Most of us spend our lives trying to balance pleasure and harm, so it’s odd that the only medical lecture I’ve attended that even mentioned the ‘p’ word was about sticking an electrode into a rat’s brain. In doing this, a Canadian researcher called James Olds stumbled on a part of the brain devoted entirely to pleasure. When the electrode was attached to a pedal, the rat would press it thousands of times an hour for maximum pleasure.
That was back in 1954 and rats have been peddling furiously ever since. But pleasure has never really taken off as a serious subject for doctors. Type it into the search engine of the mighty National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (www.nice.org.uk), and it returns not a single hit. Pleasure receives just two mentions in the Oxford textbook of medicine (in relation to condom usage and physiotherapy), whereas stress weighs in with 127 mentions. As with our news media, it seems medicine is obsessed with frightening us into compliance and accentuating the negative rather than helping people to be happy.
Doctors very rarely tell patients to pleasure themselves (for fear of getting struck off), but anything above a rodent is hardwired to seek it out. The little research that has been done suggests a regular dose of pleasure strengthens your immune system and keeps both mind and body healthy by relieving stress. And it’s cheap—if you close your eyes and think of the things you really enjoy, most don’t cost much.
Enjoyment is a personal thing, but the concept is not new. Alcohol has been invented and used in every known culture. Stories, sex, siestas, chocolate, pets, dancing, laughter, cakes, and coffee are just as ubiquitous—although not necessarily in that order. It seems there is a basic human need for us to enjoy ourselves, and if you believe Charles Darwin, there must be some evolutionary advantage in hedonism, provided you keep it under control. The trick is to enjoy yourself without harming yourself or those around you. But pleasure doesn’t last long if you ruin it with regret. One study found that some women feel more guilty about eating ice cream than committing adultery. And committing adultery with ice cream is what keeps therapists in business.
Humans are social animals and pleasure generally requires some form of connection—friends, family, fantasy, food, art, or the environment. But to connect takes time and although we seem to have more of everything else than we had 60 years ago (such as money, possessions), we have less time to enjoy them.
Very few pleasures aren’t improved by slowing down (except perhaps running from bulls). Going slow allows you to connect more, consume less, and remember enough to make a story out of it. Stories allow us to recycle pleasure constantly. They last forever, reinvent themselves, and give us surprises, meanings, and metaphors for life. And if you can enjoy your own story, as well as the stories of others, you’re more resilient when stuff happens, and more able to pass your story on.
The trick with pleasure is knowing when to stop. Everyone needs to grow an ‘I’ve had enough’ button. Some lucky people have a button that kicks in automatically, telling them when to stop drinking and go home before they make an idiot of themselves. Some have a manual button that needs nudging into action by a friend, and some of us are just rats on the pleasure pedal, seemingly incapable of self-control without a good dose of warfarin. Which one are you?G
Dr Phil’s new book Sex, sleep, or scrabble? Seriously funny answers to life’s quirkiest questions is out now.