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Are we addicted to pleasure?

11 Sep


It looks very much like it, at least in Britain and the US. According to Robert Lustig, in an article which appeared in yesterday’s Observer, addiction is very much on the increase.  Heroin use in particular has sky-rocketed: although the UK has only 8% of Europe’s population, a third of all European overdoses happen in this country.  Overall death rates are also rising, for the first time in over 20 years. At the same time the incidence of depression has more than doubled. In the UK prescriptions for anti-depressants have gone up by 108% in the last ten years.

Lustig, an American endocrinologist and anti-sugar campaigner, thinks that these phenomena are linked. The things unhappy people do in order to feel better – smoke, drink, take drugs and eat sweet stuff – are killing them. 

 “What’s the connection?” asks Lustig. “Elementary, my dear Watson. Too much dopamine and not enough serotonin, the neurotransmitters of the brain’s “pleasure” and “happiness” pathways, respectively. Despite what the telly and social media say, pleasure and happiness are not the same thing. Dopamine is the “reward” neurotransmitter that tells our brains: “This feels good, I want more.” Yet too much dopamine leads to addiction. Serotonin is the “contentment” neurotransmitter that tells our brains: “This feels good. I have enough. I don’t want or need any more … Chronic dopamine from your favourite ‘fix’ reduces serotonin and happiness.”

In our society sugar, tobacco, alcohol, pornography and even drugs are all tolerated. The use of social media – which in itself is addictive, and can lead to cyberbullying – is positively encouraged. Combine this with constant stress, the product of the pressure both to spend and to achieve, and the result is an “unprecedented epidemic of addiction, anxiety, depression and chronic disease.” It’s a vicious cycle. “The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get and the more likelihood you will slide into addiction or depression.”

I can only assume that Lustig is right about the science of pleasure versus ‘happiness’. And it’s interesting that his conclusions mirror more speculative ideas about the limits of hedonism and of desire-satisfaction.  It’s a grim picture he’s painting, although we can perhaps comfort ourselves with the thought that withdrawing from the ceaseless round of pleasure-seeking may well make us feel a bit better.  

But that may be quite difficult. “Our ability to perceive happiness has been sabotaged by our modern incessant quest for pleasure, which our consumer culture has made all too easy to satisfy. Those who abdicate happiness for pleasure will end up with neither. Go ahead, pick your drug or device. Pick your poison. Your brain can’t tell the difference. But please be advised – it will kill you sooner or later, one way or another.”



Happy in the centre of your being?

8 Sep

How happy did you feel yesterday?  Conversely, how anxious did you feel yesterday? These two questions, posed by the Office for National Statistics in its integrated household survey, are a kind of thermometer employed by the OfNS to check the British population’s emotional temperature. We’re not being asked how much pleasure or pain we experienced yesterday, or how many of our desires we managed to satisfy. Just how happy or anxious we felt. 

Dartmoor pic

Most people will have little difficulty in recognising anxiety, but it’s hard to predict how respondents are going to interpret the word ‘happy’. The underlying implication is that feeling happy is the opposite of feeling anxious, and if we respond in that vein, then as Daniel Haybron suggests (‘Happiness and its Discontents’, New York Times 13 April, 2014), we’re telling  the OfNS about our emotional well-being. How ‘untroubled, confident, comfortable in our own skins’ were we feeling yesterday? In other words, what was our overall emotional condition? ‘To be happy,’ writes Haybron, ‘is to inhabit a favourable emotional state.’

Pleasure and pain aren’t the issue here. We may have had tremendous fun yesterday – an enjoyable meal, some great sex. Or we may have had some unpleasant experiences, like a bout of toothache, or an argument with a colleague. But did these episodes affect our basic feelings?  Perhaps we felt anxious in spite of the sex, or happy in spite of the toothache. Pleasure and pain aren’t necessarily tied into our emotional well-being, and it’s the latter that the OfNS is trying to gauge.

