Economies of pleasure

Our lives are economies of pleasure, made of habitual ways of trying to feel good. If we want to change ourselves we have, as it were, to reform our habitual structures of pleasure and build new structures. We must change the ways that we get pleasure, and perhaps deny ourselves pleasure in the habitual forms in which we get it, in order to get pleasure in new ways. Sometimes we must also go through some short-term pains in order to expand into new economies of pleasure.

For example, John suffers from social anxiety. This can best be thought of as an economic structure of pleasures and pains. The pains are the fear of others’ judgements, the curtailment of his social activity, loneliness, frustration, few friendships or sexual relationships, and a thwarted career. However, the economic structure also has its compensations and benefits: the feeling of self-pity, which is a certain kind of pleasure; comfort-eating and binge-drinking, also a type of pleasure; pornography; perhaps compulsive computer gaming; and also perhaps a hatred of the world, which is a pain, but also a type of pleasure.

This economic structure can be more or less stable. A personality could stay within this structure their entire life, experiencing a great deal of suffering, but also those few rather meagre benefits and pleasures.

To change the personality means reforming this pleasure-economy. That means, first of all, giving up the pleasure or compensation of self-pity, and trying to take responsibility for one’s thoughts, beliefs, habits and, in a word, life. It means giving up the pleasure of hating the world, and railing against it for its cruelty and injustice. It means, to some extent, trying to control the pleasures of comfort-eating and binge-drinking, and not relying so much on the solitary pleasures of pornography and gaming. It also means facing the short-term pains of structural reforms: getting off the sofa and trying to engage with the world more, attempting to join social activities, with all the potential put-downs, humiliations and rejections which that entails.

These rejections and set-backs cause one pain, which make one want to revert to the old pleasure-economy, by retreating from the world in self-pity, railing against its cruelty, and going off on a compensatory binge of comfort food, booze, pornography and gaming. However, if one carries on with the attempt to change, then eventually the pain of the put-downs lessen, one begins to get more positive social feedback, and one’s personality shifts into a new equilibrium, a new structure of pleasures and pains.