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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. 


The three senses of happiness. Or is Donald Trump a happy man?

9 Jul

Over the last  twelve months I’ve been using this blog to examine a range of philosophical ideas about happiness. How do we define it? … do we need it? … and is it achievable? I’ve looked at hedonism, desire theories, and objective list theories. At the end of this process I’m inclined to go with the objective list as the best way to describe my own personal pursuit of happiness. But for me what has been far more striking is my growing scepticism about the morality of pursuing happiness in the first place. It seems almost inevitably to foster individualism and self-absorption. 

Donald Trump

I’m still not clear about the overall distinction between happiness and well-being, but I’m reassured to find that at least one person writing for ‘Plato’ – Stanford’s online encyclopedia of philosophy – sees the two terms as being  to a certain extent interchangeable. In one sense, according to the author of  Stanford’s ‘happiness’ entry, the discussion of ‘happiness’ concerns itself with what benefits a person and serves her interests; on this level it has the same meaning as ‘well-being’.

If you describe someone as happy in this sense, then you are making a value judgement (  1.1.1: Two senses of ‘happiness’). Somebody with different values might disagree with you. Donald Trump – my example, not Stanford’s – might seem like a happy man to many people. He’s acquired  a lot of the things which he desires, including wealth and power. But others would certainly raise objections. A man who does so many bad things, they’d argue, can’t possibly be considered happy. Even if you’re convinced that most of what Trump does is good, and this is why he’s a happy man, you’re still expressing a value judgement about what constitutes ‘happiness’.

So ‘happiness’ in this sense denotes a life that, in your opinion, is going well for the person who is leading it. But the term can also be used to describe a state of mind, and here we move into the realm of psychology . If we refer to someone as being happy, what are we saying about his or her mental state?  In my next few entries, I’m going to be looking at this question, courtesy of the ‘Plato’ article.

There’s a third sense in which the word ‘happiness’ is used, and this is probably the one that we encounter most frequently. Happiness is …being with someone you love? a long lazy Sunday? a good cup of coffee?  It could be millions of things. The reason I’ve not written this blog for some time is that I’ve been working on two plays which were performed recently at a local festival. Right now I’m tempted to say that happiness is having completed a big project and feeling that it went pretty well. But how useful is that?

In ‘happiness is …’ statements we’re not talking about the nature of happiness, but about  some of its many possible sources. From a philosophical point of view these statements aren’t very interesting. To raise them to the level of philosophical enquiry you’d have to argue that the acquisition of things that people desire – coffee, Sundays, projects – is what makes people happy. Or you’d have to add  these items to an ‘objective list’ of the things that contribute to happiness. ‘You may not want a scary and demanding project to work on, but I’m here to tell you that it will make you happy in the long run.’  Well, so might a lot of things. Objective lists can’t possibly encompass all the myriad experiences or entities which have been identified over the years as representing the essence of happiness.

So of the three senses of ‘happiness’, I think probably only two  need to be taken seriously.

The greatest happiness – Harriet Martineau

8 Dec

harriet_martineau_by_richard_evansThe early sociologist Harriet Martineau became a hero of mine a few years ago, when I was writing a play about The Crystal Palace. Since Martineau was a great defender of ‘The People’s Palace’ and its educational potential, I decided to make her a major character in the drama. As a strong and outspoken woman, I found her a delight to work with.

Now I discover that she was also a disciple of Bentham and his philosophy of utilitarianism. For her, as for Bentham, the greatest happiness of the greatest number was a guiding principle in her prescriptions for economic and social reform.

In her work Illustrations of Political Economy, published in 1832, she announces that ‘the ends of life are virtue and happiness’ (vol.2). The promotion of happiness was a duty which should be undertaken by all governments. Want, she says, chills people’s affection for their country, and ‘hardship is fast breeding hatred to the powers which have not hitherto succeeded in securing the happiness of the people’ (vol.4).  

Never a proto-socialist, Martineau’s aim was to popularise the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism.  ‘Where consumers abound in proportion to capital,’ she writes, ‘it is obvious that the way to bestow most happiness is not to take away one man’s share to give it to another, but to do what is possible towards creating another share in such a way as not to cause more want.’ (vol.9) She was living in an age when increasing industrialisation and the expansion of the British Empire meant that she identified capitalist growth as the cure for poverty at home. She was wrong, in my view – after over 170 years of capitalist growth we are still experiencing the hatred that is generated by government’s abject failure to tackle hardship. But I do admire the way in which Martineau places ‘the greatest happiness’ firmly at the centre of her political programme. 

Martineau ends Illustrations of Political Economy with these words: 

The last and best principle which has been professed, if not acted upon, by our rulers, because insisted on by our nation, is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Was there ever a time before when a principle so expanding and so enduring as this was professed by rulers, because insisted on by the ruled? While this fact is before our eyes, and this profession making music to our ears, we can have no fears of society standing still, though there be brute tyranny in Russia, and barbarian folly in China, and the worst form of slavery at New Orleans, and a tremendous pauper population at the doors of our own homes. The genius of society has before transmigrated through forms as horrid and disgusting as these. The prophecy which each has been made to give out has been fulfilled: therefore shall the heaven-born spirit be trusted while revealing and announcing at once the means and the end —



Abandon hope

29 Nov

oliver-burkeman I’m pleased to learn that journalist Oliver Burkeman shares my sceptical attitude to hope. Last week on Radio 4, in a series on the power of negative thinking, he pointed out that relentless optimism can be quite dangerous. If you’re a safety supervisor on an oil rig, for example, just hoping that everything will be OK would be really stupid. Rather, you have to plan for disaster. If the worst case scenario actually happens, then you’ll be far better equipped to deal with it.  