“‘I have a headache.’ Well, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ ‘I’ve got earache.’  Again, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ I’m not suggesting that you’re not allowed to groan, just that you shouldn’t groan in the centre of your being.” This is a quote from the Discourses of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (1.18.19). How you’re feeling in the centre of your being is what interests this thinker, and it’s probably what the ‘happy’ and ‘anxious’ queries are getting at too.

Haybron thinks that it’s worth posing these questions because ‘our emotional conditions may provide the single best indicator of how, in general, our lives are going.’ So the OfNS gets some useful data from our answers. But thinking about these things may be good for us as well, for the respondents as well as the questioners. Instead of scrutinising the day’s events, one by one, we should try looking at the bigger picture. Does the way we are living make sense? ‘Often, the signals of the emotional self can set us on the path to better ways of living – and a happiness worthy of the name.’

Considering these questions doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the ingredients which contribute to our emotional well-being. To think about these we probably need to go back to the theories which I’ve discussed in earlier blogs. According to Haybron, as well as physical needs – food, clothing shelter – we also have needs as emotional beings. ‘Among the most important sources of happiness are: a sense of security, a good outlook, autonomy or control over our lives, good relationships, and skilled and meaningful activity. If you’re unhappy, then there’s a good chance that it’s for want of something on this list.’

Aha, there’s a definite sighting of a theory here – it’s the objective list idea (this blog, 20 October, 2016). I’m keen on this strategy myself, so I’m not going to disagree. If only someone could tell me how to acquire the good outlook, then I might be as happy as Larry. This simile, I discover from the internet, may have its origins in the Cornish and later Australian expression ‘happy as a larrikin’.  So give me a better outlook, and I might be as happy as a rowdy and careless young person who’s always larking about. Or possibly … as happy as someone who’s hugging a menhir on Dartmoor, which is what I’m doing in the picture above. 


Hedonism part 3: John Stuart Mill. The Opera House wins

6 Oct


Like his teacher Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) believed that happiness is the highest good. Like Bentham, he defines it as the achievement of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. His hedonism differs from Bentham’s, however, when it comes to the issue of quality. According to Mill, happiness must be distinguished from contentment, and is of higher value:

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” (Utilitarianism, Chapter II)

Mill argued that pleasures can vary in quality – intellectual and moral pleasures (higher pleasures) are superior to more physical forms of pleasure (lower pleasures). The pleasures of listening to opera or of acting virtuously, for example, are superior to the pleasures we get from food or sex. So for Mill the happiness of the thinking human being is definitely preferable to the contentment of the satisfied pig. People who have had the chance  to experience both types of pleasure know this – so we mustn’t allow the population at large to be fobbed off with a diet consisting entirely of inferior pleasures, is the implication. The opera house definitely wins out over sport.

Mill’s  philosophy of pleasure is sometimes referred to as qualitative hedonism, to distinguish it from the quantitative variety propounded by Bentham. ‘Never mind the quality, feel the width’  might well sum up Bentham’s approach to pleasure, but it would never have been adopted as a motto by Mill.

Hedonism part 2: Jeremy Bentham. Sport or opera houses – which should we be promoting?

15 Sep

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is associated with the brand of hedonism known as utilitarianism. He argued that happiness was the ultimate good, and that pleasure and the absence of pain were its chief ingredients.

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think. (Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

But happiness for Bentham was not a purely egotistical exercise. In his view the maximisation of collective happiness was the true basis for moral behaviour.

It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong …the obligation to minister to general happiness was an obligation paramount to and inclusive of every other. (A Fragment on Government)

For Bentham, then, only an action that appears to maximise the happiness of all the people likely to be affected by it is the morally right action. He may have borrowed the phrase ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’  from the Ulster philosopher Francis Hutcheson.

Each person’s happiness depends on the aggregate balance of pleasures over pains, and this balance is the end which individuals, moral leaders, and legislators must have in mind when they establish rules and make judgements about moral conduct. Basically self-interested individuals should be encouraged and directed to perform actions that promote the greatest happiness of both themselves and others. 

To help achieve this, Bentham devised a Hedonic Calculus, a method of measuring the value of the pleasures or pains that would probably be caused by specific actions. In the Calculus he identifies  certainty, propinquity, intensity, duration, fecundity, purity, and extent as factors which determine the value of any anticipated pleasure or pain. Taking these into consideration will help us decide whether we should  perform the action or not.

