It’s the meaning of life! For a lot of philosophers, pleasure is why we are here, it’s the meaning of life and here’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe telling us how to get it. That’s pretty big!
Some philosophers refer to happiness instead of pleasure and a few tell us that although it isn’t necessarily why we exist as such, it’s certainly what we should be doing while we are here, while others turn the amplitude down a notch from happiness and pleasure and instead suggest we settle for some kind of contentment while forbearing our lot. It is a common theme though; to seek pleasure, to find happiness, to be contented.
Are we discussing pleasure or happiness or contentment then? All of them, and this is not to dismiss the fine distinctions afforded by our bountiful language, but rather to recognise that depending on your choice of philosopher, great quotes of this ilk started mostly as Greek, French, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese or German and were later translated into what we English speakers read today. Vast distances, the passing of many centuries and the evolution of language itself means we have to interpret the original sentiment. We can’t always know, we might have to think and draw conclusions. Ooh, get us being properly philosophical!
Taking Goethe’s quote as a genuine piece of guidance could mean we have the purpose and the pathway for our earthly existence right here concisely described by these sixteen words (or thirteen in his original German; Willst du dich des Lebens freuen, so must der Welt du Werth verleihen).
Get your hedonist out of your assignment. Wait! Those philosophers who tell us pleasure is our purpose, our sole raison d’etre, surely cannot be right, because if so, we are inadvertently validating the worst kind of hedonist. Relax dear reader, we are not, and Goethe definitely isn’t either.
First of all, there’s the if in his quote. Saying ‘If we want to…’ is leaving us a choice about whether we do so or not and then there’s the whole bit about attaching value which we haven’t even got to yet. His quote isn’t, “Drop everything and go and get pleasure!”
“I hate quotes!” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
But I fancy this is where we can lose people, it’s why some people don’t get quotes, because it can seem like there’s one for every occasion (nearly true) and a fool can say anything they want, substantiate everything they want with a twisted quote, find some misguidedly published nutter like David Icke has said something which supports their idiocy and so for those quick to jump to conclusions, the merchants of black-or-white-and-nothing-in-between, all quotes become worthless, or at least enfeebled. Well throwing the baby out with the bathwater may be a common human failing but we are not about to do that here, this bathwater is special, it’s the Yorkshire Tea of bathwaters so stay right where you are!
All of that is the reason why this is number 8 of what I am aiming to complete at 101 (but may come back and edit that to some other convenient number at some point), because these quotes, these fantastic chunks of utter genius insight and wisdom, cannot be taken in isolation, you need some others to join with them to complete an entire way of thinking; the collected philosophy of four thousand years of the best philosophers.
Genius Grand Central. Imagine for a moment, that we bring them all back to life, Socrates, Plato, Seneca, Abe Lincoln, Buddha, Aristotle, Spinoza, Zalmoxis, Emerson, Shakespeare, Anne Frank, Epictetus, Goethe, Ghandi and Dale Carnegie (to name but a few), put them in a room together with the live ones like Richard Flint, Will Monteiro and Julian Richer, explain politely to David Icke, The Donald, George W and a few others that they’re not allowed in but there’s a nice burger joint down the road which has some really dreadful daytime TV and that they might like to go there instead, and then wait. A month later, all the philosophers emerge and announce they’ve agreed a unified theory of the meaning of life. That’s what we’re aiming for here. Nothing more grandiose. Just that.
So seek pleasure, yes, but not by exploiting others, not at the permanent detriment of the environment, not out of kilter with the bigger picture. The crack addict’s high comes at enormous cost to the addict personally as well as to society as a whole, explained beautifully by Ed Sheeran’s ‘The A Team’ lyrics; ‘cause in a pipe she’ll fly to the motherland and sell love to another man. By living a life guided by an interwoven nest of wisdom, building your own internal, intellectual internet you can get it all. ‘ALL’ as in your share, the balance, your dues, the best YOU, living your best life (as they say).
