Pain and Pleasure


I’m trying something new: writing without caring too much about grammar and spelling. Just trying to get ideas out. The following notes are based on some recent thinking I’ve been doing and is a work in progress. I am almost certainly oversimplifying and it’s meant to be a working hypothesis. Think of it as a starting point for an ongoing discussion I’m having with myself, but would like to share with the rest of the world for feedback.

Humans and most (every?) other animals seek pleasure and avoid pain. You might be thinking, “yeah no shit”, but what does it really mean and how does it affect our lives?

In the natural world, the threat of death is much closer to the present moment than it is for us humans. Predators, drought, starvation, and climate change pose constant threats to the survival of a species. Pain of hunger is real and it’s difficult to avoid. Call this a non-wealth surplus situation. No time for day dreaming, the present moment is too important. 

Humans and several other species have evolved minds that allow them plan for the future, solve problems, and pass knowledge to other generations. Using their minds, humans have become particularly adept at aggregating wealth surplus (i.e. an excess of food, water, and shelter). Over time fewer and fewer people have been needed to produce our sustenance. That frees up time for a bunch of other people to sit around think, tinker, and make stuff. 

Now if you were a Zebra and able to think, you might look at humans and say something like, “Wow! What lucky creatures. They have it made. Sure is nice not having to worry about being eaten while trying to find out the next time I’ll have a drink of water.” Sometimes I wonder if the first humans to figure out agriculture and animal husbandry thought the same thing.

Something funny happened. The smart monkeys escaped some of the drudgery of living in nature, but new problems arose. Human culture evolved hierarchies to manage the resources of the various societies. Each society’s culture created rules, systems and norms that affected the way they viewed their existence and relation to the world at large, as well as their commentary on that culture in the form of various arts (music, painting, fashion, etc.). It is within this cultural ecology where new forms of suffering arose. To understand why, let us first consider human psychology pre-civilized cultures in a very simplified way.

The psychological world of humans tends to map well to the natural/physical world because we spent most of our evolution in non-wealth surplus situations. Worry about survival and the next meal. Worry about finding shelter. Worry about predators. Worry about reproducing. It shouldn’t be surprising that sex feels so good. If it didn’t, all those other worries would have gotten in the way. But those other worries dissipate relatively quickly because you die if the underlying problems aren’t solved.

Cultural mechanisms can be used to reframe the psychological world of pleasure and pain. Religion is a useful example. People are encouraged to endure pain and hardship, act like good people, and function in a society in order to achieve ultimate pleasure reward in the afterlife. Similarly, athletes can endure training in order to win medals and enter record books (another form of immortality). Other systems like American democracy and capitalism are work despite our innate challenges. People don’t need to be fully conscious beings in order for them to work. That’s why we can end up with miserable billionaires and asshole politicians.

The human relationship to pain and pleasure becomes topsy turvy in societies with wealth surplus. Imminent worries about death and survival are deferred to a later date. But reducing suffering from starvation and predators did not change the biological roots of our psychological world. We still react to pleasure and pain, but now we have free time on our hands. This extra time can lead to a variety of consequences depending on what is deemed right and wrong by culture. Phrases like “the devil finds work for idle hands to do” make more sense in this context. If we give into our innate pleasure and pain responses we can indulge in sex, alcohol, money, and food. Our fight or flight response, well adapted to the natural world, causes us to avoid our problems because we identify with shit and hold beliefs that are threatened by those problems. We end up feeling like we might die even though it’s all in our head.

The problem with culture is that groups and organizations will tend to keep using what worked in the past even if it no longer makes any sense. Often times people won’t even know why things are done. It’s always been that way. The reasons have been forgotten, but the actions have turned into habits and traditions. This can be why reading religious texts literally can cause people with supposedly good intentions to act quite cruel. This might be similar to what some groups call social or cultural programming. 

In our culturally manufactured world, certain pleasures require difficult sacrifices or endurances of psychological pain. The pain and pleasure decisions become more abstract. We might have to look deep into what we value and why we value things. There is difficult work of accepting our nature and forgiving the people and culture that raised us.

If we consider the arch of human history it went something like this: First we tamed nature, then we tamed societies. Going forward we must learn how to tame our selves. These aren’t new ideas. There’ve been a bunch of new age movements that have said very similar things. My sense is that global societies are sensing that there is an identity or existential crisis occurring. It seems like it is happening in America. We hear about low trust in institutions. People need hope and something to believe in. Religion gets a bad wrap in many places, but I would not be surprised to see new forms of religion-like institutions emerge over the next 20 years. There is both risk and opportunity in that. 

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