Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Pleasure Bar

“Perhaps all pleasure is only relief.” - William S Burroughs 

Today I read* about a study where scientists implanted electrodes into the brains of rats. The electrodes were set up in such a way that the rats could experience pleasurable sensations by simply pressing a bar. 

Once the rats learned how it worked, they stopped all other activities in favour of obsessively pressing the bar until finally, they dropped dead of starvation and exhaustion. 

Maybe we can learn something from the rats. They lived a life of easy pleasures but it was also a life of obsession, of starvation and exhaustion. If I had to make a guess, I’d say it wasn’t a happy life. The rats say something very important, something that is so very easy to miss:
Happiness and pleasure are not the same thing. 

Daily, we are bombarded with the offer of things that promise to make us happier. Just out of curiosity, I decided to pay conscious attention to a single advert break on TV. By the end of the break, the advertisers had done their best to convince me that my happiness depended on purchasing a particular brand of dog food, a whitening tooth paste, an antibacterial mouthwash, the world’s lightest vacuum cleaner and a shiny black car. 

Now, many of those things may give me a few moments pleasure but like the rats pressing the bar, the pleasure would soon fade. If I believed that happiness depended on these things, I would soon focus all my attention on obtaining them, continually working to press the pleasure bar, until I dropped down exhausted.

Bizarrely, that’s exactly what our culture of consumerism actively encourages. Politicians talk about ‘consumer confidence’ getting people back out onto the high street and spending. It’s what our whole economic system is based on – rats pressing the pleasure bar, desperately seeking happiness but continually confusing happiness and pleasure. 

So what about happiness? 

More and more evidence is pointing to the fact that compassion and altruism rather than egocentric pleasure seeking are the foundations of true happiness. Often we tend to think of these just as nice qualities to develop if we have the time. Now, scientific studies are telling us what Buddhists have known for centuries, that along with mindfulness, these attributes are actually central to our happiness.

I wonder what would happen if we all swapped the pleasure bar for the practices of mindfulness and compassion.

Image by Oolong


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