Pleasure is a piece of the jigsaw. A one-hundred-and-one-piece jigsaw seems relatively easy to assemble, so that’s what we’re doing here, piece by piece. Like taking the one or two best pieces of art from all the world’s art museums and putting it in one gallery, we’re collecting the Beaulieu Motor Museum of quote-wisdom, or making the absolute best ever 101 song mixtape with Strauss, Linkin Park, Beethoven, Def Leppard, Fleetwood Mac, Miranda Lambert, Abba, The Foo Fighters and Sarah McLachlan… ah, music is very personal, we’ll never agree on that list, but I’m sure you know what I mean.
Taken not in isolation, but as a clue to a better existence, this particular quote therefore strikes right at the heart of our being. If it is possible to learn something practical from understanding it, you might be appreciably happier (etc) for evermore. How about that for a result!
The root of all pleasure. The condition is to attach value to the world, so that needs exploring in a little while. First though, let’s try a little analysis about where pleasure comes from, and that’s easy, it’s the nucleus accumbens, next question!
Okay, the nucleus accumbens is a little cluster of brain cells which sits under the cerebral cortex. It controls the release of dopamine which makes us feel happy. More than that, it also makes us feel alert, motivated and focused. As clusters and chemicals go, these are pretty useful then. Things get a fraction more complicated here because it isn’t simply a drug-like substance in the normal sense, it is also a neurotransmitter, meaning it aids the synaptic function of the brain. In conjunction with other brain chemistry it helps memory function, blood flow, motor control, digestion, pancreatic function as well as heart and kidney function, sleep, motor control, your response to stress and other aspects of your emotional state and mood. In bigger doses it causes euphoria (when exactly were you last in a state of euphoria? If you can’t remember, allow me to recommend my mixtape.)
Mine’s a Dope, and make it a double! Hey! This dopamine sounds great, how can I get some more? You can smoke pot (it’s called dope for a reason), you can also smoke regular tobacco because nicotine activates dopamine by pretending to be the real thing, albeit on a smaller scale, meanwhile cocaine temporarily overrides the system which does away with excess neurotransmitters and allows much more than is normal to do its euphoric stuff, so there are a few ways to get you started. Or not. You really don’t want to do any of those things, because even if we ignore all the huge and mostly very negative side-effects and just concentrate on the wonderful dopamine, the body doesn’t simply accept all the extra dosage without some unwanted consequences.
To realise why not, it would help to understand the cycle of how dopamine works as a reward. You like chocolate? There’s a coincidence, me too. So you eat some (I’m thinking Aero) and it tastes nice and a teeny-weeny bit of dopamine is released, clever you. More than that though, you probably had a little squirt of dopamine when you just thought about getting some choccy-woccy, then again as you walked in the shop and saw it on display, maybe again as you unwrapped it. The whole process is one of a dopamine speckled experience of anticipation and reward.
Having picked chocolate as an example, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the bigger effect will be the blood-sugar rush from ingestion which starts a few minutes later, spikes and then drops below stasis levels due to your pancreas producing a slightly-too-large dose of insulin to counter the sugar. Now your blood sugar is lower than normal and your lizard brain craves sugar as the fastest cure to this situation. The solution? More chocolate, gimme, gimme, gimme! You’ll never get enough, but you will get fat and diabetes too (oh dear, your prehistoric pancreas just couldn’t keep up with your modern lifestyle).
Returning to our Aero hunt, Dopamine was involved in the process to add something beyond the basic thinking about finding chocolate, it gave you a chemical reward for successive steps and a decisive ”Well done you!” for succeeding. It supports your motivation to chase a target and rewards you for achieving the goals you set.
How much dopamine do you get? It’s regulated to achieve the desired result and artificially high levels have a long-term dampening effect, so that larger doses are required for the same level of response. In medical terms, this is tolerance. As you become habituated, normal levels don’t impact on you in the same way they used to so you need MORE. Drug abusers seek higher highs not necessarily because they are trying to get even higher, but because eventually, repeated doses don’t generate those early highs when the brain was properly overwhelmed and before it decreased its sensitivity. Like a forty-year-old going to Ibiza, they may be hoping to relive the magic of something remembered but lost and yet they are ignoring the fact that a big part of its magic was inherent in it being the first time. They wanted to go back to that time, but all they could do was go back to Ibiza. It’s not the same thing.
