably possible, thus ensuring our own survival and that of our genes. Children like to play and so learn and practice valuable skills for later in life.
We also get pleasure from memories of activities or situations that have given us pleasure in the past, although we are more likely to remember the high (or low) points and what happened at the end – the peak-end effect (Kahneman, 1999). We also tend to forget how long the experience lasted – duration neglect. These effects may be worth remembering when planning a holiday – it can be short as long as it ends on a high note.
We like what we are used to and we consistently overestimate how long we will feel good (or bad) after a good (or bad) event. If your boyfriends leaves you you think you will never be happy again, but eventually this devastation subsides. You may think that if you win the lottery you will live happily ever after, but studies of lottery winners show that they very quickly revert to their previous levels of happiness. We adapt to the pleasure. The first bite of that rich, dark chocolate is sublime, the second less so, and by the third or fourth it could be any old choclate that you are eating. This effect has led to the hedonic treadmill, where it takes higher and higher levels of pleasure to reach the same effect (Brickman and Campbell, 1971). That payrise just ends up being spent on stuff you didn’t really need and soon you need more money to buy the better stuff that you now think you need.
Perhaps this is a good thing. If our pleasures were prolonged and so distracting that we didn’t notice threats to our survival we wouldn’t last long. Further, this adaptation to pleasures allows our interest to wane and then to enjoy them all over again. You would enjoy a single square of that chocolate per day over a few days far more, and for far longer, than if you ate the whole lot in one go.
What can we learn from all this? Enjoy your guilty pleasures in small doses more often, and hold off buying that bigger TV – it will seem too small soon enough. When bad things happen try to remember that they won’t last as long as you think they will.
Christopher Peterson. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.