Complex Pleasures


Talking last night with friends about ‘pleasure’, we recognised it’s a complex beast. One of our party admitted she was happy with her life but generally not happy as she lived it. How could this be?

I listened again to Thomas Hurka on Philosophy Bites today to remind me. Hurka identifies four types of pleasure in two categories: ‘felt’ and ‘thought’.

The two ‘felt’ pleasures are: first, ‘simple pleasures’ i.e. specific immediate sensations: “mmm tasty” or “ahh comfortable.” And second, moods – which are a general and last for a duration.

The two ‘thought’ pleasures are specific: “I’m happy that… my daughter is in the school play” or “my football team won” and general: “overall I’m happy with how my life is going”, aka Aristotle’s flourishing.

Of course they are all intertwined. A life of physical pleasures – pure hedonism – might come up short on achievement. Or get cut short by a heart attack. But a life of too much ‘thought’ might lack passions and pleasures and the achievements of love and family.

Apparently, most parents say that the thing which has given them most pleasure in their lives has been the raising of children.

But also, apparently, if you give parents of young children an electronic ‘clicker’ to register every time they feel a sensation of pleasure during their day, they register fewest clicks of personal pleasure when they are actually with their kids. Probably haven’t got time to click…

So Hurka’s four pleasures explain how our friend can think “I am happy with how my life is going” whilst feeling in a permanent bad mood – they have three kids who run them ragged. Doesn’t sound great. But she’s happy, at least on one level.

Sleep’s the big one for me. Now I’m getting my sleep and enjoying my work – as well as enjoying time with my kids – I’m in a pretty permanent good mood. Feeling good is a great addition to my life. Simple to feel, complex to achieve.

Poetic Licence

The experience of rapidly tapping out some words (‘School Run’ below), to manage my stress and frustration at my son not getting out of the car this Thursday morning, was an interesting one.

There’s something about tapping an iPhone screen and conjuring a few words of rhyme which both soothes and fulfils. So I did another on ‘spelling’ on Friday morning:

Spelling test
Practice quest
Raised tempers
Points incentives
Distraction reigns
Everyone’s cross
What have we lernd
Very little

‘Awayday’ (below) tumbled out last night and I find myself unexpectedly enjoying churning out poetry instead of prose for a change. Perhaps it’s the influence of Twitter. Saying more in less distills your words. Overnight I got a cheerful ‘like’ and a nice comment to encourage me along.

As so often in recent times I have Aristotle to thank. He says the job of the poet is to say something transcendent and universal about the human condition, in no more or less words than are needed. I find this strangely liberating. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect, scans or rhymes. The job is done if it says something which chimes.

Banal is meaningful if it triggers a memory or a moment of empathy. I read in the New Scientist this week that life passes more quickly as we get older because our senses are no longer constantly alight with new experiences – we’ve seen it all before. The challenge then is to keep finding ways to bring life to life. So I’ve recorded my morning for my own pleasure and future recollection. Aristotle gives us all poetic licence, which is good for the mind and the soul.

Post office sorting
A Saturday routine
Too large for your letterbox
Sorry you weren’t in
Stand in line
For modern life’s Aladdin’s cave
Got any ID for that
Cardboard boxes and sealed bags
New household treasure
To carry off
In triumph

Bacon sandwich
Warm baguette
Irish rasher
Ketchup lash
Focused eating
Greasy plate
The only trace

Sun’s rays
Happy days
In the park
The children lark
Throwing and catching
Tearing around
Shouts of delight
Ball goes to hand
Ball goes to ground
Swings, bumps and bikes
Life is easy

Poetry in Motion

A few weeks ago, newly enamoured of poetry, I wrote a short ditty to capture what I think increasingly drives my life. It came out quite easily so I guessed it might be quite close. But then I forgot about it. Sat in traffic in the rain today, the last two lines came back to me unbidden. It has clearly lodged in my subconscious. So here it is:

Pay attention to life with bright eyes and keen ears.
Helped by poets and thinkers, refine hopes; master fears.

Embroider each minute and day of my years
with friendship and love and knowledge and ideas.

