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The Pursuit of Pleasure

How can we maximize pleasure?

Key points

  • Short-term pleasures such as eating and sexual activity promote our survival as a species.
  • Pursuing long-term pleasures, including those derived from supportive social interactions, may help strengthen society.
  • A “pleasure dividend” can result from a long-term investment in a meaningful activity.
Source: Rawpixel/Shutterstock
Source: Rawpixel/Shutterstock

Humans likely are geared to seek pleasure to guide our behavior. Short-term pleasures such as eating and sexual activity ensure that we engage in activities that promote our survival as a species. I believe that long-term pleasure derived from activities such as creative expression, industrious work, participation in athletics, and long-term social interactions help strengthen the social fabric of society, which can promote our longevity and success.

Philosophers have discussed the reasons for pleasure for more than two millennia. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) suggested that pleasure was the highest good and represented the ultimate goal in life. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) believed that pleasure is the byproduct of virtuous behavior, and both he and Confucius (551-479 BCE) emphasized that we should pursue it in moderation. Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE) viewed pleasure as a gift from God that should be used according to God’s will.

On the other hand, Christian theologian St. Augustine (354-430 CE) believed pleasure represented a temptation that led people away from God, and Buddha (563-483 BCE) suggested the desire for pleasure was the source of suffering.

Dopamine is one of the brain neurotransmitters that strengthens pleasurable experiences triggered by our brain’s reward system. Thus, dopamine release as a result of activities that we find pleasurable reinforces the continuation of such activities. Unfortunately, humans have discovered ways of triggering dopamine release, such as drug use, that leads to harmful behaviors.

If we ask ourselves how we might maximize pleasure in our lives, the answer likely lies in balancing activities that lead to short-term and long-term pleasures. Personal preferences, lifestyle, previous experiences, and cultural considerations affect our choice of activities that we find pleasurable. Further, we should avoid pleasure traps that can derail our lives. Finally, we should also consider the concept of a “pleasure dividend” that arises from contemplating past long-term pleasures.

Short-Term Pleasures

Eating, drinking, and satiety of hunger lead to short-term pleasures that we begin to experience immediately after birth.

Endorphins released during exercise help promote physical activity, which is essential for maintaining good health.

Sexual expression brings pleasure that motivates us to reproduce.

Relaxation, including meditation, hypnosis, prayer, and yoga, can lead to pleasure by releasing stress or tension.

Playing video games, checking our social media, gambling, watching movies, listening to music, going to amusement parks, shopping, applying makeup, or other self-grooming activities are different sources of short-term pleasure.

Long-Term Pleasures

Research has shown that people who engage in meaningful social interactions live longer and healthier. Perhaps this is why we derive pleasure from the development of good family relationships, friendships, and teams, and belonging to groups, such as fans of music, sports, and theater, being members of organizations such as fraternities, sororities, or those devoted to volunteer activities to help others or worship. Intraspecies' social interactions with pets can bring pleasure from companionship and love.

Pursuing hobbies can bring pleasure from being part of a group of hobbyists or developing expertise in a field, such as collecting stamps or coins or being involved with cars or motorcycles, including driving, racing, or customizing.

Traveling and spending time in nature (including hiking, fishing, and bird watching) to explore new cultures and places can lead to multisensory pleasures, including exposure to novel sights, sounds, and tastes.

The creative arts, including writing, painting, sculpting, woodworking, photography, and music, lead to the pleasure associated with self-expression and sometimes with sharing creative works. Cooking, gardening, and home improvement projects can also be elevated to pleasurable creative activities.

Whether competitive or not, participation in athletic activities can help develop long-term pleasure. Team sports can augment sports-related exhilaration because of players’ support of one another. Adventure sports, such as bungee jumping, sky diving, or rock climbing, can be associated with even more pleasure because of the adrenaline rush that occurs with the perception of increased risk.

Life-long learning through attending classes, reading, watching videos, or apprenticeships can bring pleasure through personal growth and self-discovery.

Pleasure Traps

Pleasure traps typically involve short-term pleasures that are pursued excessively and can impact our lives adversely.

Examples of such traps include drug use (including excessive use of alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, and narcotics.) Obviously, drug addiction can completely consume lives and lead to early death. People also are harmed by developing a dependence on drugs to avoid dealing with life challenges. Drugs can also damage physical and mental health.

The use of pornography is yet another pleasure trap that has become ubiquitous because of easy access to the internet. Adverse effects of pornography can range from developing an addiction to porn, development of anxiety and depression due to an inability to cease the use of porn, to causing an inability to function well in real-life sexual encounters.

Other pleasure traps include the excessive pursuit of short-term pleasures such as eating, which can lead to obesity, and engagement in frequent novel sexual encounters, with the associated risks affecting physical health (e.g., venereal disease), and mental health (e.g., inability to develop long-term, meaningful relationships). Gambling addiction has been a long-standing pleasure trap. Social media and video game addictions are modern traps that can lead to poor academic performance and inadequate development of social skills.

During puberty, adolescents appear to have a lower level of dopamine in their brains, which may fuel their desire to engage in riskier, more dangerous behavior to achieve pleasure (Arain, 2013).

Another form of a pleasure trap involves deriving pleasure from viewing or participating in negative events, including violent behavior or infliction of pain.

Pleasure Dividends

A form of pleasure that has not been widely described is the pleasure achieved from recalling an activity that led to long-term pleasure. I refer to this pleasure as a dividend as it results from a long-term investment in a meaningful activity.

For example, thinking back about the feelings experienced during a championship sports competition, during a get-together of a close family or friends, or after completing a long-term goal such as writing a book can bring great pleasure.


Maximizing pleasure in our lives involves balancing short-term and long-term pleasures while being mindful of the additional benefit from achieving pleasure dividends and the need to avoid harm caused by pleasure traps.


Arain, Mariam et al. (2013). “Maturation of the adolescent brain.” Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 9, 449–461.

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