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Happiness and unforbidden pleasures

11 Dec

adam phillipsLast week on the Radio 4 programme ‘Start the Week’ the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips discussed his new book Unforbidden Pleasures. One component of our self-reflection, he argues, is that we ask ourselves the question, ‘Do we lack anything that feels essential?’  Once something has been forbidden to us, we begin to experience a lack – we begin to desire it and to see it as essential to our well-being. So what we desire is often all about transgression – we are seduced into thinking that freedom lies in following forbidden pleasures. Unforbidden pleasures, such as kindness, friendship, fidelity, or just a nice cup of coffee, are taken for granted. The stories which we are told tend to bolster this desire for the forbidden. They focus on heroes, on bold people who live transgressively, and this steers us away from pursuing basic satisfactions.

          Difficulty, Phillips stresses, should  not be confused with transgression. Pleasures that are won in a hard way – think of the satisfaction gained from studying or from creating  something beautiful – are not the same as forbidden pleasures, and we should  feel free to pursue them. But we mustn’t be fooled into thinking that we have to run after the things that we’ve been told we can’t have. That is a waste of our time and energy.

          Epicurus would have loved this.  Here is my slightly updated version of something he says in ‘Letter on Happiness’.

‘For us, a life of pleasure isn’t champagne and truffles and fornication.  It is a life that is based on sober reflection – nothing more, nothing less. Because it is reflection that helps us to examine our motives, and decide what we really want, and what we need to avoid.’   

We have to learn to manage our desires, Epicurus tells us. If we can eliminate the pain caused by desires that are unfulfilled, and the anxiety associated with the struggle to satisfy these desires in the future, we will attain tranquillity. This is the key to our happiness.

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