Monday, March 19, 2007

On Not Seeking Pleasure Much

When I was a graduate student, a girlfriend asked me what, of all things, I most enjoyed doing. Eschewing the obvious and half-clever reply, I answered skiing -- thinking of those moments of breathing the cold, clean air, taking in the mountain view, then expertly carving a steep, lonely slope. But how long had it been since I'd gone skiing -- maybe three years? My girlfriend suggested that if has been three years since I've done what I most enjoyed doing, then maybe I wasn't living wisely.

Well what, I asked, did she most enjoy? Getting back massages, she said. Now the two of us had a deal at the time: If one gave the other a back massage, the recipient would owe a massage in return the following day. We exchanged massages occasionally, but not often, probably about once every few weeks. I pointed out to her that she, too, might not be perfectly rational: She could easily get much more of what she most enjoyed by simply giving me more back massages. And surely the displeasure of giving me a back massage couldn't outweigh the pleasure of getting the thing she most enjoyed in the world? Or was pleasure for her so tepid a thing that even the greatest pleasure was hardly worth getting, so that the combination of getting and receiving a back massage would for her be a hedonic negative?

I suspect at the root of both these cases is the same thing: Avoiding displeasure is, for her and me and most people, intrinsically more motivating than gaining pleasure, so that even our top pleasures (skiing, back massages) aren't motivating enough to overcome only moderate displeasures (organizing a ski trip, giving a massage). Is this rational? Is displeasure more unpleasant than pleasure is pleasant? Or is this like the economic irrationality of doing much more to avoid a loss than to secure an equivalent gain?

If avoiding displeasure is more motivating than seeking pleasure, this also might explain certain strands in Stoicism and Buddhism.

10 comments:

Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

What are the unenjoyable counterparts to the enjoyable experiences you mention? In my own case, I find it very unenjoyable to be behind on deadlines. The stress is really horrible and eats away at my enjoyment of other activities. And yet, like many a procrastinator, I often fail to do the little things that would allow me to meet deadlines and thus avoid lots of unease.

Similarly, when I meditate and work out my stress level is reduced, I feel better, and am also more productive. But when I get stressed I am less likely to do these things - a feedback loop generating stress (unease) so to speak.

My point is that many people are just as bad at avoiding pain or unease as they are bad at pursuing that which they most enjoy.

I think that the common mistake is a matter of over-"counting" the (temporally) near cost or under-"counting" the far (temporally) costs and benefits.

Of course the idea of counting gets the phenomenology all wrong, so there is more to say...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Brad! That's an excellent point. I agree that my two examples may involve both the issue I have in mind and the issue of discounting the future.

I don't think that discounting the future can be the whole story here, though, since that effect dissipates when both the pleasure and the displeasure are in the mid- to long-term future -- for example, when deciding whether to go skiing next week. The displeasure is 6 1/2 days away and the pleasure is 7 days away, so they shouldn't be very differently discounted.

Procrasination looks very different from that distance. It's not tempting in prospect. It generally involves deviation from a plan, for short-term gain (or for some other reason); the skiing case involves not setting up the plan. It's not that I plan to go skiing and then as the deadline looms the unpleasant prospect of packing and driving causes me to bail out.

So although I don't deny there's the effect you describe, I'm still inclined to think that in general we're not much moved to plan for pleasure.

I'm not sure about the meditation case, but I at least find meditation unpleasant!

michael metzler said...

Eric,

Thought provoking post! I have been monitoring a distinct change in my own avoidance/seeking practices, and I wonder if this is something that changes with age for some people – some of us gaining the wisdom of the Stoics earlier in life than others perhaps (I'd be a late bloomer). Isn’t it the case that when we are young we are more apt to seek the pleasure while not worrying much about the immediate costs or downhill displeasures? If so, perhaps this is the rationality of youth and strength. This might explain why many young people start their own businesses for the first time, taking little care of the fact that statistically they have a 3 percent chance of not ending their first journey as worn-out failures (an article in INC. magazine argued that entrepreneurs are helpfully irrational in this regard). There is almost something fun about the possible displeasure; on the downside, this might be like the risks taken by the young mobster. But with time this seems to change: the same 20 year old who risked dropping out of college for the daily ski thrill will likely be dutifully getting to work on time at age 40. In sum, I’m wondering if the intuition of the old, wise philosopher will be far different than the energetic 18 year old on this question; in fact, for young children I wonder if the lack of immediate pleasure seeking and a high degree of displeasure avoidance would suggest emotional or psychological trouble. No? Yes?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought, Michael! I wouldn't be surprised if this did change a bit over the life span.