Looking at each of these factors in turn:

Image result
Certainty  How likely is it that pleasure or pain will  be caused by the action?

Propinquity How long will I have to wait for pleasure or pain to occur?

Intensity How strong will  the pleasure or pain be?

Duration How long will  the pleasure or pain be felt for?

Fecundity  Will this particular pleasure or pain lead to more of the same?

Purity  How likely is it that pleasure or pain will lead to some of the opposite sensation, pain or pleasure?

Extent   How many people will  the pleasure or pain be likely to affect?

Bentham measured all pleasures by the same criteria.  He didn’t  give intellectual or sophisticated pleasures a higher value than basic ones. According to him,  the pleasure gained from the parlour game push-pin is just as valuable as pleasure derived from music or poetry.  If games bring the population in general more pleasure than going to the opera, then it is vital that society devotes more resources to promoting games than to running opera houses.

Some of  Bentham’s ideas were anticipated by Epicurus. He believed that we have to take into account the pains which our pleasures may cause us in the future. He also took duration into account. “Continuous bodily pain does not last long,” he writes. “Pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.” (Principal Doctrines 4)

Bentham saw his Calculus as something that people who were aware of their own interests would be able to use; but others have insisted that it is quite impractical. Bentham, however, did not expect either individuals or legislators to follow the process to the letter. Rather, the Calculus was a model of an ideal calculation, offering a set of guidelines for those attempting to maximise pleasure and promote the greatest happiness. 

Bentham’s influence is still felt in the field of economics, where the Calculus provided the basis for the development of policies based on cost-benefit analysis. And his collectivist conclusions, though modest, influenced later reformist thinkers who paved the way for modern welfare economics.

Hedonism part 1: the oyster question

14 Jul


Hedonism – the idea that pleasure is the highest good – was certainly being discussed in ancient Greece by the end of the fifth century BC. It is outlined in Plato’s Protagoras, a dialogue in which Plato’s old teacher Socrates is debating the question of whether virtue can be taught. He’s talking to Protagoras, a leading Sophist and philosophical relativist.

‘So to live pleasurably is good, to live painfully bad?’ Socrates asks.

‘Yes, if one’s pleasure comes from what’s honourable,’ Protagoras replies.

‘Really? Protagoras, you surely don’t subscribe to the commonplace notion that some pleasures are bad, and some pains good?’

Socrates is being ironic here, because Protagoras was famous in his day for challenging conventional views of morality. Wrong-footed by Socrates (something that happens repeatedly in Plato’s dialogues), he has to admit that there are some pleasures that aren’t good, and some pains that aren’t bad.  (Plato, Protagoras 351c) So a criterion for the good life – ‘what is honourable’ – has already been introduced. Pleasure is not the be-all and end-all of our existence. 

In another of Plato’s dialogues, Philebus, Socrates asks his companion Protarchus whether, if he got the chance, he would choose to spend his whole life in the enjoyment of the greatest pleasures.

‘Of course I would.’

‘Would you want anything else out of life apart from perfect pleasure?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘Think about it for a minute. Wouldn’t you want wisdom and intelligence and foresight?’

‘Why should I? If I have pleasure, I have everything.’

‘But if you didn’t possess mind or memory or knowledge or true opinion, you wouldn’t know whether you were enjoying pleasure or not.’

‘I suppose not.’oyster

‘And if you had no memory you wouldn’t even know that you had ever enjoyed pleasure in the past. … And if you had no foresight, you wouldn’t be able to look forward to enjoying it in the future. Your life wouldn’t be that of a man. It would be the life of an oyster.’
(Philebus 21b-c)

Here Plato assumes – rightly, I’m sure – that without consciousness we have no way of enjoying pleasure. He also seems to assume that consciousness immediately introduces other factors into the good life, factors that will lead us away from relying solely on pleasure. This assumption is more questionable.

