Pleasure and Happiness

On a fundamental level pleasure—in general the sense of feeling good, of being happy—is a gratification of the externally and internally oriented senses, part of the positive feedback mechanism of the survival instinct, for which pain and discomfort is the negative. Breathing; living warm/cool and dry; ingesting food and drink; excreting waste solids, liquids, and gases; exercising the muscles and moving the body about at work and play; sleeping soundly; and for those of sexual maturity, mating; all are examples of a release of and relief from stress whose natural purpose and effect is the maintenance of the individual and species and the extension of its progeny. From this perspective pleasure is an essential physical feature of sentient creatures that allows them to effectively navigate and operate within their environment. 

The pleasure of breathing remains eclipsed by the rest of the senses until we are cut off from oxygen for a few dozen seconds or have our pulmonary function impaired by an inhospitable environment or disease; then we recognize or remember how good it feels to take a deep breath of fresh air. Learning to optimize and extend the regular patterns of inhaling and exhaling, focusing on the breath is an integral part of meditational techniques aimed at quieting the thoughts and emotions and centering on one’s integrated, intuitive being; one’s soul. Success in such practice drives home an awareness that is contrary to the social chaos so apparent in our current historical moment; that we are far from being strangers in a strange land, not alien to or somehow separable from this earth. 

Conscious breathing entails the internal sensation and control of respiration, while being driven by the subconscious function of the the brain stem. That native control facilitates the sense of smell which is integral to the sense of taste and is all important in the class of mammals in pursuing and avoiding predation and in finding a mate. Both senses guard against ingestion of toxins and encounters with other dangers in the environment. 

Our life experience is as much the breath that we breathe in and out, from birth to death, as it is of the bodies that do the breathing, and this fact limits us as to the places we can ever visit or inhabit.  Because we must have continuity of oxygen supply, we have historically been limited to the surface of the earth, except for very short dips under water and the sometimes unpleasant subsurface journeys into caves and mines. The technological ability to carry oxygen with us has stretched those sojourns into extended periods, submarine and extra-terrestrial. The resulting illusion of being an independent, self contained corporal individual does not change the fact that as terrestrial entities, we are as much creatures of its oxygen—of its numinous breath—as we are the multicellular physical bodies, composed of its water and the dust of its clay.

The axiomatic knowledge that breathing is the most immediately necessary and therefore the most valued pleasure is echoed throughout history when referring to the quality of divine or essential being; spiritus, the Latin word for breath, is used in Christianity when referring to God as the Holy Spirit. By these and other teachings spirit is the essential principle underlying whatever is to be found in the world and in the individual who is finding it. This Spirit of Truth is the Essence; the ultimate reality; the supreme quality of being, without which nothing that exists would have its existence. Considered scientifically or philosophically, the essence of a thing is the necessary and sufficient condition for that thing’s appearance at a certain time and place in natural or human history. That essential principle, whether referenced in theological poetry or prose or the symbolic logic of mathematics is itself axiomatic, beyond conditions, beyond its expression in time and place. If we define what is physically real as that which appears to the senses at a definite place at a definite time, then what is essential is by definition metaphysical or beyond space and time. It is therefore both logical and natural to think of breath and breathing as a Divine property representative of a fundamental transcendent link to and an essential ever-present pleasure, the bliss of Life Itself.

After breathing, the pleasure of ambient temperature and humidity comes next in terms of the immediacy of conditions which motivate a more evolved organism to avoid exposure to inhospitable and painful extremes. It doesn’t take long in the absence of protective clothing or habitat before subzero or super centenary temperatures—of Fahrenheit degrees—lead to death. The humidity conditions at either extreme can exacerbate or mitigate the onset of that eventuality, while those at either end of the habitable range can still result in torpor. 

After a moderate environment, the next fundamental pleasure, while less immediate, is that of ingesting the necessary food and drink it takes to sustains us—and with it the excretory operations the digestive and urinary systems inevitably dictate. Knowledge of the aches and pangs of hunger or thirst is straightforward in moving us toward a meal; the anticipated gustatory pleasure of eating and drinking and with the discovery of alcohol, inebriation, is well enough understood. Taken as a whole, their satisfactions compel individuals to trade at great distances to acquire their comestibles, to immigrate to better food sources and engage in exhausting labor or even war and plunder to ensure their acquisition, and to pay inordinate amounts to procure provision in short supply. 

The pursuit of such consumption is not just of individual interest or endeavor. Of all types of human pursuit of pleasure, none is more communal than that of the feast. The culmination of the tribal hunt, the celebration of the harvest, the communion of the marriage feast, the covered dish supper, the tailgate party are all cases where satisfaction of the individual need and enjoyment of food and drink is enhanced by sharing of the experience at a common time and place. The feast integrates the pleasures of these three truths, motivating individuals to come together to enjoy the fundamental pleasure of eating.

This enhanced pleasure of the common experience is over and above the individual sensory pleasure of consumption itself and can enliven a bland repast. It is a token of the second of these known truths and a harbinger of the third, since in general, affiliation with others in a common pursuit and in acknowledgement of a commonly perceived providential source of pleasure inclines the individual to an identification with the group—perhaps at first unrecognized—and to eventual recognition of a common identification with the source. Such identification encourages and enhances that affiliation and strengthens and perpetuates any common effort in pursuit of that pleasure.

The odious end of alimentary pursuit is elimination of the byproducts of digestion from the body, which is generally performed in individual isolation and is not a topic of polite conversation. We will not linger over the matter, except to state that for the healthy individual the job of elimination is not unpleasant, except for the occasional urgency and awkwardness of the process, and is usually a relief from stress both physical and social. The juxtaposition of the universally compulsive nature of the process, its reliably rank result, and its general placement of the participant in a position of vulnerability makes it the subject of much humor—yet another pleasure—and a fertile epithetic resource that has been exploited in virtually every age and culture. 

Flatulence in particular is a well of amusement despite and because of the rather unpleasant, but familiar feculent and sudden strident assault it makes on the sense of smell and sound; none more so than for the party responsible. A pungent, well timed fart makes the culprit the comedic center of attention if it is audible, or gives him the pleasure of being the only one who is in on the joke if it is not (provided there are more than two individuals present), or if he is a ventriloquist in that regard. To break wind, to pass gas, to toot, and to trump, all reference a time honored method to clearly state your position to those around you regardless of how offensive it may be and to claim a public arena as your own personal space at the same time. Enough.

The pleasure of sleeping is well known, along with the need to find a quiet place for the process or to develop the ability to pursue it undeterred in the midst of chaos. As with most forms of enjoyment, even the most passive requires a degree of effort as any insomniac knows. Then there is the attendant dreaming that can be anywhere from exhilarating to terrifying in its effect upon the individual. And then, for the adults in the group, there is sex, which for most needs no explication. 

The waken state for all but an infant and the infirm allows movement toward sources of pleasure and away from those of discomfort or pain, but such movement can and should be a source of enjoyment on its own. Walking, running, swimming, and by extension engaging in most sport, recreational, and many occupational activities, feels good. This includes less energetic applications of manual and vocal dexterity, art and craftwork engaging mind and body, music, singing, and oratory, or just hearing oneself talk. 

Note that all these good feelings are grounded in the natural sensory experiences of the individual. Such pleasures are enhanced by the freedom to seek out the company of others in other arenas to share such happiness, along with more transcendent, communal satisfactions. Still, in all cases the development of a more rarified communion should be understood necessarily to include the basic satisfactions of the individual, body and soul.