While natural levels of dopamine can be felt for a lifetime, artificially high doses can eventually cause the system to become tolerant to the point of barely registering them, and that’s not all, it gets worse. Can we assume the brain and body have a better idea of what the right amount is? For most of us who haven’t abused our systems the answer is yes, but sadly not for all. A few unfortunate people have too much while others have too little. Wider humanity always includes variations.
Mummy Bear’s porridge. High levels of dopamine have been associated with Tourette’s, schizophrenia and hallucinations while unusually low levels are associated with depression, catatonia and Parkinson’s. When the system malfunctions there are consequences and we can bring these problems on by messing with it. Ironic isn’t it, that the dope-seeker who artificially amplifies his dopamine levels can end up unable to get enough to experience ‘normality. A reformed cocaine addict once told me that one of a great many bad days was when he nipped out of the hospital room where his girlfriend was giving birth to their first child because he realised he felt… nothing. He needed to snort a line to engage with the magnitude of the moment. To the non-user, the event is normally enough to produce elation, tears, awe and get marked down as one of the most momentous of their lives. Nature had it covered.
Along the way, it’s entirely possible that the hardened dope-fiend will have suffered from the catastrophic consequences of too much of the magic chemical, and also risk suffering from the effects of having too little. Apparently, if you repeatedly groom a cat with one of those pet brushes, there’s a possibility it will reduce its interest in self-grooming and maybe even stop washing altogether, at which point you might be obliged to groom it forever. People meddling with their brain/blood chemistry can find themselves in the same predicament.
It seems nature allows us a certain amount of pleasure and no more, while inflicting a few poor souls with a system which is slightly overloaded and others with too little. Let’s assume you are largely normal and carry on.
How you get your pleasure is up to you. Anticipating something special, working in a motivated fashion towards a goal, achieving the goal you have strived to accomplish, learning something, eating something, cooking something, singing, exercising, painting, gardening, reading, just doing something you enjoy and let’s not forget the powerful dopamine release of doing something you especially enjoy with someone you especially enjoy, I’ll say no more, wink, wink. Back to Goethe.
What this all means is:
So Wolfy, ‘Attach value to the World’, you say? This is the main part of the message and it’s a simple concept, readily grasped and easily understood intellectually but one which most people prefer not to live by. It must be one of those do as I say, not as I do things.
No pain – no gain? No pain – no pain! The strongest motivators for human beings are often cited as seeking pleasure and avoiding pain with the latter being the more powerful. It means that while people might spend their time wondering how to get more pleasure, they will often forego the reward if the acquisition process requires some pain. Or discomfort. Or sometimes even the risk of discomfort. We could be fit and toned, but oh, all that time in the gym, no thank you! There’s a lot we could achieve but it would mean an empty sofa or getting up in the morning and for a lot of people, it’s simply too high a price to pay. This safer and more comfortable way of living dribbles down into other aspects of our lives to small things like, “There’s no point washing the car today because it’s going to rain again later.” Or, the people who pay for a Sunday roast in a pub, grumble it’s not quite right but would rather not invest all the time and effort (and personal risk) in doing it themselves. Or vow to learn more Spanish when they’re on holiday there but lose interest in the idea back in Britain where cerveza, bronceada and vacaciones are replaced by long queues on the M25 and the rhythmic slapping of windscreen wipers.
Yet we all know that rising from the sofa and achieving something is worthwhile. The last flick of the chamois leather before we stand back and appreciate that the car has a colour other than grey-brown-road-grime feels good and some people even claim a clean car is nicer to drive! The huge popularity of cooking and baking shows supports a new generation of home chefs who have realised that food tastes better when you’ve invested time and effort into it and who doesn’t take satisfaction in getting by in a foreign language, or feel some admiration for those who can, especially when it’s a Dutch person who has better English than we do. By the way, while Mandarin Chinese has the most native speakers of any language on Earth at more than a billion, when taken as a first or second language, it’s English of course. But here’s the interesting thing. There are more people learning English as a second language than grow up with it as a first. That’s one successful language!
