The Pleasure Trap and How to Escape It
How our unique place in the history of consumerism and technology has blurred an important distinction, and how we can see it more clearly.
We are simultaneously in a great time to be alive, and an extremely dangerous one. On one hand, we have at our fingertips all kinds of stimuli — from information and entertainment, to conversation and consumption. Theoretically, we can have a desire for something, find it, pay for it, and have it arrive to us all in the same day — without leaving our homes, and using a phone that fits in our pocket. It’s a veritable buffet of goods and services that exist in order to cater to our every whim.
So not only has the sheer quantity of available pleasures increased dramatically, but also (and more importantly) the time between when we form a desire to when we can fulfill it has dramatically decreased. In this way, we live in a time truly unlike any other in history. And we seem to be taking it all in stride.
Or are we?
The Pleasure Trap
While there is an aspect of this that sounds great, you can probably see the potential drawbacks. There is a phenomenon known in psychology as hedonic adaptation, which basically says that humans have an uncanny ability to adapt to the stimulus they receive, and quickly return to a stable level of baseline happiness.
What this means is that for each of your desires that gets fulfilled, you very quickly become used to it, and your level of happiness goes back to what it was before. It’s a lot like tolerance to a drug: the more you get, the more you get used to having more, and the more you desire.
So if you combine our mind’s uncanny ability to adapt to pleasure, with an ever-increasing supply of more easily-obtained pleasures — we’re setting ourselves up for a kind of pleasure-addicted life that may end pretty hollow.
I call it the pleasure trap: we’re encouraged by businesses and technology to act more quickly on more of our desires — which they exist in order to fulfill. As a result, we get accustomed to having more and more desires, and having them fulfilled more quickly. This means that we form more desires, and form them more frequently. The more pleasure we chase, and the more pleasure we get, the more we need.
But what we forget, is that the more desires and expectations we have, the more opportunities there are for frustration, anger, and feelings of hopelessness. It can end up ruling our lives, if we let it.
So what can we do about it?
Know and Live the Difference: Pleasure vs. Joy
The best way to step away from the pleasure trap is to cultivate joy, rather than chasing pleasures. Joy is not the same as pleasure. They are markedly different things.
Pleasure is just what it sounds like. It feels great when it’s happening, and usually involves the senses. It comes from and depends on something external — some stimulus or some object.
But pleasure is short-lived. It comes and goes quickly. And in some cases, it fades quickly into guilt, shame, regret, doubt, and other negative emotions — depending on the circumstances. And even when it doesn’t, it leaves in its wake the expectation of more. It’s that expectation — that desire, for more of what you have — that can be your undoing.
The pursuit of pleasure — like every other pursuit — is a sacrifice, a trade-off. You may pursue one thing, but whatever you don’t pursue, you leave behind. And so often, we don’t realize until it’s too late, what we are leaving behind as we chase after pleasure. In many cases, it’s something more valuable, and more lasting: joy.
Joy — as opposed to pleasure — is a combination of understanding, appreciation, gratitude, and connection. Joy is deeper than pleasure — it’s intellectual (some say spiritual). It is something that — unlike pleasure — you cultivate through an understanding of both yourself, others, and the nature of the world around you. And what is more, you can actually generate and sustain joy without any kind of stimulus — which is not the case for pleasure.
What’s more, joy is more complex and nuanced than pleasure. Joy can be made up of both pain and pleasure. It can spring forth from a terrible experience — the kind that you learn from, and that give you appreciation for what you have.
We may think that joyful life is made up of a thousand enjoyable moments — that having joy in your life is simply a matter of collecting a bunch of fun or memorable experiences. But nothing could be further from the truth. Joy is built of both joyful and painful moments. Joy often comes at times when pleasure is not even a factor. Joy and pain can coexist. Joy and loss can coexist. The same cannot be said of pleasure.