In Praise of Pleasure

Smashing the “Upper Limit” in the pursuit of happiness

Aaron Mayer


[Also posted on Substack — follow for more]

Some people talk about pleasure as if they’re embarrassed by it.

I’ve written about pleasure before, and I still notice that for whatever reason (repressive parents, a history of trauma, a religious upbringing that treated pleasure as sinful, etc.), so many of us think of physical pleasure as if it’s something to be indulged only sparingly. We think that we’re unworthy and underserving, or that we need to cautiously apportion the appropriate amount of pleasure lest we run out of our given allotment (or worse, tempt the evil eye).

Many people talk about pleasure as if it comes with a specific threshold, and beyond that bound, any excess mirth is considered crass or undignified. Society has coined innumerable words to express its disdain for these pleasure seekers: libertine, stoner, dionysian, epicurean, debauched, hedonist, junkie, carnal, promiscuous, addict, unprincipled, profligate, animalistic, and so forth. Nearly all of these terms come with some degree of contempt, pity, scorn, or disgust — but many also often come with a twinge of envy as well.

After all, anyone who levies the critique that so-and-so is a hedonist must implicitly acknowledge that so-and-so is probably having a fair bit of fun (in all likelihood, more fun than the person doing the critiquing). For too many reasons to list, society has demonized pleasure-seekers, castigating them as lewd, lubricious, lecherous, and lascivious.

But I posit that they are also perceived as lucky, too.

Why, after all, would we go to such great lengths to express our contempt and ridicule for the folks among us who delight in the pleasures that the earth affords us? Is our vitriol not a paltry disguise for what is really an expression of jealousy? Perhaps we invent words to lance those we feel threatened by, hiding our desire to share in those delights (and our concomitant insecurity at perhaps not being able to attain them as richly) behind a wall of disapproval and disapprobation. If we felt confident in our own ability to revel in the ecstasies that our bodies are capable of feeling just as well as those on whom we cast our stones, why would we not join them in their revelry?

One answer that explains this prudish, envious, condemning behavior is known as “the upper limit problem.”…