The Zero-Sum Pleasure and Pain Game


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“What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is thought to be its opposite, namely pain! A man cannot have both at the same time. Yet if he pursues and catches the one, he is almost always bound to catch the other also, like two creatures with one head.” Phaedo 60

Have you ever noticed how pleasure and pain seem to be twinned? A wild night out tends to be followed by a hangover, passionate love can be followed by equally intense hate, and the pleasure of sex might be followed by post-coital depression. These dynamics demonstrate the nature of pleasure and pain; one tends to follow the other. An elevated sense of well-being might follow a painful workout in the gym. In the quote above, Socrates is telling how on having his leg irons removed in prison, something that had caused him pain, he was now experiencing pleasure from the relief of not having them bite into his ankles.

Spinoza also noticed this pairing of pleasure and pain, and he went on to elaborate on the process. We experience pleasure when our survival prospects are enhanced, no matter how indirectly. And we experience pain when survival prospects are diminished. Please note that it is the changes in survival prospects that create pleasure and pain. If there is no change, there is no pleasure or pain. It would, of course, be very nice indeed if our survival prospects could increase indefinitely, thus giving us continuous pleasure, but alas, for every up, there is a down. It’s a roller coaster with pleasure taking us to the heights and pain plunging us down into the lows. Haven’t you ever noticed how some adverse event inevitably follows some pleasurable event, a fabulous meal, a significant promotion at work, an unexpected sum of money? It’s worth bearing these dynamics in mind when filled with euphoria that there will inevitably be a downside. In essence, it’s a zero-sum game.

Schopenhauer was also on the ball when he reported that the pleasure that comes from satisfying a desire is soon replaced by the pain of a new unsatisfied desire. The net result is that the people who experience the big highs are also the same people who know the big lows.

It would seem that there is a decision to be made here. If we are determined to pursue the big highs, we should know that we are also setting ourselves up for the big lows. A more moderate approach to life means the highs are less pleasurable and the lows less painful. Unfortunately, there is no escaping these dynamics, and no one wins, no matter how much they try to convince us otherwise, and a person will always try to convince us that their life is in some way more pleasurable than ours.

Perhaps the best strategy is to sit back and laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing, both the pleasures and the pains. Laughter is excellent medicine overall and particularly good in this respect.



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