Comfort and Pleasure
Comfort and pleasure are closely related. Pleasure is the reward we receive for scratching a biological itch. Whereas comfort is simply the feeling of not having any itches in need of a damn good scratching. Many things in life are pleasurable. Eating good food when starving hungry, lying down on a soft bed after working a twelve hour shift, having crazy, sweaty, urgent sex with someone you haven't seen for far too long. Each of these things have one thing in common. The more you want something, the more you enjoy it when you finally have it.
Therein lies the rub. Comfort is what we feel when we have no strong need for anything, when we are not hungry, not horny, not dying for a leak... and yet pleasure comes from relieving these urgent needs. If we want to feel true pleasure, we cannot be comfortable all the time.
This is not a new problem. As soon as we get rich enough the first thing we do is make ourselves comfortable. We make sure that we have enough food stored, so that even if bad weather hits, we never have to skip a meal. We get a car so that if it is cold or raining we don't have to expose ourselves to the elements. Comfort addiction is the essence of suburbia, a heavy blanket, suffocatingly soft.
There was a time when comfort addiction was a problem which only the rich could afford to suffer from. Hard labour and occasional shortages of the essentials of life were the norm. Fast forward a century or so and the middle classes make up a large proportion of the west's population. Millions of people across the western world have gained the ability to escape discomfort almost entirely, and many of them have been foolish enough to do so.
This attachment to comfort is an addiction, because the less often we experience discomfort, the less tolerance we have for it. In the end the comfort addict avoids even mild hunger by constant snacking and avoids physical exertion entirely with an endless list of labour saving devices. The life of the comfort addict is flat, never denied anything, and yet never truly satisfied. It is a life of avoidance, and those who live it end up avoiding life itself.
Calculus for Hedonists
It is clear that we need to strike a balance, but the question is where should it be struck. The simplest answer is that we should sleep when we are tired, eat when hungry and make love when horny, then and only then. But this only raises more questions:
How hungry should a man be before he allows himself to eat?
How hot must the fires of desire burn before he gives in to fleshly temptation?
We can try to think of the problem as an economist would, as a simple matter of optimisation. As time passes the pleasure which can be gained from satisfying a need increases. But it will not increase forever. At some point hunger starts to fade rather than grow stronger and the same is true for the desire for sex. There is no sense in subjecting ourselves to days of hunger just to make the eventual feast a tiny bit more satisfying. Thus there is an optimal time at which to satisfy any particular need.
This plan still has its limitations. Our pleasure is still limited by our appetites. If we are seldom really hungry, should we give up on the pleasure of eating? If after years of marriage, we find that desire fades, do we really have to give up on frequent pleasurable sex? The answer is of course no.
Although our desires are biological, we can still strengthen them. Exercising burns calories, builds muscle and speeds the metabolism. In short, it makes us hungrier and makes eating more pleasureable. Taking an aperitif (a small amount of strong alcohol), or a joint a half hour before a meal serves the same purpose. Similarly a good lover knows how to tease their partner, increasing their desire and making their mutual release that much more stimulating. Failing that, adding variety or making things more than a little kinky, usually works well enough that sordid affairs are unnecessary.
Should you find yourself stuck in a rut, where nothing really seems to provide any real joy remember this: To experience pleasure you must first deny yourself a little. So put away the snackfood and the self-pity and go for a long walk. When you have worked up a great hunger then is the time to eat. If its freezing cold outside all the better, a steaming hot bath and a whisky on your return will be heavenly.
In a similar vein, do not devote terabytes of storage to pornography, jacking-off three times a day is guaranteed to take the fun out of it.
Doubtless it has occurred to the reader that there are other ways of dealing with the conflict between comfort and pleasure.
Why would anyone choose to go through cycles of denial and release in pursuit of pleasure when certain drugs can provide a shortcut?
This is certainly a possible strategy, and many have taken it, but it has a number of well known disadvantages. The body is relatively quick to develop a tolerance to the most common drugs of abuse. Once a tolerance has developed, the pleasure to be gained from the drug quickly subsides.
Just as with any other source of pleasure, the pleasure which drugs can give must be intermittant or it will disappear entirely. To be replaced with the joyless routine suffering that is addiction.
Finally, what of the wirehead?
Studies have shown that the pleasure centres of the brain can be stimulated directly with electrodes. The stimulation never ceases to be pleasureable. Tolerance, the bane of the dope fiend, is never a problem.
So why would a person in pursuit of pleasure, choose anything else?
Fundamentally, pleasure exists to motivate us and to reward behaviors which help us to survive and prosper. A creature in a constant state of pleasure has no motivation to do anything whatsoever. It will not make the effort to eat, to sleep, to do anything to preserve itself whatsoever. So the fate of the wirehead is death: The surest end to pleasure that there ever has been.
Even if the wirehead were able to limit his access to the wire and thus be able to survive, his life would still be far from enviable. His achievements in life would be few, because when you have pleasure on tap, why would you bother to earn it the hard way?
In the final analysis a man needs more than pleasure, he needs a feeling of purpose, he needs to feel he has achieved something, he needs to belong, he needs friends. The wirehead has none of these things, because the perfect pleasure of the wire denies him any possible source of motivation.
These psychological needs are the ones which shortcuts to pleasure like drugs and wireheading commonly fail to provide. And yet these gentle pleasures are some of the most durable.
As the ancient chinese proverb states:
To be happy for a day, get drunk.
To be happy for a week get a pig (i.e. become wealthy)
To be happy for a year, get married.
But to be happy for life, become a gardener.
The most enduring sources of satisfaction are often not those which are most immediately appealing. They take the form of pursuits which are creative and absorbing, and where a man can work all his life without any risk of the task ever being fully complete.
Perhaps a man is happiest when he patiently strives towards perfection.