And the main credits are: for line 1) Montaigne and Aristotle; line 2) Aristotle, Kay, Csikszentmihalyi, Nietzsche, Homer, Armitage, Aquinas, McCabe, Socrates, Stoics, Sceptics; line 3) Me latterly; and line 4) Aristotle, Aquinas, my Friends in Contemplation, my family, reading, writing, work.

I’m not sure I’ll get a poster on the subway for these lines of rhyme, but they are pretty much where Eudaimonia lies for me I think.

The Good Life

I used to be a strict Act Utilitarian – the moral act is the one that produces the most overall happiness or least harm. The undergraduate philosophy case studies all seemed clear cut to me.

Knowing what we know now, would I have assassinated Hitler in 1934? Sure would. If a sadistic Generalissimo passed me a gun to kill an innocent in exchange for the lives of several others, would I pull the trigger? Under duress and with no alternatives, reluctantly, yes.

To my untrained late-teen moral mind, rational calculations seemed to provide a better framework than the rules of religions and imperfect man-made moral codes. Undergraduate philosophy taught me how to ‘reductio ad absurdam’ any nuance or shade of grey. Life was black and white. Add it up, make the call, don’t expect to be understood, live with the consequences.

But the pointer on my my moral compass started twitching in my mid-thirties. Act Utilitarianism can feel calculating, look immoral and set bad precedents. A good outcome is a bad justification for a rotten process. Some things shouldn’t go under the wheels as we drive hard to a destination. We have to stand for some things, or we stand for nothing. Sometimes what the head can justify sickens the heart.

Enter Aristotle in my Forties. Eudaimonia, arete and telos – flourishing, excellence and fulfilling our innate potential – they feel like the ingredients of a good life to me. There are some rules and a handful of prohibitions in Aristotle’s Ethics. But ‘moderation in all things’ is the basic gist. Thinking and talking about Aristotle this week, I have a clearer idea why I prefer the life’s work of ‘eudaimonia’, to the instant gratification of ‘happiness’, as a moral end.

Happiness is a mental ‘state’. In eras where life was nasty, brutish and short it must have been pretty rare. Perhaps no surprise then that ‘happiness’ bubbled to the surface with Bentham and Mill as the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ were robbing people of eudaimonia and the ‘telos’ of crafts and village life. William Blake, whose poems I’m reading at the moment, gives a flavour of this in ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’.

But in the affluent, materialist, 21st century Western world, I fear happiness is a false god. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll put transitory hedonistic pleasure on an altar. Thinking about this, I was reminded of another undergraduate philosophy ‘thought experiment’ – the brain in a vat. What if all my sensations are fed me by a mad scientist thorough electrodes plugged into my brain?

Here in the ‘real’ world we are closer and closer to being able to live purely for audio-visual, digital and chemical pleasures without needing a mad scientist. People need to participate in their lives not plug in, switch off and get high. This is substantially Csikszentmihalyi’s case for embroidering our lives with varied challenges, new skills and personal growth.

Aristotle gives life an achievable and worthwhile end – to be the best of who we are. It is an optimistic, forgiving, perfectible, self-improving and thoroughly ‘open system’ – in his nutshell: ‘we are what we repeatedly do’.

Virtues and excellence grow with our actions, a little reflection and lots of practice. There’s plenty of room in Aristotle for happiness – especially through friends. There’s an explicit acknowledgement of ‘flow’ – the work of the harp player is to play the harp, and of the good harp player to play the harp well. But above all the good life is the one we lead every day by growing, improving, refining, learning, reflecting and acting.

I think Aristotle trains core moral strength better than the rational calculation of Utilitarianism. Better to act, learn, feel and constantly improve than use intellectual brute force to calculate the answers. Life is more Bayesian than arithmetic, more non-linear than deterministic. It’s a life’s work to work on the answers for myself – and to enjoy the journey.


As my other half left the house for work one morning this week, my daughter was a bit sad.

My daughter and son were perched with me on the back of the sofa. My partner waved to us through the bay window – in the nice way she often does. She waved through the first pane coming out of the door. She waved through the roses as she passed in front of the central sash. Finally, she turned back for a final wave through the third pane, as she disappeared out of view down the hill. But my daughter still looked sad.

