Sunday, August 8, 2010

How Pleasure Works

I have just finished reading a wonderful book by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. It is called How Pleasure Works but perhaps it should have been called The Varieties of Pleasurable Experience. In his book, Professor Bloom catalogues the many ways humans get pleasure, ranging from the basic, (food, sex), to the sublime, (music, art), to the shocking, (cannibalism, memorabilia collecting).

While discussing examples from history, literature, current events, news reports, and laboratory and real-world psychology studies, Bloom makes accessible the theories of many insightful researchers who have spent years studying aspects of the common but complex set of emotions we call pleasure.

Activities as wide-ranging as playing sado-masochistic sex games, collecting and looking at paintings, riding vomit-inducing roller coasters, killing, cooking, and eating a volunteer “victim”, and reading books about pleasure are discussed and examined in order to lay out an overarching theory of pleasure.

Bloom argues compellingly that much of what we experience as pleasure is rooted in the human belief in essentialism. It is a widely-studied and documented tendency in humans to attribute an almost magical power to some people and objects. We see it with small children and their favorite blankets, with athletes and their lucky talismans, with keepsakes and souvenirs from special places we have visited, and with our willingness to pay huge sums for objects once used by celebrities.

Just try replacing a child’s security blanket with one that is slightly different. Brad Pitt’s sweat-stained undershirt would sell for much more than mine would on eBay. Two visually identical paintings are worth vastly different sums of money if one is done by Vermeer and the other is an exact copy by someone else. Much of what we experience as pleasure comes not from the object or experience itself, but from some hard-to-define quality we attribute to someone or something connected to the object or experience.

Bloom’s book gave me much to think about while on vacation in Montana last week. I had a lot of free time to read because we were staying at Erica’s grandfather’s cabin and there is no Internet access at the cabin. Reading his book engaged my mind, entertained me, and gave me things to talk about with friends and family. I liked the book a lot. And, as I said, the reason I was able to finish the book in just a few days was the lack of Internet access.

But now that I am home, (and once again able to access the Internet any time, day or night, in any room and even on the front porch), I am pondering an aspect of pleasure Paul Bloom did not address in his otherwise excellent book. Specifically, I am wondering why it is that I am awful at accurately predicting how much, (or how little), pleasure I will get from spending time on my computer?

When I step back and watch myself, I am forced to conclude that I MUST get a lot of pleasure from spending time on the Internet. After all, I spend hours a day checking the weather in Billings, MT, looking at my checking account balance, reading news of politics and gossip on the Huffington Post website, seeing how many people have visited my blog, catching up with all of my friends on Facebook, reading the newspaper, and following my unfettered curiosity as it crashes haphazardly through the limitless trivia and marginalia available on the Internet.

I must like it, right? After all, time is the single most precious commodity humans have. Our hours are numbered and the total is unknown to us. And for me to spend so many of my hours on the Internet clearly means I must derive immense pleasure from my time there, right?

And yet…why, when I finally hit the “Sleep” command and step away from the laptop, why do I feel like shit? It is not pleasure I get from my time online. In fact, it is the opposite. Spending a chunk of time on the computer usually makes me feel slightly manic, somewhat angry, and mostly depressed. Tell me something Paul Bloom, why do I consistently choose to do something that gives me the opposite of pleasure?

1 comment:

  1. Yes, why we like what we like seems kinda secondary next to the question, "Why do we do what we do?"

    Reminds me of vintage Saturday-morning propaganda for Applejacks cereal: We Eat What We Like. Which begs the question, "Then why the hell are you eating Applejacks?"

    - pete v