To achieve something, we may need to commit and the reluctance to do so is the counterbalance to the repeated cycle of dopamine hits. Reluctance because we sometimes anticipate it’ll be too much trouble, not worth it and most likely end in bitter disappointment. So basically the spirit of adventure, our motivation, our get up and go is replaced by Aykarrntbeearrsst.
“And which one wins grandfather?” Well, we’re all different, so for some people, their routines are full of effort and energy and a great deal gets done, much of it unnoticed, thankless, overlooked. Their pleasure comes from personal pride, a job well done, and if you insist on asking them their secret. they shrug and tell you they don’t really have any other way of functioning, it’s just their nature, their habit, the routine they have followed for so long they wouldn’t know how to stop.
For other people (you probably know someone like this) no job is so small that it can’t be postponed indefinitely and of all the tasks that need attention, most are never undertaken and the rest remain unfinished. Their most deft skill seems to be the manufacture of excuses while practicing the hands-on-hips-cheeks-puffed-out-with-exasperation look, which they have down to a tee.
Attaching value to things puts us at risk. Hoping for good weather doesn’t change the result, but it does set us up for disappointment (I should point out that I’m writing this in England). Throwing yourself wholeheartedly into winning that new job might mean that it’s all the worse if the younger, handsomer chap with the piece of paper but no experience pips you to it. Falling head over heels in love rather than playing it cool might mean your heart gets pulverised when the object of your dreams reveals a preference for your hopeless, lazy, smells-of-farts, ex-best friend.
And yet – you’re there before me, aren’t you? – if you don’t put absolutely everything into getting that promotion, you’ll reduce your chances of getting it and if you hold back on the relationship – measuring out pieces of your heart like tokens – maybe your idol will ‘go party’ with someone less inhibited. And while you can’t control the weather, if you don’t care about it, it won’t mean so much to you when it’s good.
So which is it to be? Will you live a life of wanton, unrestrained enthusiasm and get your heart broken more often than not, be frequently disappointed, learn that some outcomes have nothing to do with talent or fairness and find yourself questioning the principles of justice, of the existence of Karma or wondering whether your God is some kind of sadist? If you do, you’ll also collide with the biggest natural doses of dopamine you can get. Or will you play it safe, hold yourself back, wait, watch, learn, miss out quite a lot but not get hurt so often, do your best to avoid the conclusion that you wasted some opportunities, make yourself feel better by deciding things probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway? If you take that path don’t join the SAS (because their motto is “Who Dares Wins”), don’t Carpe Diem and to avoid relationship problems get yourself a car sticker that tells folks you prefer dogs to people. By the way, while I can’t dictate how you feel about that, it’s not intended as an insult, your dog will probably never let you down.
Inevitably then, there are plenty of good people who take the latter, safer route and therefore while recognising the truth in Goethe’s words, don’t live by them. It’s understandable, but is it the best way to live? I’m not judging either, I’m just, well, philosophising.
Hindmoaners. One thing I will be judgy about is the people who won’t attach value beforehand, but then won’t let go afterwards. I don’t think that’s a good way to carry on at all. Here’s a made up example: Let’s say Dave decides to enter a mini, sprint triathlon. He swims, cycles and runs and is pretty fit. He goes to the gym several times a week but puts more effort into pumping iron than endurance. He’s advised to modify his training but claims not to be that bothered about the result as he’s just doing it for fun. Folks that know him find this hard to believe because he’s ultra-competitive at everything. His main preparation was to spend £800 on a new bike and more dosh on various bits of clothing. After the event, Dave sounds like a broken record grumbling about national level triathlon competitors who dominated the field. He’s critical of their win-or-die focus, their expensive triathlon bikes which he doubts they paid for themselves and their string-bean physiques, which he thought looked unhealthy. Thoroughly thrashed, he announces that if he does it again, he’d do the full Iron Man thing because he feels that would play to his strengths better. It takes Dave a long time to get over it because he’s decided to attach a lot more value afterwards than he did beforehand, and that really doesn’t make sense at all!
