[This post is part of a series on creating happiness and reward by understanding pleasure. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Yesterday I wrote about how to bring about emotional pleasure in your life. Today I’ll clarify and explore the analogy
physical pleasure : emotional pleasure :: physical environment : social environment
In particular, you can bring about emotional pleasure the same way you bring about physical pleasure, just with healthy social situations instead of healthy physical situations. By emotional pleasure I mean all emotions you like to experience, like happiness, joy, satisfaction, and so on.
If you’ve thought about it, you’ve probably realized why emotionally pleasurable things feel pleasurable. Emotional pleasure motivates you to bring about more of what caused it. Today’s world of seven billion people, with social situations unseen in our ancestors’ times, confuse the issue, but I bet that in our ancestors’ environments nearly all emotionally pleasurable situations were healthy.
That is, emotionally pleasurable situations feel pleasurable to motivate you bringing about more of those situations. They were healthy for our ancestors, so we descended from the ones whose emotional systems motivated this healthy behavior.
Emotional pain makes as much sense as emotional pleasure from this functional perspective. Emotional pain motivates you to avoid what situations caused it. I bet everything emotionally painful was unhealthy in our ancestors’ environments. Today we’ve created unhealthy emotionally pleasurable situations and we avoid healthy emotionally unpleasurable activities like personal challenge (those activities can be emotionally pleasurable if we do them, but we often avoid them anyway), so knowing our roots helps, as the endurance of the philosophical advice “know thyself” suggests.
Knowing the functional roles of emotional pleasure and pain reveals how to bring about or avoid each — just think of what was healthy or unhealthy for your ancestors and bring them into your life or avoid them.
Speaking of emotional pain, when you recognize it helps keep you healthy, avoiding getting shunned, cast out of a group, and so on, it doesn’t make sense to call it bad, act like you didn’t feel it when you did, wonder why emotional pain happened, or wish you never felt it. From a functional perspective, calling anger, hatred, and the like negative or bad makes no more sense than calling physical pain negative or acting like you don’t feel it when you do.
You probably realize you can bring about as much emotional pleasure as you want, though it’s harder to bring about than physical pleasure because it often involves other people. Even so, you probably don’t want pure emotional pleasure exclusively in your life. You probably want a life with mostly emotional pleasure, accepting or even celebrating that you sometimes feel emotional pain and that you have to work to bring about some of the pleasure. The more you know about your evolutionary past the more emotional pleasure you can bring about. Today’s world differs from the world where our emotional systems evolved and you know that difference warps some of the our emotions’ effectiveness. Knowing more about emotional pleasure doesn’t decrease how good it feels, though.
Okay, now let’s go farther. Yesterday I pointed out applying what we know about physical pleasure and how easily we can create it to emotional pleasure to see how easily we can create it. I fleshed that out above.
Today I want to show that the same analogy shows how you can bring about a lifestyle of emotional reward — that is, filled with the feeling that everything within it feels right, not like you’re faking it or following someone else, but living according to your values, meaning, and purpose. Many people would call this lifestyle spiritual, holistic, or something like that. I prefer to call it rewarding or emotionally rewarding to be more precise.
Everything about emotional pleasure, which comes from interacting with your social environment, has an analogue with emotional reward, which comes from interactions of your emotional system. In SAT terms you could say
emotional pleasure : emotional reward :: social environment : emotional system
When you realize and understand
- how easily you can bring about emotional pleasure
- the functional role of emotions
- the analogy between emotional pleasure and reward and social environments and your emotional system
then you realize how easily you can bring about emotional reward. All you have to do is bring about healthy environments, beliefs, and behaviors.
Just like bringing about physical pleasure brings physical health (when you know to adjust for environmental changes our emotional systems haven’t had time to adjust to), bringing about emotional pleasure brings emotional health, bringing about emotional reward brings about a rewarding lifestyle and what many would call spiritual health.
You could re-read this section using that analogy. In fact, I will rewrite it tomorrow to clarify.
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