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
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.