The Root of All Pleasures

by Nov 24, 2020

Imagine a man stranded on an island that had his memory erased. He’s only able to rely on his instincts to survive. His throat starts to feel parched. He instinctively seeks out a way to quench his thirst. He starts with whatever moisture he can find and does not take flavor into consideration. Eventually he starts to seek out and graduate to purer and better tasting forms of hydration and even begins to toss in a few leaves and fruit for flavoring. Then he turns to his stomach which pangs of hunger. He begins by pulling up plants and tasting his options. Eventually he realizes that the outside of a coconut is not as delicious as the inside. He continues to graduate to more refined textures and flavors. Then he suddenly comes across a chicken and wonders how that tastes. He figures out how to get the best flavor out of the chicken and eventually stops eating plants in favor of chicken. Now, imagine a mermaid washes ashore and he is attracted to her. He gives up a bit of his own pleasure and begins to share his chicken delicacy with her. After becoming a bit bored of her and simultaneously discovering television, he leaves her aside and begins to spend his time watching football. (Most people I share this parable with tell me they don’t believe any of it would happen except for the man choosing football over his wife.)

This parable depicts the way most people are drawn to pleasures in their lives. People tend to “stumble” upon new experiences and if those experiences provide more enjoyment than previous ones, they will spend more effort and time attaining it. What if, however, we could be more intentional with the pleasures we seek? If we had a hierarchical structure to pleasures we experience, we can be more strategic in choosing what will provide us maximum enjoyment.

There are 3 basic concepts that need to be understood in order to be more intentful when seeking pleasure:

  1. Everyone is driven to get pleasure.
  2. The 7 ways we access pleasure.
  3. The common underlying experience of all pleasures.

Everyone is driven to get pleasure

Although there may be many factors when we evaluate the daily choices that we make, the primary factor is what will bring us the most pleasure. Take, for example, your typical morning routine. Your alarm wakes you up at 6:30am. You are given a choice: You could press snooze and roll over in bed or if your mind has processed that being responsible and going to work will result in more overall pleasure- you will choose the latter. As I mentioned in a previous post, our pleasures may be shrouded by our focus on the effort or pain, but pleasure is still how we evaluate our decisions. There have been countless studies and articles on man’s innate drive for pleasure dating back to Sigmund Freud. I encourage you to research this concept further. Here is a study on this topic. In the meantime, I will move on to concept # 2.

The 7 ways we access and engage with pleasure:

There are 7 ways that we access pleasure:

  1. Five Senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, & sound)
  2. Emotions
  3. Intellect

There is, of course, overlap between the ways we access pleasure and where the experience of pleasure is felt. For example, a physical pleasure can engage our emotions and an emotional pleasure can affect our intellect and vise versa. The distinctions I make are based on where the foremost impact is felt, whether it be our senses, our emotions, or our intellect.

Now that we are familiar with the 7 ways we access pleasure, let us divide up some examples of pleasures based on their 7 ways they are accessed. By doing so we can then analyze and understand the common root of pleasures.

A) The Five Senses

  • Sight: What is enjoyable to our eyes? Have you ever watched a classic episode of the late artist Bob Ross painting a scenic view on PBS? (Am I dating myself?) Had he only painted the bright blue sky, the painting would have been pleasant for viewers. Yet, after he added some mountains it became even more enjoyable. He would then blot the canvas with shades of green to create trees and shrubbery thereby making the painting even nicer. Viewers would watch as he would add more and more detail that would somehow blend beautifully together and the audience would be wowed by the final product.
  • Smell: Ever wonder who thought of the flavors for your antibacterial liquid soap? Why would anyone consider mixing cucumbers with melons or oatmeal, milk, and honey? Yes, believe it or not there are careers built upon combining scents together to discover the most appealing aromas. I think watermelon alone smells great, but I’m always surprised how much better it actually smells when combined with other fragrances. It seems, when there’s a scent that jives well, it provides more enjoyment for our olfactory senses.
  • Taste: Imagine a salad bar that only had lettuce. If you were hungry and wanted to eat healthy, you may choose to crunch on that. Yet, what makes salad bars so appealing (besides the various colors- see Sight above) are the options to add and enhance flavor combinations. We enjoy the savory with the sweet, or maybe it’s two different sweet flavors or two different savory flavors that complement one another. Granted, we may just be satisfied with two or three basic ingredients, but we generally opt for more flavors and combinations to create robust flavorful salad.
  • Sound: Open YouTube and search for Canon by Pachelbel. In your first search, look for the version of the song played solely with piano. Sounds nice- right? Now add violin accompaniment- even better? How about a few wind instruments? Bass? Goosebumps! It gets better and better with each instrument.
  • Touch: Have you ever visited San Diego? I had the privilege of living there for 5 years. The best weather in the US (maybe even the world) is made up of the warm California sun that is tempered by a cool ocean breeze. When the heat of the sun and the cool ocean air fuse together on your skin all you can say is “Ahh!”

B) Emotions

The most obvious of emotional pleasures is love. A feeling of strong or constant affection for a person. Dr. Sue Johnson, developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, built the modality on the concept that humans are homo-vinculum- the one who bonds. We have a deep-seated need to bond and connect with others.

(C) Intellect

There are numerous intellectual pleasures that we experience. The simplest is the accumulation of knowledge. That is, the experience of weaving together bits of information into a tapestry of broader understanding. Another example is justice. When we define something as unfair off-balance, it disrupts our intellectual balance. Achieving justice puts our intellectual discomfort at ease.

The common underlying experience of all pleasures.

Are you catching on to the pattern here? If there were one word to describe the common thread among all the above listed pleasures, it would be the experience of “oneness.” Let’s define that experience as the combination of two or more disparate entities melding together harmoniously. What that means, in other words, is that the innate human drive for pleasure is actually a drive to experience oneness. If I were speaking to you, that would be a mic drop moment. It’s eye opening to understand one of our deepest drives in this manner. It truly deserves pause. Please take a few minutes to apply and test this definition to the above 7 ways we access pleasures. I will challenge you to do the work. Study life and the pleasures it has to offer.

What’s most fascinating to me is that beyond just being a therapist, I am a practicing Jew and one of the ways we describe G-d is “One.” That is, G-d is the ultimate experience of Oneness. Which means to say that there is an element of G-dliness in all pleasures and that the hierarchy of enjoyment can be gauged by the amount of G-dliness in that experience. The more refined the experience is, intellectually or spiritually, the more G-d’s “Oneness” is experienced and the deeper the pleasure. Nonetheless, even if one is not religious or does not believe in G-d, they are wired to seek out oneness. It is interesting to note that scientists are in a search for oneness in the universe as part of the Unified Theory.

Feel free to comment here on the website, on social media, or message me directly at with your reflections and challenges to this concept. I would be glad to respond and discuss. Enjoy your journey towards the ultimate oneness…

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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