I like your idea that it takes strength or energy to pursue pleasure, in face of the inconveniences and displeasures entailed. I'd wager that age, exhaustion, and other things affecting energy levels would also impact decisions to pursue pleasure.

I'm not at all attracted to the idea of "psychological hedonism" that we always just do what maximizes our net pleasure (with maybe, as Brad suggests, an irrational emphasis on short-term pleasures and displeasures). Our behavior is much more driven, I think, by habits, goals, values, and spontaneous reactions.

Anonymous said...

I like this thought provoking post too Eric!

I am again really resonating with what you are saying here. I really think society has shaped us to become more prone to moving AWAY from displeasure, rather than moving TOWARDS pleasure. I don't think this is an innate state of affairs for a human being.

The way I see it, we're programmed and conditioned by society to expect instant gratification. As well on the flip side society doesn't do a good job to illustrate the balance of hard work and moving towards a pre-determined goal, moving through emotional "hardship" to attain success.

The way I see it is we have become emotionally reactive creatures within this society. Herd mentality for the most part, I believe. And that line of thought is move-away-from-pain and we'll be OK. Because the seemingly "common understanding" of our time is that we're standing on the shoulders of giants. We're all being taken care of from a societal point of view by the compounded technological advances of our society as well as the common line of thought that says "Well someone else is probably going to lead, there's no reason for me to get in his/her way." Which I believe a person would have to agree is the ideal mentality for sheep to have in a shepard-sheep society.

I don't personally agree that you aren't living wisely by waiting so long to go skiing. By avoiding that pleasure you are able to focus on tasks at hand more diligently and PROactively get things done in your life to a successful degree. As long as that's your perspective... and I suspect it is because you hadn't been pining over the prospect of going skiing for three years, but rather was something you (seemed to, anyway) just realize that it's been that long.
You've probably just been more attuned to more emotionally-reactive occurances in your life, such as getting research done and getting papers in on deadlines. I also suspect if you went skiing three times a year every year it may (maybe anyway) lose some of it's novelty and place at the top of your most-enjoy-doing list.

I think specifically in the case of the back massage... I'm still on the line of thought that people (generally) are instant-gratification based, rather than proactively planning for pleasure. Emotionally speaking the back massage would probably seem to feel much better for either you or her if one of you just gave out a back massage saying "this one's off the books... ;)".
But that's just my perspective, I don't think skiing has much to do with back massages, the emotions actually involved are on much different levels.

-sh(shawn)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comment, Shawn! I like the way you connect the distinction between being reactive and proactive with the ideas of the original post. We may not proactively avoid displeasure much, either....

reddish said...

Very interesting point...

And one that makes me quite sad...

First, let me say that I believe that all of existence operates accordin to laws, and that regardless of whether or not the brain and the rest of our nervous system gives rise to our mind directly, I believe that laws govern everything, so everything is predetermined. A sufficiently sophisticated 'computer' could calculate the entire future of the universe, including the behaviors of people, given complete knowledge of the state of existence in a given moment.

The point is, advice for a determinist is a somewhat contradictory thing... Anyhow:

Perhaps we should 'push' ourselves more to do the things we love. Why? I think that we aren't fully rational, as you said, and thus effort needs to be placed into making sure we act so. Where does the irrationality slip into the system? I'm thinking that perhaps one issue is that our memory of pleasures tend to evaporate over time. We forget just how good skiing feels.

Now, I know this isn't true of all pleasures. I, for example, quite clearly remember many pleasure that I enjoyed, some pretty extreme pleasures if you get my meaning. Sex, rock 'n roll -- you know the package, right? But other things, like skiing, that are a more mixed bag -- they include organizing, maybe you've had a bad experience, too -- but still are very pleasurable on the whole may become remembered only very imperfectly and thus we lose our motivation to re-engage, to become psychologically addicted to these things. (I.e. to have a powerful motivation to do these things. BTW, I hate the word addict for drug users, and even addiction for their pattern of use, but I find it useful here. Why? Because with regard to drugs it has become something of a perjorative, and I really dislike 'addict' to label a human. Dislike a lot of labels, really. And in the case of the word 'addiction', with regard to drugs, you're merely stating the obvious -- drugs feel very good to people who keep using them, that's why they use habitually! But for less intense pleasures -- or those that aren't obviously very intense -- addiction to them tells us something, namely, how pleasurable they are.

