Greg Bruce won­ders if plea­sure is all it’s cracked up to be

Greg Bruce won­ders if plea­sure is all it’s cracked up to be

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS -

My wife came home from a one-hour mas­sage a cou­ple of months ago and when I asked how it went she said a mas­sage was the type of thing you could never get sick of.

It’s not hard to test a propo­si­tion like that in a job like mine. You send an email to a PR per­son and there’s some back and forth about lo­gis­tics and next thing it’s Fri­day morn­ing and you’re ly­ing in a 38 de­gree Cleopatra milk bath in a dimly lit room with seven hours of purest so­cial sci­ence ahead of you.

East Day Spa’s lead ther­a­pist was not ini­tially too keen on the idea. She emailed the PR per­son: “That is too much stim­u­la­tion for the body. You are adding and us­ing oils which detox and stim­u­late the body in­ter­nally as well as ma­nip­u­la­tion of mus­cles, bring­ing tox­ins into his body. This will cre­ate a re­ac­tion whether it be straight af­ter the treat­ment or when he gets home.

“He could even get very, very sick from it, like a cold or some­thing sim­i­lar.”

Get­ting a cold was the op­po­site of what I wanted, so we com­pro­mised. In­stead of an all-day mas­sage, I would have a range of treat­ments: 30-minute Cleopatra Milk Bath, 45-minute san­dal­wood drench scrub, 30-minute co­conut and vanilla creme body wrap, 90-minute aro­mather­apy mas­sage, 90-minute fa­cial, 60-minute manicure, in­clud­ing a neck and shoul­der rub, some lunch from Gusto at SkyCity Grand and a pic­colo of Moet.

Seven hours is a lu­di­crous amount of time to spend hav­ing mas­sages and mas­sage-re­lated treat­ments but, be­cause time com­presses dur­ing plea­sur­able ex­pe­ri­ences and again in ret­ro­spect, it doesn’t feel lu­di­crous. It would now — I as­sume — be hard for me to have some­thing as pro­saic as a one-hour mas­sage. An­other way of look­ing at it: I have ru­ined some­thing I used to like.

For most of the day I was dressed only in a pair of enor­mous black pa­per un­der­pants. By the time I got to the fa­cial, which took place in what I as­sume was the early af­ter­noon, my sense of time was en­tirely warped. It was years since I had gone so long with­out ac­cess to a clock or win­dow and at some point I en­tered a border­land be­tween con­scious­ness and sleep and wan­dered around there, dis­ori­ented and de­lighted.

Did I ever get sick of it? Of course I didn’t. The only neg­a­tive emo­tion I had all day — and the first time this hap­pened was with more than six hours to go — was sad­ness at the thought it would soon be over.

A far more in­ter­est­ing ques­tion is, “Did it make me happy?”

Here are some of the pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences it gave me: an­tic­i­pa­tion, re­lax­ation, plea­sur­able tac­tile sen­sa­tion, hu­man con­nec­tion, grat­i­tude, dis­so­lu­tion of time. Do any of those things com­prise “hap­pi­ness”? Which ones? In what ra­tio?

At home that night, I felt good — not as good, I think, as if I’d had a pro­duc­tive day at work, or com­pleted a DIY project, or or­gan­ised a great birth­day for my wife — but if you’d asked me dur­ing the day whether I’d have rather been do­ing any of those things, I would’ve said your an­noy­ing ques­tions were ru­in­ing my mas­sage.

WE LOVE plea­sure and we spend a lot of our lives chas­ing it and that’s strange be­cause we don’t value it very highly. We know this be­cause par­ents of­ten say they want their chil­dren to be happy but never say they want their chil­dren to lead lives of plea­sure.

Plea­sure has many stupid as­pects. It is what they call in the lit­er­a­ture a “fast de­cay” ex­pe­ri­ence. In other words, “What’s this pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence do­ing for me, other than mak­ing me feel good in this pre­cise mo­ment?” Once it’s over, all we’re left with is the de­sire to do it again.

Re­search has also shown that plea­sure isn’t as en­joy­able as we think it is. There are more and stronger path­ways in the brain avail­able for de­sir­ing plea­sur­able acts than there are for en­joy­ing them. In other words, we’re not chas­ing the re­wards plea­sure gives us — we’re chas­ing the re­wards we get from want­ing it.