I said to her ‘Your kisses will have reached her’. She shook her head and held her hands apart like my Grandad sized a fish and said ‘They can only travel this far’. I said ‘Much further if you blow them’. She still looked sad. ‘Only about as far as the bookcase to the wall’ she said.

And then my four year old son chimed in with his piping voice – and winning smile – and said confidently ‘A kiss can go all the way round the world’. We all smiled and felt better.


Reading Csikszentmihalyi on a family Bank Holiday in sunny France, I was reminded of the tyranny of progress and performance. 

Not that it was Csikszentmihalyi’s fault. We’d been talking with friends the night before going away about learning musical instruments and the merits of lessons and regular practice. 

Now I firmly believe that the best way to improve at anything is to practice regularly – the action of water on a stone is gradual, but inexorable. I have also learnt that the best way to practice anything regularly is to integrate it your daily routine. The problem is there are only so many hours in the day. What to do? More, less often?

I remember from my time working in advertising in France in the 1990s that people have predictable daily and weekly habits. But we do not generally form monthly habits and signally fail to form fortnightly habits. This gave rise to the unspoken rule, never buy an an Ad next to a monthly or worse a fortnightly TV show – they never pull in a regular audience and generally fail. Even if they are well liked once, people forget to tune in ever again. We are creatures of routine.

So where does that leave us with practice, hobbies and busy lives. My conclusion is the only practical options are dedicating daily or weekly slots. My daily slots are all pretty much full: kids, work, kids, eat, dishwasher, potter briefly, bed. 

The brief evening pottering – which recently was when I walked our ageing dog – is the remaining ‘purposeable’ slot. But a few minutes spinning the wheels, albeit aimlessly, seems a very small concession to relaxation. It’d take something ‘light’ and ‘fun’ to fit in edgeways in that small nook in a way that didn’t feel like a chore. 

The ukulele used to be that thing. And for nearly a year I played five songs nearly every night and went from hopeless and tuneless to strumming comparatively competently. Then the dog got incontinent and the habit got broken. So I could go back to the uke. But here’s where the tyranny of progress kicks in. Our friends feel I should have lessons, improve, look to play publicly or at least in private duets and preferably drop the four strings and migrate to a proper six string guitar. 

Phew. Where’s the eudaimonia in all that – the pressure to rapidly improve my skill to meet the challenge of musical excellence feels most unappealing. I said ‘no thanks’. They looked at me like I was mad – what’s the point of strumming the same five songs and never playing them with, or for, someone. Where’s the progress, where’s the performance. The point though – I think – is I quite enjoy it as a personal exercise for me, for ten minutes at night. The simple challenge I set myself is met by my rudimentary and very slowly improving strumming skill: producing modest, low-impact, private, musical ‘flow’.

Separately, on hols I was congratulated twice on my French – one woman said “Vous parlez très très bien Monsieur”. Another asked me if I was a French teacher in England. 

I had given up keeping up my French. I’d given up listening to ‘intermediate French’ audio magazines I subscribed to when I first came back from France. There were no opportunities to match my once reasonable skill with any worthwhile challenge at home. Talking about nothing much in French, just to speak French, seemed pretty pointless. And over time I felt myself going backwards which made matters worse.

But ‘flow’ in French has returned. Family holidays now provide me the perfect opportunity to navigate the modest but important challenges of travelling, accommodating, feeding and entertaining my little family. And they seem quietly impressed and genuinely grateful for my efforts. Now I have a stage on which to perform, some modest (daily?) investment in progress and improvement suddenly seems worthwhile – I’ll be looking at what the web has to offer for ‘intermediate French’ these days.

‘Flow’, progress and performance are closely intertwined, so much Csikszentmihalyi amply demonstrates. But I conclude the recipe and mix aren’t always the same. There are things we do well, some we may do very well and many we could do better. I believe good day-to-day ‘flow’ lies in accepting that not everything we do has to be excelled at. Sometimes the only audience that matters is ourselves. 