Another thing, I think, about most everyday pleasures is that the pleasure is diffuse over time. I.e., with drugs or sex, the two things which I believe are historically considered to be the most pleasurable experiences to be had at will (i.e. one's child's birth may give great joy but it can't be repeated so as to maximize lifetime utility; many other pleasures are more or less out of our control with regard to when they occur). So, skiing, unlike drugs or sex, gives you a less intense pleasure over a longer period of time. I believe one could look at it that way, at least. So, the connection drawn in the mind between the skiing and the pleasure is perhaps weaker. The cause and effect relationship is less clear, to the 'unconscious' mind which I would suppose is responsible for creating great attractions to repeat activities.

Anyhow, glad to hear what you think of these ideas.

reddish said...

Very interesting point...

And one that makes me quite sad...

First, let me say that I believe that all of existence operates accordin to laws, and that regardless of whether or not the brain and the rest of our nervous system gives rise to our mind directly, I believe that laws govern everything, so everything is predetermined. A sufficiently sophisticated 'computer' could calculate the entire future of the universe, including the behaviors of people, given complete knowledge of the state of existence in a given moment.

The point is, advice for a determinist is a somewhat contradictory thing... Anyhow:

Perhaps we should 'push' ourselves more to do the things we love. Why? I think that we aren't fully rational, as you said, and thus effort needs to be placed into making sure we act so. Where does the irrationality slip into the system? I'm thinking that perhaps one issue is that our memory of pleasures tend to evaporate over time. We forget just how good skiing feels.

Now, I know this isn't true of all pleasures. I, for example, quite clearly remember many pleasure that I enjoyed, some pretty extreme pleasures if you get my meaning. Sex, rock 'n roll -- you know the package, right? But other things, like skiing, that are a more mixed bag -- they include organizing, maybe you've had a bad experience, too -- but still are very pleasurable on the whole may become remembered only very imperfectly and thus we lose our motivation to re-engage, to become psychologically addicted to these things. (I.e. to have a powerful motivation to do these things. BTW, I hate the word addict for drug users, and even addiction for their pattern of use, but I find it useful here. Why? Because with regard to drugs it has become something of a perjorative, and I really dislike 'addict' to label a human. Dislike a lot of labels, really. And in the case of the word 'addiction', with regard to drugs, you're merely stating the obvious -- drugs feel very good to people who keep using them, that's why they use habitually! But for less intense pleasures -- or those that aren't obviously very intense -- addiction to them tells us something, namely, how pleasurable they are.

Another thing, I think, about most everyday pleasures is that the pleasure is diffuse over time. I.e., with drugs or sex, the two things which I believe are historically considered to be the most pleasurable experiences to be had at will (i.e. one's child's birth may give great joy but it can't be repeated so as to maximize lifetime utility; many other pleasures are more or less out of our control with regard to when they occur). So, skiing, unlike drugs or sex, gives you a less intense pleasure over a longer period of time. I believe one could look at it that way, at least. So, the connection drawn in the mind between the skiing and the pleasure is perhaps weaker. The cause and effect relationship is less clear, to the 'unconscious' mind which I would suppose is responsible for creating great attractions to repeat activities.

Anyhow, glad to hear what you think of these ideas.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, reddish. I'm not sure about your account of drug use -- I suspect at some point it becomes the avoidance of displeasure at withdrawal, or even just simply driven behavior without pleasure or displeasure as a mediator. As for sex, I know lots of singles who could go to the bars more often and married couples who could do it more often -- so I'm not sure either case really is so different from the skiing or backrub case. (Maybe.)

Amy Putkonen said...

I think that it's not so much a case of pleasure or displeasure as it is doing or not doing. Not doing is the default for most people, and whether that gets you pleasure or pain is determined by the feelings you would have by "not doing" whatever it is!