Paul Bloom: The origins of pleasure

July 28th, 2011

This fascinating TED conference reveals research into the psychology of pleasure and pain. Pleasure and pain are increased or decreased by what we believe about them.

Sometimes I wish I could hypnotize myself and change what I believe about my life. I’m conscious that much of my misery comes from false beliefs. But such knowledge seems to do nothing to dispel them or even reduce their potency.

I am not sure how this came to be, but my rational and emotional sides are deeply suspicious of each other. My rational side has one set of beliefs, my emotional side has another. The conflict between them is an enormous drain of energy, and worse, of joy. Each side punishes the other for its sins, and an inner war ensues.

Much as in politics, these sides of me view the slightest compromise of their beliefs to be high treason. My life is governed by whichever “party” is in control at the moment. I find myself saying to myself “Don’t think” and refusing to allow the inner debate to begin. I rule myself like a dictator, and am getting war-weary.

My faith in God interacts with both sides in different ways. My rational side has a hard time reconciling theology with science, and with day-to-day experience. Yet it finds grounds for faith in answered prayers, and in the mysteries that science has revealed. Paradoxically, my emotional side is not more religious; it wants pleasure at any cost and often despises God for limiting it. Its pleasures are instantaneous and vanish quickly. Hedonism feels like a coup and often tears the controls out of my grip for a while, only to vanish completely afterward. Still my emotions derive pleasure from my faith when I am playing music, or singing, or reading the Bible.

I wish I could reconcile both sides, and have complementary emotions and thoughts instead of incendiary, radical, polarizing sides. Keeping both sides at bay is more like keeping a robot and a monkey from taking each other apart. I wish, instead it were like an inner family. If we take the analogy of government again, I long to be a constitutional monarchy, instead of a dictatorship.

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