How many Billies in a billion? I am particularly familiar with salespeople struggling with this concept. Because success in sales is always a combination of everything the salesperson does plus the relative situation of the potential buyer, salespeople naturally prefer a client who is more interested, more willing, more able. This can lead to what is known as ‘cherry-picking’, waiting for buyers (aka ‘hands-up-Billies’) and this is a mistake because there are never enough hands-up-Billies to be successful at sales. The essence of sales is developing cold leads into warm ones and warm ones into hot ones and hot ones into buyers. Waiting for hot ones isn’t the skill they are being paid for, it’s lazy and dumb. And quite common and quite natural too.
Being like most other human beings, people who have selected a career in sales find rejection uncomfortable, and because of the nature of the job, most salespeople get quite a lot of it. We could spend several pages now discussing how to deal with it, ignore it, use it, reframe it, blah, blah, but we’re on a different track because what’s also happening here is salespeople are trying not to waste their energy. They don’t want to invest too heavily in an enquiry that demonstrates early on that a purchase is very unlikely. Rather than work hard on it, they ‘pace’ it, watch it and wait, stay in touch, maybe abandon it move onto a better prospect. Here then, they don’t want to attach value to the prospect because it makes the disappointment worse. Putting a lot more effort in and coming out with nothing is worse than realising from the outset that it wasn’t going anywhere and cutting your losses early. And anyway, salespeople often attribute weak enquiries to poor marketing. Now if only the marketing department knew what they were doing they’d send us buyers! Of course, because everything is that simple.
Just do it! The truth is, every single enquiry needs the full beans. You could (rightly) argue that the strong enquiries don’t need the effort, just the weak ones, but salespeople inevitably invest more energy, effort and hope (attaching value) to strong enquiries, their ‘hot’ leads. Doing anything less than their best every time is a mistake, putting the most effort into the strongest enquiries and the least into the weakest one is a form intelligent efficiency, like picking your battles, but it’s also wrong. It’s the same kind of wrong as a doctor deciding not to bother resuscitating a patient because he looks like it’s going to be too difficult and unlikely to survive anyway and toddling back to the lounge to read The Lancet instead. It’s wrong for many reasons, but just one of them is they never really know who the hot prospects are. Every experienced salesperson has a hat full of stories about being surprised by someone they didn’t expect to buy, doing just that.
Attach value, do your best, then let go. But it’s still not as easy to do as to say and partly because we are creatures of habit.
Just another day in paradox. In the UK, the average female lives to around 30,500 days, men, about 1,000 days less. That allows quite a few habits to form and routines to set in. The lives we settle into often dictate them – or seem to. Most mornings there are a lot of people heading off to work, same job as yesterday, same starting point now for many months or years, same commute, same route, same colleagues, same furniture at home, same family to come home to, a day with much more familiarity in it than surprises, more repetition than new experiences or learning.
Another benefit of this repetition is that by treading a familiar path the risk of great disappointment or pain or shock is managed and minimised. On most days, for most people, it’s very unlikely there will be any. It’s not a bad life.
Which is why while thousands go to work, just a few walk out of the house with their suitcases packed and head off around the world to find themselves, excited that ‘out there’ is the thing they were born to attach themselves to, certain that their purpose and happiness isn’t to be found right here under their noses. A few will shut down their laptop and stare out of the window, then open it again to write a letter of resignation. No new job to go to, just one they need to leave. Just a few will wave their chap goodbye as he sets off to work, then scan the papers for ‘apartments to let’, phone the number in the ad and in answer to one of the questions say, “Today.”
That kind of behaviour takes us right out of our comfort zone. Not only will most of us not hit the road unsure where we’ll be in a month or two, most of us won’t go somewhere new without the hotel booked in advance, thoroughly reviewed on TripAdvisor and closely studied via internet images. It seems that as a society we don’t even like surprises anymore. Most will suffer the wrong job because well, it’s a job, it pays the bills, most will suffer the wrong spouse because better the devil you know and if she really wants to leave him she’ll do her best to push him in some other poor girl’s arms in the hope that he’ll do the leaving and save her the hassle.
Routines rarely attract maximum personal investment the way new experiences do. Those same routines feel safe, they are easier and make for a more comfortable existence, but they are also just one step removed from the boredom that can undermine our happiness completely.