Re­searchers in Ger­many in 2010 con­ducted a study com­par­ing the hap­pi­ness of the em­ployed and the un­em­ployed, called “Dis­sat­is­fied with Life but Hav­ing a Good Day”.

What they found was that when both groups are do­ing the same ac­tiv­ity, the un­em­ployed feel sad­der. But maybe be­cause the un­em­ployed get to spend more time do­ing ac­tiv­i­ties they en­joy and less time stand­ing in meet­ings in shared workspaces with peo­ple they hate, their to­tal quan­tity of lived hap­pi­ness — what the re­searchers called “av­er­age ex­pe­ri­enced util­ity” — is about the same as that of the em­ployed. Fi­nally, the study found the un­em­ployed are less sat­is­fied with their lives over­all.

So which of these mea­sures — life

What’s this pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence do­ing for me, other than mak­ing me feel good in this pre­cise mo­ment? Once it’s over, all we’re left with is the de­sire to do it again.

sat­is­fac­tion, mo­ment-to-mo­ment hap­pi­ness, to­tal quan­tity of hap­pi­ness — are we talk­ing about when we talk about hap­pi­ness? Or are we talk­ing about some­thing else al­to­gether? And, oh dear God, does any of this mat­ter?

THE ALL-DAY mas­sage was the cli­max of a week­long project in which I tested the na­ture and lim­its of plea­sure.

I spent all of Mon­day read­ing a crit­i­cally ac­claimed novel and all of Tues­day watch­ing a crit­i­cally ac­claimed tele­vi­sion series. I had con­tacted the Auck­land Coun­cil to get their mow­ing sched­ule so I could spend all Thurs­day morn­ing smelling fresh-cut grass but then it rained, so I sat by my­self in my 1996 Dai­hatsu Mira in the Bas­tion Point carpark and watched the lawn­mow­ers through my in­creas­ingly foggy wind­screen. I ate my favourite burger ev­ery day and I ate five large bags of my favourite gourmet pop­corn across the week.

I had spent weeks think­ing about what book I would read. I had a long and de­light­ful email ex­change about it with the rightly lauded book­seller Jenna Todd of Time Out Book­store in Mt Eden. I had never be­fore read a whole novel in a day and the prospect filled me with a feel­ing I used to be con­fi­dent I knew the name of.

I built a file of prospec­tive ti­tles; I dis­cussed ideas with friends. Even­tu­ally, on Todd’s rec­om­men­da­tion, I set­tled on just-re­leased, short-priced favourite for the Booker Prize, Nor­mal Peo­ple.

Be­fore I could sit down to read it on Mon­day morn­ing, I had to run the jug­ger­naut of hugs, kisses and tears that is say­ing good­bye to my three chil­dren. This is one of the hard­est parts of be­ing a daddy. It takes so long.

Once I was free, I sank into the bean­bag by the glass doors, the heat pump set to 24, lux­u­ri­at­ing in the soli­tude, the prospect of eight hours of solid read­ing ahead of me. It was hard to re­mem­ber the last time I felt so strongly what­ever it was I was feel­ing.

Full en­gage­ment in the world of a novel nec­es­sar­ily in­volves the loss of self-con­scious­ness and, if what that brings is not hap­pi­ness, it is at least an ab­sence of hap­pi­ness’s rough an­tag­o­nists — anx­i­ety, guilt and dis­ap­point­ment.

A few weeks af­ter I read it, Nor­mal Peo­ple, the over­whelm­ing favourite to win the Booker Prize, failed to even make the shortlist.

I FELT a lot of guilt on Tues­day, but none more so than at 5pm when I looked down at my re­cum­bent, blan­ket-cov­ered form dis­graced with the rem­nants of two large bags of Se­ri­ous Pop­corn’s sweet and salty va­ri­etal while I lis­tened to my wife up­stairs, strug­gling un­der the bit­ter load of early evening child­care,

I ate my favourite burger ev­ery day and I ate five large bags of my favourite gourmet pop­corn across the week.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.