This post is an investigation into the concept of pleasure or enjoyment as it relates to Kahnemans concept of the experiencing self and the remembering self.
It is posted on this blog in the spirit of sharing strategies for pleasure, as mentioned by Sarah Perry in her essay Body Pleasure:
I think that the best we can do is to take pleasure seriously, to share strategies for body pleasure management, and ideally, to increase the ease with which everyone can pursue a pleasurable and pain-free life – not just a meaningful life.
When thinking about what kinds of pleasure are more in the domain of each of these two selves, my immediate assumption was that all pleasure was in the domain of the remembering self. This says a lot about me.
My initial examples were the pleasure of working through a task to get a reward or finding a solution. In this scenario one is not experiencing pleasure when working on the problem, in fact it might be actively painful and frustrating, but once the problem is solved there is a “rush”, followed by pleasure at one’s achievement. It is the remembering self that says “I feel good because I solved that problem”. The solving is in the past, the solution is in the past and it is by reflecting on the fact that one has discovered the solution that pleasure comes.
I felt more vindicated in this view when considering flow. Flow is the state during which a person is maximally engaged in an activity because it is right on the limit of their cognitive abilities. It is considered restful because during flow, there is no spare cognitive power for a fussy ego to comment or have an opinion on everything that is happening. People who have more opportunities for flow self-report greater wellbeing than those who don’t. In theory it is because they have time during which their ego, or the voice/thoughts we have in our heads is not present.
When I considered flow, it seemed obvious that at the time of operation, no pleasure is technically experienced. Pleasure is not relevant to flow, because it is about fully engaging cognitive resources. Pleasure only returns when the ego returns and when one says to oneself “wow, that was a good piece of flow time!” Therefore pleasure sits with the ego and by default with the reflective, remembering self.
Even games are to do with the remembering self. If I am shooting enemies I am maximally engaged, if I get three headshots in a row I say to myself “I am so great, I got three headshots in a row”. This is still the remembering self. If there is no pause after this event, I don’t get to say this. The best games combine frequent rewards with frequent small pauses so that the remembering loop can play out optimally and frequently, thus giving the illusion of continuously experiencing pleasure while playing them.
It took me a little while longer to come up with candidates of pleasure types for the experiencing self, but now of course it seems obvious: sensory pleasure.
With things like massage or sex, one’s senses draw one into the present moment and one’s focus is completely on the sensory pleasure. Indeed, if one loses focus, like worrying you’ve left the washing on the line, it will diminish the pleasure of a massage because massage is a present-moment experience. When a sensory experience is intensely pleasurable (or painful) it becomes exponentially harder to put attention anywhere else.
Another possible candidate for experiencing self is emotional enjoyment, such as if someone tells you that you’ve done a good job or that you are loved. This seems a lot more fuzzy than sensory pleasure, but for now I’ll accept that it is a pleasure of experience in the moment.
Both of these types of pleasure (sensory & emotional) have remembering-self components of course. Sensory pleasure has an afterglow and then finally the memory of the pleasure is good, it reinforces a desire to do that thing again and it helps to recreate the pleasure of the experience. Reminding oneself that one is loved or reflecting on a good joke are also very pleasurable after the fact.
But the key distinction for me is whether something feels the strongest while it is happening, or when it is remembered. While remembering a good massage is pleasant, it is nothing in comparison to the pleasure of the massage as it was happening.
There are further distinctions in the remembering self too. I think it’s a valid argument that the dopamine release on the completion of a task is an experiencing self moment; that “rush” is a powerful surge of hormone-feedback and this surge is what we in fact crave in terms of pleasure. However I am still quite keen on the idea that the remembering self then adds meaning to the feeling, by telling a story, such as being a good problem solver, which extends the experience for a long time, and also helps the experience become additive. The dopamine surge itself is extremely short compared to other sensory pleasures, but repeatedly reinforcing a story of being a quick learner or a good problem solver is a pleasure primarily of the remembering self.
I personally have always been the type of person who privileges the remembering-self, and have been actively trying to be more focussed on experiences. I think many other adults are the same as me, which makes sense given that planning and future orientation are an essential skill required in the modern, structural world. I wonder if more relationships-based people are also more experiential people. At any rate the success of the mindfulness movement and the “hippy” injunction to be more present, seems to point to the fact that a majority of people privilege the remembering self, and can have more fulfilling lives when encouraged to enjoy the present moment, thus privileging the experiencing self.
I have found dividing types of pleasures in this way to be enormously helpful when thinking about how to seek enjoyment more generally.
I began making lists of the sensory and emotional pleasures one might try to get more of. Combining sensory and emotional pleasures together also seemed like a good idea. It helped to make sense of some things as well, such as why sex can be better with someone you love versus sex with someone you don’t know very well. Different combinations of emotional/sensory might yield some good results.
I will link once again to Sarah Perry’s article called Body Pleasure which is full of useful insight. She says:
What are the best strategies for people who want to maximize pleasure in the long term? What is the best that human life can offer, at a very concrete and foundational level?