Because of the easy, comfortable familiarity, people take their possessions for granted, worse still, they take their spouses for granted too. Routines and familiarity may be comfortable, but they can cause inattention and an insulting lack of effort. “What? Surely, you know I love you! I don’t have to keep telling you, do I?” might be a signal that something’s missing and that not telling tends to coincide with not showing either. Not doing either isn’t just being forgetful.
Are you a pioneer or a settler? A life organised around repetition can undermine the novelty and excitement which encourages attaching value and so sometimes we need to force ourselves out of it. I used to work with a chap who liked going out to lunch. He liked the odd Frascati or Chianti too (cue Anthony Hopkins doing that grumage thing “Slurp, slurp, slurp!”) He’d ask where we should go, I’d inevitably make a suggestion based on places we knew and he’d say, “What are we, Pioneers or Settlers?” and off we’d go to somewhere we’d never been before. Being a pioneer adds something to the experience qualitatively and also in terms of risk. Choosing a restaurant is a great example of this issue if you think about it.
Are we there yet? Nearly dear reader, nearly. Plenty of people can claim to put their effort into goalsetting and enjoying the anticipation of a thing, but there’s a trap here too. We’ll call it:
The focussing on a panacea error. The idea that everything would be alright if only (insert any number of answers here) can also be a distraction. Not only does it remove the useful focus from the here and now and place it at some point in the future, but it’s very often poorly thought out. Right now, this very moment you are in, with all its compromises is the time you have, it’s real, you are alive and in it so do your best to appreciate it. The wished-for future event may never happen, but if it does, are you certain it will be better? And how much ‘now’, how much real life was lost waiting for the next thing?
Some things are obvious aren’t they? Like a big lottery win would obviously be a big life-changing, mega-positive event for most individuals, because couldn’t we all do some amazing things with a million or more quid? But what of all the stories of the unhappy, destitute and friendless lottery winners, what’s that about? Did you know that 70% of the big winners go broke within five years so maybe being wealthy isn’t the answer. Being happy is the goal and while money helps, money and happiness aren’t one and the same.
It’s fine to seek new experiences, new things, milestones of success, but forfeiting the pleasure to be had from undertaking the task and instead solely focussing on the end in anticipation of what it might bring us turns out to be a mistake. How cruel is it that our brains are wired to pursue success only to find that when we get there it is somehow lacking and that the highlights of our lives were some of the early, simple, hopeful times? That epiphany prompts the ‘life is a journey not a destination’, line of thought – and quite right too.
The novelty wears off more quickly than we could have expected and the object of desire is reduced to its material components. Its aura, the magic power of what we wanted and spent so long dreaming of having, convinced it would make our life so much better is soon re-allocated to something else, the next big thing. This happens until one day it dawns on us that we’ve moved away from the real source of the pleasure we have been seeking and that we either already have it or did so at some time in the past. So we find the McLaren driver who prefers zipping around in a battered Renault Clio, the owner of a large property who is never more ‘at home’ than when he’s in his Frinton-on-Sea beach hut and Sophia Loren, up to her armpits in rescued animals. It’s not new information, they are three among many who have climbed to the top of their own version of Maslow’s ego/status level in his famous ‘hierarchy of needs’, found it wanting and progressed unburdened into that top bit of the pyramid he called self-actualisation.
Wouldn’t it be great to learn that without needing to waste all the years chasing something vacuous? So if you already get your pleasure from simpler things, things available in abundance in nature or from the things you already have, then you’re more enlightened than the average person, congratulations, except you don’t need me to congratulate you do you, because you’ve grown beyond that primitive desire for the applause of an audience too.
What that means in Goethean terms is that you attach value to the birds visiting your garden and so take much more than the average amount of pleasure in their company. You didn’t need a beach holiday in Bequia to put a smile on your face, a Robin singing to you from a branch a few feet from your face provided you with a whole morning of delight. Maybe somewhere on your shelf of albums is Sinead O’Connor’s, I do not want what I haven’t got.
Enjoy the journey. Enjoy the moment-by-moment pleasure of being here, alive. Enjoy each part of aiming towards a worthwhile goal and throw yourself completely into it. And thank you Dick Vermeil for modernising Goethe’s words: “If you don’t invest very much then defeat doesn’t hurt very much and winning is not very exciting.”