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Unraveling the Mystery of Pleasure

What brings you pleasure?

Think about something that gives you pleasure.

Most people can list the foods they love to eat (that is, foods that give them pleasure). Others will list out a range of pleasurable physical experiences (ie. exercise, being outdoors, dancing). Still, others will list social experiences as pleasurable (being with the grandkids, talking with friends, going to a party). And then there are the book lovers, whose idea of pleasure “is curling up with a good book.”

Clearly, we seek out pleasurable experiences regularly, but what exactly is pleasure? We know it when we experience it: we feel good; the sensation is delightful. Pleasurable experiences can even invoke joy. 

And we know the opposite of it, too: pain and suffering. Not surprising given this wide baseline of human responses, that, over the ages, much has been said and discussed about pleasure. Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Epicurus, developed philosophies of pleasure. And yes, the word epicure, which refers to a person who seeks the pleasure of food, is derived from his name. 

The pursuit of unbridled pleasure, and the ethics of such seeking is associated with another movement: hedonism, as in pop-culture hedonistic getaways that promise vacationers unlimited indulgence of every sense. (Cue commercials of happy, dancing couples on Caribbean beaches).

The human pursuit of pleasure is not without complications.

Through the ages, a host of philosophers and theologians have considered the good and bad and the right and wrong in the quest for pleasure. Classic Buddhism, for example, associates the craving for pleasure with suffering, and advises against attachment to it. And consider the ethics involved in people who find pleasure in the suffering of others. 

Charles Darwin, famous for proposing the modern theory of evolution, saw pleasure differently. He proposed that the pursuit of pleasure has evolutionary survival advantages. Sex, for example, is pleasurable, which promotes procreation and the advance of the species. He noted that eating is pleasurable which aids the body’s survival.*

Psychologists, too, have weighed in on pleasure, labeling those who are unable to experience pleasure as anhedonic, turning it into a symptom often associated with depression. Noted feminist, psychologist and author Carol Gilligan has critically examined how the power of the patriarchy has dictated the experience of pleasure, “draining” it of its power. She associates the patriarchal denial of the pursuit of pleasure to a set of adverse symptoms, including “loss of voice, dizziness, a sense of dislocation, feelings of alienation, of not really living one’s life.”

She advocates pursuing sensual pleasure as a way to empower us against the antagonistic effects of patriarchy. In her view, pleasure is psychologically liberating. It is a way to reclaim our bodies.**

Neuroscience & the Response to Pleasure

Interestingly, neuroscientists are making progress understanding the human response to pleasurable experiences. These current discoveries move far beyond the simplistic behavioral psychology that associated pleasurable experience to positive reinforcement and complicates the view that dopamine circuits in the brain are primarily responsible for the neural basis of pleasure.

Neuroimaging studies of the brain do show that people react to pleasure using similar circuits in the brain. Yet there are points in these response patterns where individual tastes and preferences enter in to shape the range of ways people respond to experiences, both pleasurably and painfully.

These findings point to a truth about the human experience of pleasure: it is a highly subjective experience. 

What one person marks as pleasurable, others find just the opposite. 


  • Some people find professional massages to be a heavenly experience. They pay someone to knead their muscles (while listening to obligatory spa music.)
  • Others find massage difficult, even painful. They would rather listen to the sound of a hundred toddlers whining. 
  • Some people get a pleasurable thrill watching horror films or going on intense amusement park rides. 
  • Others experience disgust just thinking about watching Friday the 13th or partaking of a Tilt-A-Whirl ride. 

Neuropsychologists are in the beginning stages of understanding what they would call, individual differences in the pleasure response. Hopefully this research will one day explain these range of responses to the pursuit of pleasure.

What does all this have to do with relationships and intimacy?

A lot. Pleasure, it turns out, is central to the experience of close relationships. Researchers have found that shared pleasure in intimate relationships appears to play a significant role in their quality and durability.***

Couples who find pleasure in each other are more likely to love each other. Couples who no longer find pleasure in each other or in time spent together… well, you know where this goes. They are at risk for breaking up. Who would have thought that the study of pleasure plays a central role in our experience of relationships? But it does.   

In my work with couples, the shared experience of pleasure – in each other and with each other – has shown itself to be a major indicator of how healthy, strong and durable is the relationship. The pursuit of pleasure in close relationships is as intriguing and complex as the history of our understanding of pleasure itself.  

Any questions or comments about the topic of pleasure?  Pop me an email- I’d love to hear what you have to say! 

*Darwin, C. (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1998 edition: revised and with commentary by P Ekman). Oxford: Harper Collins – Oxford University Press.
**Gilligan, C. (2003). The Birth of Pleasure: A New Map of Love. Vintage Books: New York, NY. pp 162-163.
***Gottman, J. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed of Fail. Fireside: New York, NY.

Post Author: Julie Schmit