This post is not offering a wholly new strategy, but hopefully the thoughts above might carve reality a little differently, such that myself and others can maximise types of pleasure.
My sensory and emotional list has come out very similar to Perry’s, but not exactly the same, in interesting ways.
Sarah’s key areas are:
- Smell, taste, visual beauty
With a final shout out to exercise pleasure as one that combines several in and of itself, both during (muscle, proprioceptive) and after (muscle pain/pleasure), one that increases the appetites for other pleasures (eg food, massage, sex) and that can last for many hours a day, with little lag time.
My list is similar:
- Sex (but see combos below)
- Food (sense of taste, sense of satisfaction)
- Skin (sense of touch)
- Pleasant sounds (sense of hearing)
- Pleasant smells
Let’s explore/expand a little. Perry does mention music somewhere in the article, but pleasant sounds as a pleasure is curiously absent from the list. Music is absolutely huge for most people, and lends itself to combinations such as music & rhythmic moving, music & drugs, music & sex and so on. Many people like nature’s reassuring sounds such as birdsong.
Perry mentions exercise and massage in the muscle group, and mentions changes of temperature as a challenge to homeostatic processes. I think there is a larger category here that is simply “skin”. Touch on the skin is part of the pleasure of massage, but divorced from muscle massage it is its own pleasure. Wind on the skin, touch on the skin, hot & cold changes for the skin, exfoliating the skin and stroking animals are all skin pleasures that are mostly missed in the initial essay. Perry is not sure about steam rooms, but the pleasure of heat on the skin is part of it. It’s also about drawing hot water into the lungs. I never under stood cold plunges, but in terms of the thrill for the skin, it makes more sense now. Anyway, this category has helped me to see the full range of pleasures at saunas.
The other senses are placed together, perhaps rightly, as pleasant but not very durable. One does get bored with a beautiful view, but visual surprise/delight can run a little deeper than that I think, especially in combination with other senses. Taste relies on a finite appetite and on not having a full stomach, but I’m glad I focussed on it a little, long enough to realise that one of the never-ending pleasure extremes of taste is sugar, and I should probably actively avoid maximising that one. Instead an absence of extremes might help me to appreciate more and more subtle flavours. Finally with smell aromatherapy shows us that it’s a thing, but my personal favourite smells come from bodies, so I’ll be maximising my sniff time with my intimate others from now on.
Perry’s co-consciousness is a very good point, it helps to explain my vague “emotions” label. The proprioception is also extremely useful. I can only add to her list of examples with: skydiving and more emphasis on rollercoasters.
Obviously sex is such a huge category it is silly to gloss over it. But since it’s so big I won’t treat it here. I explore it more on my personal blog, as do many other great writers/bloggers.
Particularly fruitful for me was considering combinations of sensory and emotional pleasures. Here is a list that’s related to my personal interests.
- Movies – and they are better in the cinema. Visual, music, loud sounds, emotion.
- Weepy movies & ice cream
- Emotional sex
- Drugs & music
- Drugs & exercise (as Perry also mentions)
- Drugs & looking at things…. ok that’s enough
- Sea swimming
- Foot spa/sauna
A significant absence for me is video games, because they are the “remembering self” by my definition. I find this somehow pleasing.
Another pleasant activity that doesn’t seem to fit into any category is dreaming. I find it highly enjoyable and fulfilling and have decided not to feel bad for “sleeping in” all the time, now that I’ve carved out a life that has plenty of free time in it.
Finally, one area that I’ve never really sought out is pain. The skin, muscle and sex categories are ripe for exploring the pleasure of pain, and Perry dwells on the “hurts so good” side of pleasurable pain that comes from exercise. I think other kinds of pain must have been fully documented in the kink world, so any good links for that are welcome in the comments or as a separate post to add more to the “strategies for body pleasure” project.
To summarise where we’ve been: the experiencing self’s pleasure domains are sensory, body pleasures and emotions that are experienced in the present. The remembering self’s pleasure domains relate to problem solving with a strong past/future component.
I think this relates to an idea in Perry’ article about hierarchies of pleasure:
there is the idea that bodily pleasure-seeking is not as important or sophisticated or valuable as pleasure-seeking of an intellectual, spiritual, higher status, or more abstract nature. Is body pleasure low and shameful? Is body pleasure a substitute for higher pleasures? Certainly, the idea that feeling good is a problem is reflected in the fact that “euphoria” is considered a negative side effect of pharmaceutical drugs.
This hierarchy seems to privilege the remembering self, just as our wider society does. I think splitting the pleasure domains along remembering/experiencing lines helps us to realise the falseness of this heirarchy and point us in useful directions for increased pleasure in our lives, since we usually have a sense of which type of self we normally privilege and which type of self we normally neglect. Finally, this distinction might help us to combine pleasures, or privilege those activities that have the most successful combinations.