Wholesome Pleasure


Pleasure is at the heart of effective learning. It indicates good fit of new knowledge with old, and increases the learner's motivation to deepen their understanding in the future.

Pleasure is also at the heart of effective living, inasmuch as it is nature's reward for success. Across the animal kingdom, pleasure and pain exist to reinforce useful behaviours and reduce unhelpful ones. An organism that consistently experiences a smooth and strong amount of pleasure, is likely to be flourishing. In contrast, pain is a signal to stop and change.

Pleasure can manifest in confusing ways. Some things that seem painful (e.g. chilli, exercise, etc.) can bring strong pleasure. On the other hand, too much of a good thing can become painful.

However, a good practical definition is that pleasure is a state (i.e. a feeling) that we want to experience more of. It is important here to separate source from state. While chocolate cake can be a source of pleasure, the state is the feeling of enjoyment. Over time, a source that brought pleasure in the past can begin to cause pain.

While this can seem unfortunate at first, it is essential for using pleasure as our ally.


Each source can provide different types of pleasure. For a hungry person, food can bring physiological pleasure. Likewise, a team activity can bring social pleasure, while a great book can bring intellectual pleasure.

Each person will be sensitive to different types of pleasure to varying degrees. For example, a wine connoisseur will enjoy the superiority of a fine wine more than a layperson, and an athlete will also be able to appreciate a new training technique more fully than an amateur.

Whereas different sources can please us in different ways, some sources can be pleasing in multiple ways at once. These are what we call wholesome pleasures. Some sources can even bring low amounts of one type of pleasure, while still maxing out overall.

Sugar on its own can bring some physiological pleasure, but in a birthday cake at a great party it can bring physiological and social pleasure. Sharing a piece of rare fruit from a historical region can bring physiological, social and intellectual pleasure. In this example, the rare fruit brings the most wholesome pleasure. Of course, some people dislike sweet foods or are bored by history, so our particular reaction depends on our unique genes and experiences.

Wholesome pleasures have two great advantages. Firstly, they tend to be stronger. Because they engage multiple pathways in parallel, the pleasure comes from more angles at once. Secondly, they tend to last longer. While a spoonful of sugar might make you feel good for a few seconds, the memory of that fantastic rare fruit can last a lifetime.

In short, wholesome pleasures feel better than less wholesome ones.

Convergence towards wholesomeness

It is only natural to choose a stronger pleasure over a weaker one, and this is one mechanism that allows us to mature.

If we think purely in terms of a single pathway, then some drug like heroine might win the battle. However, even heroine only affects physiology, and only for a short while. It can even cause rebound pain later. In contrast, a nice dinner with people you love has a much lower physiological intensity, but reaches you via several pathways at once and the pleasure stays for longer. In the long term, such wholesome pleasure is stronger. This is not just subjective, but is supported by some well-known facts (see: rat park).

When compared to the physiological pathway, the rational mind tends to bring less intense, but longer lasting pleasure. This is why satisfying the conscience as well as the body can bring a feeling of unsurpassable peace and fulfilment.

Because strong pleasures always eventually win in the long term, the natural progression as we mature is that we move towards stronger and more stable sources of consistent pleasure. In other words, we move towards more wholesome pleasures.

Hence, a child may be happy with chocolate cake for lunch while an adult might prefer a bowl of soup which is pleasing through its flavour and through the self-respect from eating healthily. Of course, maturity is not based solely on age, but is nonetheless nurtured by it.

While the transition towards wholesomeness is natural, it often requires active exploration such as trying new foods, hobbies or starting a new career. Such exploration provides the raw material for a natural-selection-like process to refine into a repertoire of means for achieving pleasure.

The main factor that can interfere with the transition towards wholesomeness is chronic emotional pain such as long term stress and depression. When someone who has not yet developed many wholesome sources of pleasure experiences such pain, whether due to chemical imbalances or life imbalances, they fall back on their most reliable sources as a reflexive way to try to regain a normal level of pleasure. Consequently, their transition towards wholesome pleasures is disrupted because the exploration required for the transition to wholesomeness requires an open mind, which is simply not available in the presence of chronic pain. Instead, a risk-avoidance approach is usually employed in which the preference is towards known source of pleasure and away from trying something new and unreliable. While other sources may be more pleasurable, it feels too risky to try something new when the pain is close. In those cases of stunted development, the best cure is support to experience more pleasure, thus freeing them to start experimenting more broadly.

Fear of Addiction

Many people fear pleasure because they fear the lack of control associated with addiction. In response to this fear, a fad of "dopamine detox" has arisen, which aims to remove easy sources of pleasure with the goal of sensitising the body and mind to more subtler experiences.

While such abstinence can help to stabilise the emotions in the short term, the only thing that will truly work in the long term is the discovery of more fulfilling pleasures to replace the source of addiction. This is not simply about replacing one addiction by another, but building a wide repertoire of wholesome pleasures.

Instead of seeking weaker, subtler pleasures, the ultimate goal of such a detox should be to:

  1. Identify and resolve the cause of long term pain that is slowing the maturing process (often feelings of boredom or lack of purpose in life), and
  2. Experiment with achieving stronger, more consistent pleasure through multiple pathways, such as doing things you enjoy with people you like.

In other words, addiction is not the problem. It is a symptom caused by insufficient daily pleasure. Rather than learning to live a less enjoyable life, the best solution is to find strong, wholesome sources of pleasure so that the addiction becomes unnecessary.

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