So it seems that identifying pleasure as the highest good involved complex questions right from the start. Nearly a century later, when Epicurus appeared on the philosophical scene, he became the Greek world’s most celebrated hedonist. ‘When pleasure is present, as long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either in the body or the mind.’ (Principle Doctrines 3). But Epicurus’s view of pleasure, like most other people’s, is far from straightforward, since he believed that the limit of pleasure is reached in the removal of pain. If we’re hungry, we eat; but if we go on eating after we’ve dealt with our hunger, then we’ll only cause ourselves further pain. The answer for Epicurus lies in managing our desires so as to achieve maximum pleasure; and maximum pleasure means limited pleasure. This is a far cry from the modern use of the term ‘Epicurean’; and indeed in Epicurus’s own day his doctrines were misinterpreted, and seen as offering an ‘eat, drink and be merry’ message. ‘No, I’m not talking about fine food and fornication,’ he kept having to say. And I’m not talking about oysters either, he might have added, though he didn’t. So I would probably put Epicurus in the ‘desire theories’ category when it comes to ideas about well-being. More of this anon.



Pleasure? Desire? Objective List? 

7 Jul

Which one provides the key to the Paradise Garden?


So far in this blog I’ve been looking at ideas about happiness more or less as I chanced across them, in plays, novels, happiness surveys, or articles about behavioural science. Random, but quite fruitful. Chekhov in particular has convinced me that personal happiness is an objective we might want to think twice about before dedicating time and effort to pursuing it.  Chekhov sees happiness as what nowadays we might call a bourgeois project, bound up with middle-class materialism and complacency. Chillingly, for him it can only ever succeed if we shut our eyes to what is happening around us. So, like an ancient philosopher, I’ve  been asking myself if the pursuit of happiness can ever be compatible with leading a good life.

To probe this question a bit more more deeply I’ve  been trying to examine happiness in a more systematic – that is to say, more theoretical – fashion. I turned first to a resource which I use quite a lot – ‘Plato’, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( According to its entry on ‘happiness’, there are two broad philosophical approaches to the topic. One approach uses happiness as a value term, equating it with well-being or flourishing. The other uses it as a term to describe a psychological condition – the use that features in happiness surveys. This in itself was a revelation to me, as up to now I’ve been using the terms ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ more or less interchangeably.

I turned next to the entry on ‘well-being’.  This, ‘Plato’ informs me, relates to how well a person’s life is going for that person in particular. It has what some people refer to as a ‘prudential’ value – it is good for the person, animal or thing that possesses it. This distinguishes it from aesthetic value or moral value, both of which exist in their own right irrespective of who or what possesses them. For example, it may be morally good to give away all your money to the poor, but if you end up living on the street and die of hypothermia, then it won’t turn out to have been very good for you. Conversely, sunshine, water and good soil  may all have prudential value for a plant, but if it happens to be Japanese knotweed, then you may think it has zero aesthetic value and want to banish it from your garden. These examples, I should  add, are my own and not ‘Plato’s’. 

So we’re talking here about what is good for us as individuals. There are three different ideas about what constitutes the essence of personal well-being. The first can be labelled ‘hedonism’. This argues that well-being consists of the greatest balance of pleasure over pain.  Pleasure seems like a good thing to most people – but do we really want to devote all our lives to pursuing it?

The second idea about well-being comes under the heading of ‘desire theories’. According to this, well-being is achieved through the satisfaction of our desires. This may not be the same thing as experiencing pleasure, since what we desire could easily involve us in quite a lot of pain. A simple example would be the wish for better teeth, which sometimes necessitates a fair amount of drilling. Our desires can be subdivided into present desires – what we want now; or comprehensive ones – the things we’d like to acquire over our lifetimes. 

The third idea is referred to as ‘objective list’ – the items which in general are seen as contributing to our well-being. For instance, if people have good teeth they probably don’t ever entertain the idea that their gnashers can give them pleasure, nor could they be said to want them. Even so, good teeth are one aspect of their well-being – something they’ll find out if and when one of their teeth suffers decay. In other words, our well-being may demand things that aren’t pleasurable, and which we don’t know that we want. 

Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at each of these three theories in turn, courtesy of ‘Plato’.