Fluid Dynamics

A good friend put me onto the ‘flow’ psychology of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. As is not uncommon with names with unfamiliar spellings, it’s easy to glide over Csikszentmihalyi in text while subconsciously logging him as unpronounceable. But if you are going to commend him to others it’s good to get your mouth round his name. Broken up it’s not so hard ‘Chick-sent-me-hi-yee’. And there is modest satisfaction to be had in mastering the unpronounceable – a theme I will return to…

Csikszentmihalyi’s thesis is beguilingly simple. ‘Flow’ is the exhilarating feeling of meeting ‘high challenge’ with ‘high skill’. When challenge is low, and our skills are too, we slump into boredom and apathy. When challenge is too high we suffer worry and anxiety. Where our skills comfortably exceed our challenges we are relaxed or in control. When a challenge threatens to stretch us we are alert and ‘aroused’. Finally, ‘flow’ is that feeling of achievement, fulfilment and flourishing which comes with doing a difficult thing well.

In the classic ‘flow’ diagram (above), there are eight segments: control, relaxation, boredom, apathy, worry, anxiety, arousal and ‘flow’ with a point of intersection in the middle. Some people add a ‘subject mean’ as a central zone around the point of intersection which is our personal average zone for a given activity or situation.

When I first looked at one of these diagrams I more or less cottoned on to the eight segments. But I couldn’t decide what to make of the point of intersection – is it a good place? Or a bad place? Or is it a completely neutral place?

Over last weekend, playing football, then watching it, a children’s film, my mother and thinking about ageing bodies and minds, I conclude the ‘subject mean’ or ‘point of intersection’ is a moveable feast. And therein lies the rub, it seems to me. With ‘flow’, the goalposts are constantly moving – and not just one way.

How so? One of the great lessons of adult life is that aptitude usually comes a poor second to application and practice. Almost everything gets easier with practice. Equally, no-one from Einstein to Nijinsky achieved great skill without hours and hours (or if you believe Malcolm Gladwell more or less 10,000 hours) of practice. Watching my kids trying new things they readily assume – as I did when I was young – that they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at something due to early luck or accidents of fate.

Certainly some kids learn faster than others, some are more physical some have greater dexterity. But like everything with nature and nurture, these basic skills and aptitudes are developed or not developed by the hours spent at a blackboard, in ballet shoes… or in football boots.

On Saturday I was kicking a football about with my son. I was a decent footballer in my day, but very one footed. No left peg. But trying it, within the space of a dozen passes concentrating uniquely on using my left foot, I went from feeling completely off balance to passing comparatively cleanly, crisply and accurately. Not exactly ‘flow’, but some ‘arousal’ and less ‘anxiety’ than the first clumsy attempt. My point of equilibrium had shifted a little.

Later in the day, I watched one of the most talented midfielders of the last 15 years demonstrate the opposite. Paul Scholes saw red in the all Manchester FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley. A lunging high tackle earned him a sending off. His immensely gifted feet, and the quickness to single-handedly turn a game, now were fractionally too slow to ‘flow’ at the highest level. He was ‘aroused’ to futile anger instead.

From a footballer’s inexorable decline, to the sad story of 1970s Prime Minister Harold Wilson which preys on my mind from time to time. We all hope that when the body falters the mind will stay sharp. Poor Harold Wilson, who went to the same Oxford College as me, was allegedly the first to realise his hitherto razor sharp brain was slipping. He felt the need to resign quickly before anyone else noticed. From Paul Scholes and Harold Wilson I infer our ability to ‘flow’ can diminish with physical and mental decline – and our ability to cope with it too.

But perhaps inexorable decline is not the way to think about ‘flow’. Watching my mother play with my kids on Sunday, she showed them a yoga stretch which her yoga teacher recently described as ‘awesome’. She won her first ever lawn bowls team trophy last year and took the individual ladies prize this year. She is 67. Perhaps we need to be kind to ourselves and move our interests and our ‘mean points’ so we don’t lose our own joy as we age. I think of this on my bike some days when cycling to work feels like a chore. In a decade or two I will dream of the physicality and strength I take completely for granted in those moments. It changes my perspective.

But even if we are kind to ourselves over the long haul, finding ‘flow’ every day is a new challenge each and every day. On Saturday morning I watched ‘Night at the Museum’ with my boy. It’s a jolly Ben Siller romp in a New York museum where all the exhibits come to life and brawl with each other at night. It’s my son’s current favourite. As with so many of the US kids genre, there are plenty of worthwhile homilies and invariably a good moral to the story.

