Complex Pleasures

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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.