The Pleasure Problem – Issues with our Psyche

A woman named Terry appeared on the TV show ‘Hoarders’ about a decade ago. The idea of the show is to find people who compulsively stockpile and store all of their possessions. But what they found with Terry was a truly extreme case.

Hundreds of boxes of clothes. Thousands of dusty, worthless pieces of memorabilia. And in the fridge, plugged into her storage unit, the rotting carcasses of her dead cats.

I have the image of Terry’s depressed face, hopelessly gazing on at the state of her life, ingrained in my mind. An acute example, but not far from the experience of millions of people in the developed world.

Storage in Australia is a billion dollar industry. And it’s an industry whose growth is attributable to a culture of pleasure-seeking, of putting aside our problems, and of hoarding satisfaction, all at the cost of our long term happiness.

A simple fact exists: ignorance is bliss. We’re addicted to this ignorance because we think it will give us pleasure and happiness. And the fact that we don’t know how to be happy anymore is perhaps the biggest threat to the survival of our peoples, far more than any climate catastrophe or global war.

I’d like to suggest that our pleasure problem exists in two different ways – first, socially.

There’s an old saying, heavily imbued with nostalgia, that “the olden days were better.” I’m sure you can visualize the disgruntled baby boomer with a glass of whiskey in his hand muttering it under his breath, we all know that person. Yet, its become somewhat unfashionable to speak about the good old days. Surely our improved standard of living exemplifies that we’re living in times of unprecedented promise and satisfaction. But what if there was something to this old adage?

Sure we have access to more things, more stuff today, but there’s no way Terry from Hoarders, or her cats, are any happier than a family before we had access to unlimited short-term dopamine hits.

Take phones, perhaps the most impactful invention to give us access to more things, more people, more information than ever before, but belying a dark reality. Couples on a dinner date almost always have that awkward phase where they pick up their phones and ignore each other as they wait for their food. Socialising and courtship has increasingly become a chore for a society with access to dating apps that offer no real human connection, but instant gratification. And I’m not just speaking anecdotally. Today’s teenagers spend half the time they did in the 1980s hanging out with friends, half the time dating, but double the time feeling lonely, according to renowned sociologist Robert J. Putnam.

As Jean Twenge notes, “18-year-olds now act like 15-year-olds used to, and 13-year-olds like 10-year-olds. Teens are physically safer than ever, yet they are more mentally vulnerable.”

We have this idea that phones can connect us as well as in real life, but we’ve all lived through zoom meetings and we know that isn’t true. What phones do connect us to is what we want to hear. An internal Facebook research group admitted that their algorithms exploit the human brain, feeding users with more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention, a structure that has been compared to what the most addictive drugs do.

One example of this new type of drug is online pornography. 20% of employed people access porn on their phones at work, and many more admit to regularly viewing porn at home. Much like hard drugs, it makes its users guilty and regretful, harms their views of sex, and fuels loneliness. But we watch. It’s no fault of our own – these are the structures we live in – but shouldn’t that horrify you that the very nature of our society is corrupting our ability to be happy. Pornography is now glorified, sex workers placed on a pedestal, university newspapers like Honi Soit recommending specific subgenres. Even with selfless work from charities like Fight the New Drug, we are losing the fight to an enemy that has an army of enslaved followers in the billions.

Our pleasure problem is a material one.

I wrote earlier about Terry from Hoarders, but she represents so much more than an unhealthy obsession with dead cats. Although our possessions number far more than ever before, we treasure our possessions and our pleasure far less.

One of the areas in which this is most obvious, and where the crisis of consumerism is driving increased depression rates, is with junk food. Where in the past one nice meal would have satisfied a family for a month, today those who have much expect far more to meet that same level of satisfaction. Some of us even use pay-as-you-go schemes to put themselves into debt, just to experience that fleeting pleasure for a minute more. This is without even mentioning that BMI increases in the last 15 years account for ¼ of the increased reports of back, joints, and neck pain.

And just like when we eat junk food we face real, physical consequences in the future, feeding our mind junk values of materialism corrupts our ability to pursue true happiness. We’ve all been fed this Happy Meal for the soul, a very ironic name, from birth.

But it almost seems banale to say this. If I said to you “don’t look at your phones” or “you’re never going to remember that third pair of sneakers you bought for yourself this year”, you’d think I was a fool for mentioning it; you’d tell me all you would remember is your family, your spouse, your children. We all know these things, but for some reason we don’t live by this truth.

And perhaps the most frustrating part of this dilemma facing our society is that there’s no easy fix. Sure, we could tell everyone to stop using their phones and end hookup culture, but that almost certainly wouldn’t work. People like Terry will never be able to escape their own materialism.

But maybe we can start to shift our views on pleasure and happiness, bit by bit, by becoming more stoic, more conscious. To achieve great things, we have to subject ourselves to pain.

Think about it – the most fulfilling sensations we get are after we achieve something we’re invested in. Finishing an assignment, experiencing a meaningful relationship, and performing a difficult piece of music will always leave you more fulfilled than any low-effort activity. And if we can do that together, we can once again know how to make ourselves happy, and finally escape the ignorance of our bliss.

Because it is far better to dream of mighty things, to seek glorious triumphs even though chequered by failure, than to be amongst those poor souls who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

Bryson Constable is an SRC Councillor and Member of the University of Sydney Conservative Club

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