Hoping for the best can be a sloppy approach on quite a few levels of existence. It doesn’t work all that well in your personal life, and it certainly doesn’t work  if you’re trying to tackle major global problems. Climate disaster isn’t going to be averted if we think, ‘Oh, it probably won’t happen.’  Hope robs us of our agency – our will and power to change things. Don’t shrug and hope for the best – do everything you can to halt it. 

Burkeman ended his programme with a quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca, my favourite constructive pessimist. ‘Cease to hope,’ Seneca wrote, ‘and you will cease to fear.’ (Moral Letters 5)

Objective lists

20 Oct

listAccording to ‘objective list’  theorists, if we itemise the things which contribute to our well-being, we will often find that not all the entries on the list relate to pleasurable experiences or desire-satisfaction.  So neither hedonism nor desire theories work all that well as an account of  the ingredients of individual well-being.

There are problems with lists, of course – particularly with the stipulation ‘objective’. In the words of the contributor to Stanford’s ‘Plato’ entry, how do we decide what should  go on the list?  “It is important that every good should be included.” (  This often seems to come down to a question of who decides what goes on the list.

Most of us can probably come up with some reasonable suggestions. A year ago I heard  Professor Andrew Oswald present a convincing check-list of factors which we need to be aware of in any quest for well-being. These include items such as employment, exercise, and friendship (see this blog, 4 October 2015). Exercise may provide a good example of what objective list theorists are talking about. Some people hate it – they neither enjoy it nor want it. But somebody is telling them that they need it if they’re going to achieve well-being.

Hedonists may protest at this point that objective list theories are elitist. The theories are claiming that certain things are good for people even when those people don’t want them, and don’t derive pleasure from them. We might get round this by arguing that deep down people do enjoy what’s good for them. I don’t really like spinach, for example, but I do enjoy the sensation that I’m eating something that will make me healthy.  So I sort of enjoy eating spinach. In my head I enjoy it.

Another response to the elitist objection is to bite the bullet, and point out that a theory can be both elitist and true.

Even so, objective list theories aren’t necessarily authoritarian. Somebody could have a highly elitist view of what constitutes well-being, while maintaining the liberal view that it’s up to the individual to decide whether he or she wants to engage with it. No nanny state here then, just a set of ideas about what’s good for us, take it or leave it. Nobody’s forcing me to eat spinach, are they? This may be seen as the position adopted by John Stuart Mill.

While desire theories tell us that what we want is what is good for us, objective list theories tell us that what is good for us is what we want. According to Stanford’s ‘Plato’, “what is most at stake (in objective list theories) is the issue of the epistemic adequacy of our beliefs about well-being”. In other words, how do we know what is good for us?  Do we trust others to tell us?

Desire and the grass-counter

12 Oct

Pleasure and pain exist in the minds of the people who experience them, and are hard to measure. So economists interested in social welfare – who in the last ten years or so have been among the most prominent happiness theorists – have begun to link well-being with the satisfaction of desires, rather than sensations of pleasure. And since present desires are often transitory, and may evaporate quite quickly, comprehensive desires are the ones that theorists tend to concentrate on. What’s important for a person’s well-being, they argue, is the overall level of desire-satisfaction achieved in his or her life as a whole.

In thinking about desire and well-being, it’s necessary to circumvent the hypothetical situation where a drug addict can get hold of the substance he or she craves, very easily and at no expense, for a whole lifetime. Drug addicts generally aren’t happy, even when their desires are satisfied. So we probably shouldn’t measure well-being through straightforward desire-satisfaction. Rather, it’s suggested, we need to give desires a ranking, so that the more long-term desires – ones that encompass the shape and content of one’s life as a whole – are given priority.

So what about the people whose desires are very limited, because they have very little knowledge of what’s on offer in the world at large?  Like John Stuart Mill’s pig, they may be satisfied with very little. This prompts an informed desire version of the comprehensive desire theory: the best life is the one which we would desire if we were fully inforgrassmed about all the possibilities.

The American philosopher John Rawls has come up with an objection to this, which we can term the grass-counter example. Imagine that a brilliant Harvard mathematician, fully informed about all the options available to her, develops an overwhelming desire to count the blades of grass on the well-trimmed lawns of Harvard. Is a life of grass-counting really the best thing for her, even though it’s what she wants? (Theory of Justice, p. 432).

Rawls himself is inclined to conclude that such lives can be good for the people who are living them. But we can see what the problem is. Hence we come to objective list theories. These lists may include stuff that people neither want nor enjoy, but which even so may contribute to their well-being …