Our world is full of advertisements – on our buses, on our televisions, in our train stations – which claim to offer the opportunity for a more pleasurable life. We only need go to a supermarket, and whether we desire something sweet, sour, bitter or salty, all our frustrated hungers can be met with ever-faster and ever-more-satisfying effect. Choice is the order of the day, and happiness is the goal.
How has all this choice shaped the way we conceive of satisfaction? The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, in a conversation about pleasure and frustration, commented that, “One of the obstacles is the demand that we be happy, that we enjoy our lives. I think it’s a huge distraction, and it’s very, very undermining. So, living in a quasi-hedonistic culture, I think it’s a big problem. It’s wrong because, if we are to make this crude, in the old days, whenever that was, there was an internal injunction to be good. Now the injunction is to be happy, or to be enjoying yourself. And the reason this is a distraction is because life is also painful”.
Phillips’ point here is not puritanical. He is not encouraging abstinence or austerity or self-punishment by saying that you should, on moral grounds or otherwise, be rightfully denied your chocolate bar or your glass of wine or your beach holiday. After all, we all know that life’s pleasures can be, to put it simply, enormously pleasurable. And although there are discussions to be had about the consequences of different commodified pleasures, Phillips is directing our gaze elsewhere.
Instead, he wants us to think about what pleasure has come to mean to us, philosophically and psychologically, in a quasi-hedonistic culture. Problems arise, he reasons, when pleasure becomes a means of “evacuating” pain, as if there is a quantifiable equation where more pleasure equals less pain which results in more happiness. “What we are continuously being sold are possibilities for pleasure, as though all we want to do is get rid of the pain and increase the pleasure.”
The mistake lies in trying to eradicate pain with pleasure as if pain is a privation, or an appetite, that requires feeding. Instead of trying to eradicate pain, which is ultimately an impossible task, we would do better to think about what we can do with it, how we can modify it. Pain is ineluctable, so if our cultural ideal of a “good life” is centred around the pursuit of the state of happiness then our cultural goals are always going to be unrealisable, and they will always, to some extent, punish us.
The cultural consensus about a good life might, in a different environment, involve an acceptance and a more developed understanding of the vicissitudes and unpredictability of life. We need, as Phillips says, “better pictures of satisfaction with a more adult sense of the way the world is.” If we are able to reconceptualise the notion of satisfaction and recognise that pleasure is far from the principal determinant of a good life, then we are also better able to make something of the pain and enjoy the pleasure.