[This post is part of a series on creating happiness and reward by understanding pleasure. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
You may have heard the phrase that we aren’t designed to be happy.
I agree with the concept. More than that, since in the Model we consider not only happiness but emotional reward, other pleasurable emotions, and physical pleasure too, I would further say we aren’t designed to feel physical or emotional pleasure either. By emotional pleasure I mean emotions you like to feel — like happiness, joy, satisfaction, etc.
When some people understand these points they give up on improving their lives. Seeing no point in trying, they accept misery and suffering they don’t have to. Of course, they don’t say it so bluntly. They just respond to things that bring them down with “that’s life” or “who said life was fair?” or some other statement of resignation or learned helplessness. And they surround themselves with other suffering people who reinforce their resignation.
You may not get reward, happiness, and other pleasurable emotions automatically, but one of the main consequences of learning the Model and Method is learning that you can bring about as much reward and whatever emotion as you want.
Even people who haven’t given up on improving their lives miss the potential reward available to them, so let’s understand that potential and make it more attainable to you. An analogy with physical pleasure will help.
You aren’t designed to feel pleasure all the time any more than you are to feel happiness. You only feel pleasure when something in your environment prompts pleasurable sensations. If you know what prompts pleasure you can create as much as you want for yourself.
If you’ve thought about it, you’ve probably realized why pleasurable things feel pleasurable (earlier posts spelled it out in what I call a functional view of emotions). Pleasure motivates you to bring about more of what caused it. Today’s world, with junk food and other things that feel pleasurable but damage your health, confuses the issue, but I bet that in our ancestors’ environments nearly everything pleasurable was healthy.
That is, pleasurable things feel pleasurable to motivate you doing more of those things. They were healthy for our ancestors, so we descended from the ones whose emotional systems motivated this healthy behavior.
Pain makes as much sense as pleasure from this functional perspective. Pain motivates you to avoid what caused it. I bet everything painful was unhealthy in our ancestors’ environments. Again, today’s world can confuse us because we’ve created unhealthy pleasurable things and we’ve created cars and other labor-saving devices to avoid healthy unpleasurable activities like exercise (those activities can be pleasurable if we do them, but we avoid them anyway). So knowing our roots helps, as the endurance of the philosophical advice “know thyself” suggests.
Knowing the functional roles of pleasure and pain reveals how to bring about or avoid each — just think of what was healthy or unhealthy for your ancestors and bring them into your life or avoid them.
Speaking of pain, when you recognize it helps keep you healthy, avoiding getting burned, cut, and so on, it doesn’t make sense to call it bad, act like you didn’t feel it when you did, wonder why pain happened, or wish you never felt it. This clarification will come back when we look at unpleasurable emotions, since people often call anger, hatred, and the like negative or bad, missing their functional role similar to physical pain.
You probably realize you can bring about as much physical pleasure as you want. Even so, you probably don’t want pure pleasure exclusively in your life. You probably want a life with mostly pleasure, accepting or even celebrating that you sometimes feel pain and that you have to work to bring about some of the pleasure. The more you know about your evolutionary past the more physical pleasure you can bring about. Today’s world differs from the world where our emotional systems evolved and you know that difference warps some of the our emotions’ effectiveness. Knowing more about pleasure doesn’t decrease how good it feels, though.
Okay, now let’s get to the meat of this post. Applying what we know about physical pleasure and how easily we can create it to emotional pleasure to see how easily we can create it.
Everything about physical pleasure, which comes from interacting with your physical environment, has an analogue with emotional pleasure like happiness and joy, which come from interacting generally with your social environment. In SAT terms you could say
physical pleasure : emotional pleasure :: physical environment : social environment
When you realize and understand
- how easily you can bring about physical pleasure
- the functional role of emotions
- the analogy between physical and emotional pleasure and physical and social environments
then you realize how easily you can bring about pleasurable emotions. All you have to do is bring about healthy social situations analogous to healthy physical situations — things like being a good member of your community and family, learning and improving yourself, and staying healthy.
Just like bringing about physical pleasure brings physical health (when you know to adjust for environmental changes our emotional systems haven’t had time to adjust to, meaning eating fresh fruit and exercise, not junk food and video games), bringing about emotional pleasure brings emotional health.
You could re-read this section using that analogy to understand how to bring about more emotional pleasure in your life. In fact, I will rewrite it tomorrow to clarify, then extend it the next day to show how to bring about more emotional reward in your life.