The Pleasure Paradox


  • Author Bruce Wilson
  • Published September 12, 2021
  • Word count 585

The Pleasure Paradox

Bruce Wilson, PhD

“Pleasure is none if not diversified.”-John Donne

Pleasure is not just confined to the self but also includes a regard to the pleasure of others. How do we seek pleasure for the self and pleasure for others when these two agendas invariably clash? The concept of pleasure appears to have much to teach us about human behaviour.

Many of the anomalies of human behaviour are driven by negative pleasure. Negative pleasures are behaviours that on the surface seem to be repulsive but still entice and attract us under just the right circumstances. The “pleasure paradox” is all about the contradictions within pleasure. Impulse control disorders, in particular, seem to be connected to a perceived sensation of negative pleasure and offer some explanation for anti-social behaviours such as kleptomania, pyromania, and explosive disorders like road rage.

“Do not bite at the bait of pleasure, til you know there is no hook beneath.”

Thomas Jefferson

Negative pleasure occurs when we find pleasure in something that is usually not pleasurable. Finding pleasure in reading a gruesomely frightening Stephen King novel is an example of such an activity. King provides terror and fearful excitement within the relative safety and detachment of reading. King supplies the reader with a negative pleasure experience due to the tiger being metaphorically “in the cage” and not in the room. Another example of the attraction to terror can be seen when small children cover their faces with their hands during a horror movie only to spread their fingers just in time to see the worst of it.

By altering one’s emotions and motivation to experience negative pleasure we raise the potential to change actions usually perceived as unpleasant into actions that are experienced as pleasurable. The joy derived from spectator sports that involve violence, such as boxing, rugby, and ice hockey, or which may end in injury, like auto racing, bullfighting, and aerobatic flying, all support the magnetism of negative pleasure. The repetitive motives of the hardened criminal to fantasize, prepare, plan, hide, be caught, escape, inflict distress, taunt, and be successful also validate the reality of negative pleasure.

“It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.”-Marquis de Sade

The German term schadenfreude refers to one’s internal enjoyment or pleasure derived from the trouble of another. Here we see firsthand that our pleasure and the pleasure of others are contraindicated. My pleasure is your pain. Schadenfreude includes things like the humour derived from another person slipping and falling on the ice; or, enjoying the pain and suffering of a person being tortured or bullied; and, the pleasure of inflicting any number of insulting and painful verbal expletives onto others. The perpetrator of schadenfreude may not always be aware of their motivation or the social implications of their behaviour due to well-practiced internal masking devices.

On a positive note, altruism represents a selfless concern for the welfare of others. Pleasure is experienced through demonstrating a giving nature and promoting positive attitudes toward social interaction. My gain is your pleasure and your gain is my pleasure. There is an acceptance of differences and an enhancement of positivity. The humanitarian and charitable giving of one’s resources to others for their gain is the ultimate example of positive pleasure.

“Many a man thinks he is buying pleasure, when he is really selling himself to it.”-Benjamin Franklin

We are all witnesses to the undeniable: positive and negative perspectives of pleasure are an existential given.


Dr. Bruce Wilson is a psychologist in private practice at Mind Health Care, Geelong, Australia. He has 25 years of experience and enjoys sharing his ramblings with friends and colleagues.

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