I recently read Paul Bloom’s new book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. It’s an absolutely fascinating look at pleasure and why we feel it. The relationship between pleasure and happiness — what it ought to be, and what it actually is – is one of the most complex issues within the larger subject of happiness. So I was very eager to hear what Paul had to say.
Gretchen: What do you see as the difference between happiness and pleasure?
Paul: I think of pleasure as connected to specific experiences. So we get pleasure from looking at a pretty face, or listening to music, or eating certain foods. Sex can give us pleasure, and so can going to a movie or participating in religious ritual or creating artwork.
Now, all of these things might make us happy too, but happiness is more of an enduring state, and less tethered to any specific person or thing or activity. Like everyone, I’m interested in happiness, but my own research has focused mostly on pleasure, which I think is a fascinating topic.
What’s something you know now about pleasure that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
The big thing that I now know is that pleasure is really smart. The pleasures of everyday life–even those that might seem simple and animalistic, like food and sex–are deeply affected by our beliefs and our understanding. A meal tastes differently depending on what you think you are eating; a face can be attractive or repulsive depending on who you think the person is. I certainly didn’t know this when I was 18.
What about happiness? What have you learned that would surprise your younger self?
That’s an easy one. Perhaps the biggest surprise of my life is the happiness I’ve got from having children. If you asked me at 18 about the things that would make me happy later in life, children would have never made the list.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your pleasure?
I’m often not smart enough about habituation, about the deadening effects of repetition. If I like something — like a song, or a type of food — I find it hard to resist the temptation to sample it over and over again, even though I know that my pleasure would be longer-lasting if I could restrain myself, and ration out these pleasurable experiences over time.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
No mantra, motto, or quotation. But I’ve long been very influenced by the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His writings on flow, on the experience of being fully immersed in an activity, very eloquently capture a critical aspect of a rich and satisfying life. I find that I’m much happier if I can achieve this flow state for part of each day. But this requires shutting off my email and my web browser, not an easy task.
* I found a lot of interesting material cruising around Lemondrop.
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