After twists and turns and trials and tribulations this one ends with father and son reunited and Attilla the Hun, Christopher Columbus and assorted cowboys, animals, Romans and great Americans dancing together in one big non-alcoholic all night party. The moral of the story? If we all pull together, everyone can get along. But in the real world, once the ‘flow’ of a romping script’s worth of challenges had been briefly toasted, they’d all have been ‘bored’ and ‘apathetic’ by morning – and fighting again the following night. With ‘flow’, unlike fairy stories, there are no “happily ever afters”. Every day needs filling. No challenge, no ‘flow’.

So Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ is both blessing and curse – like Aristotle’s Eudaimonia, it’s a life’s work, and there is no easy solution. To paraphrase Csikszentmihalyi himself: life is “what we experience from morning to night, seven days a week, for about seventy years if we are lucky, for even longer if we are very fortunate… there are no gimmicks, no easy shortcuts. It takes a total commitment to a fully experienced life, one in which no opportunities are left unexplored and no potential undeveloped, to achieve excellence.”

So every day, whether it’s kicking a ball with my left foot, unevenly strumming a ukulele or lashing together another blog post, all are opportunities to ‘flow’. The art of ‘flow’, I think, is recognising it is there to be had in small things as well as large, in things we are objectively very ‘good’ at. But also in things we aren’t but are prepared to give a try.

And if ‘flow’ is an internal ‘feeling’ then we substantially have the power to judge it and feel it for ourselves. So I’ve decided the art is in choosing well the things we invest time in doing, being kind to ourselves in setting the bar and not being too hard on ourselves as we progress. Like a personal pacemaker in our own race of life, ‘flow’ runs only as fast and as far ahead of us as we let it.

Inner Disposition

Twice this week I made myself feel a lot better by acting to adjust my ‘inner disposition’. Before Christmas I read the Stoic Epictetus’s ‘Handbook’. The translator and expert guide Keith Seddon has produced a simple summary of Stoicism in a flow diagram (above). In the centre is ‘adjusting one’s inner disposition’ which reduces ‘wrong judgements’, ‘debilitating emotions’ and overreaction to ‘external events’ – notably people. The products of an adjusted ‘inner disposition’ are ‘serenity’, ‘peace of mind’ and ‘fearlessness’. 

I associate Stoicism with passivity. Shrugging the shoulders, avoiding situations, retreating to the intellectual ‘cave’ and keeping your head down. I conclude from this week it ain’t necessarily so. Why? Because in both cases I ‘adjusted my inner disposition’ by taking action ‘in the moment’, not reflecting on it too much, and in the process letting go of the ‘debilitating emotions’ almost immediately. 

The first instance was easy. I was fuming about my day at work and the inappropriate behaviour I’d been subject to. I put my iPod on and tapped out a rant (which I kept to myself) on my iPhone. Rant written, fave tunes playing, my ‘inner dispositions’ changed in less than 5 mins. I let go and felt better.

In the second instance, I also wrote a rant, but this time hit Send. Risky. And after an hour with no answer, I started regretting it. But like hitting the reset button, or turning a computer on and off, my head and heart were cleared. So when the time came to deal with the consequences of my rant, I had a better ‘inner disposition’ and we changed the air.

Many of the great thinkers draw on Stoicism. Kierkegaard, who I’m enjoying at the moment, places taking responsibility for your own life as part of his ‘ethical’ stage of life. Aristotle advocates thought and action. Like Achilles though, sometimes I have to act – not think – to achieve ‘serenity’, ‘peace of mind’ and ‘fearlessness’.


Life is full of indignities, small and large. I, like most people, am easily persuaded that life’s indignities have been targeted at me by some malign intent. Human beings are programmed to look for causation. It’s a key survival skill. The moment you move beyond blind instinct, learning from your mistakes and finding patterns and causes is vital. 

It is said that the first religions – pan theistic, animist and shamanic all came from the need for hunter-gatherers and early nomads to find some answer, or cause, for the indignities of storm, drought, disease and death that pre-scientific man had no other method to understand or intellectually control.

