Our pleasures don’t just happen, they need calibration. Context is important, and novel and positive expectation is the seasoning that enhances the pleasures of life. Take movie theater popcorn for example. We don’t buy the stuff to complement our viewing experience but to accentuate it. We save the best gulps for the best emotional gulps, and reserve the pleasure for the novel expectancy, or in cinematic terms, the most exciting moments. For our daily pleasures, the routine is the same, as we consciously or non-consciously pair attentive arousal with pleasure, and make sure that our daily bread is always accompanied by a virtual circus, as in good conversation, a good movie, or a good internet link.
When Sensations Collide
Our pleasure adds to our interest, and our interest add to our pleasure. This is a metaphorical virtuous circuit, where different elements of experience are synergistic, and multiply rather than merely add to each other. This emotional circuit can be seen across all experience that has pleasure and arousal as components, from food and drink to even our workaday lives. For example, when we are pleasurably relaxed, performing or anticipating the imminent prospect of activity that has meaning and has meaningful entailments is associated with enhance pleasure and arousal. The latter perplexes us, and we have different names for it, from flow and peak experiences to work satisfaction, and different metaphorical explanations too, from brain waves to consciousness raising.
Thankfully however, emotional circuits have their neurological equivalent. Indeed, the neurons or brain cells that produce the neurochemicals that are responsible for pleasure, or opioid systems, are in the same mid-brain location as those that increase our interest or attention, or dopamine systems. When either system is activated, the other is activated too, and when both are, then our emotional reaction due to this virtuous circuit can be quite literally ecstatic, demonstrating how a metaphorical circuit can indeed have a neurological flip side.
But metaphorical circuits, even when the neurological equivalent is obscured or denied, are ultimately justified by pragmatism, or ‘folk’ wisdom for just us folks. So, if you want to be happy and ecstatic, in addition to knowing how your bread is buttered and where to eat it, know also that to avoid distraction and achieving a sense of calm, that anticipating and engaging in meaningful activity is the best route to happiness.
These observations were confirmed by recent experiments by Rauwolf and colleagues, who demonstrated that reward uncertainties do indeed increase the reported pleasure of food and drink, and by implication that any contextual cues, from a well worded menu to the ambience of an expensive restaurant lead to high expectations and greater pleasure in our dining experiences, as we know at least non-consciously already.
Much more on the neuro-psychology of happiness and motivation and my little happiness procedure on pp. 44-52 in my little book ‘The Book of Rest, the Odd Psychology of doing Nothing’ found on this site.