These gods brought good, but more often bad. They were quixotic and quick to anger and required regular appeasement and speaking in tongues to commune with and placate. 

Ancient philosophers were not immune to the gods whims. They always paid them homage. But they tended to live in temperate latitudes – comparatively benign environments – which left some time for building civilisations and thinking. 

I’ve recently started reading Epictetus, a famous stoic philosopher from the 2nd century AD. It seems to me he offers a window into an interesting period between ancient philosophy and organised monotheistic congregational religion. 

I’ve not read enough to be sure, but my Bayesian brain guesses that his stoicism is a response to the superficially civilised but dangerously unpredictable indignities of Roman society – from slavery to summary justice.

His stoic answer seems to be to develop a detachment which has much to commend it in ‘coping with the loss of an earthenware pot’ or being ‘splashed and jostled at the bathhouse’. But inviting us to train ourselves to ‘feel nothing’ at the loss of a wife or child (as they are human and death is inevitable) feels plain wrong. For Epictetus the sole true value is our moral character. And all else – including people – are as Oliver Reed said in Gladiator simply ‘shadows and dust’.

I like Epictetus’s advice to recognise what you control and don’t, what you assume and what is real, what is intended and what is accident. His tip to take a moment to reflect before reacting is wise too. But I’m with Aristotle not Epictetus on people we love and the importance of friends.

One such sent me a piece of research which suggests that the value of friendship doesn’t just underpin Aristotle’s vision of happiness, but also the happiness that organised religions bring:

“It is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” according to sociologist Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier” his study shows.

So I go with Aristotle and the big congregational religions, not Epictetus on friends. Friends and social ties are the route to human happiness and eudaimonia. Avoiding them isn’t. 

You can’t control friends. As Epictetus rightly points out ‘the jeering of friends’ often accompanies any attempt at self improvement. There’s no doubt that friends can hurt you, and heap indignity on you too. But you can’t live happily without Friends.

The Harp Player

In pursuit of the good life, Aristotle has sent me in a couple of very important directions recently. First the harp. He says that the work of the harp player is to play the harp, and of the good harp player to play the harp well. That way fulfilment lies.

He suggests we all have different ‘virtues’ or capacities which it is our life’s work to bring to excellence. Doing what we are good at ‘excellently’ gives us pleasure in the moment and fulfilment over time. An Aristotelian life is a balanced life though. There are eleven different virtues to cultivate not to mention the welfare and good of the many, politics, as he defines it. It’s a lot to fit in and doesn’t leave much time for pleasure. Or does it?

As Aristotle says: To each is pleasant of which he is said to be fond: a horse, for instance, to him who is fond of horses, and a sight to him who is fond of sights: and so in like manner just acts to him who is fond of justice. So then their life has no need of pleasure as a kind of additional appendage, but involves pleasure in itself. 

In fact Aristotle considers the highest human achievement and pleasure lies in contemplation. I now realise that there are many harps I play well enough to give me eudaimonia. I’m good at work, a decent leader and manager. I’m a good father, I love my kids and love being with them. But, above all, I am a good thinker. A life of thought is a pleasant life for me.

This leads me to the second idea, friendship. Aristotle spends a full fifth of his entire work on ethics in defining and describing the nature, types and specificities of friendship. There are transactional friendships and friendships for fun and frivolity. But the highest form of friends are friends for contemplation. These are friends whose excellence of thought, virtue in action and sheer interestingness in what they have to say draw us to them. And the same draws them to us.

Seeing these two things together is a revelation. We all care about our friends, but Aristotle reveals that our highest order friendships define us, enrich us and enable us to engage in the very highest of human achievements and pleasures – contemplation. As a friend of mine said recently ‘friends are a rich indicator’. They are indeed.

This week I told two of my ‘friends in contemplation’ at work how much I now understand they mean to me. I will seek and tell others in other parts of my life. As one of them told me in return, the great American Thomas Jefferson would always ensure he had his truest friends no more than an hour’s ride away. I now understand why. 

The intellectual harp is a wonderful instrument. But it takes a lifetime of practice to master and the company of fellow harp players to play it well.