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The Law of Pleasure

Can pleasure last?

Oscar Wilde once said that there are two tragedies in life: not getting what you want and getting what you want. All pleasurable activities start out very enjoyable, and within a few minutes, we get used to it. What comes up often comes down. If we attain the object of desire, we quickly lose interest in it, find ourselves satisfied, deprived of our original appetite, and so end up with boredom. No valued object lasts for very long, and final satisfaction forever eludes us.

Elementary economics tells us that the consumption of most goods and services is subject to diminishing satisfaction (i.e., We can’t get no satisfaction). All pleasures (e.g., a cup of coffee in the morning, an afternoon walk) follow this law, and few aspects of life escape this reality. That is why people eat chocolate bars in pieces, waiting and savoring, or they space their cigarette through the day. Pacing reward means to scale back stimulation deliberately in order to prolong enjoyment. From this perspective, an interesting or happy life might also be regarded as a creative ‘work of art.’

Consider, for example, the “less is more” effect. More information about others leads, on average, to less liking. At first acquaintance, individuals read into others what they wish and find evidence of similarity, leading to liking. Over time, however, as evidence of dissimilarity is uncovered, the liking decreases. Helen Fisher writes that people fall in love with individuals who are somewhat mysterious. In part, novelty elevates the brain's pleasure circuits. Freud once said that a woman should expect to lose her lover on the day that she marries him. Obstacle to accessibility stimulates imagination and desire.

Experts say that “playing hard to get” is a most effective strategy for attracting a partner, especially in the context of long-term love (or the marital) in which a person wishes to be sure of their partner’s commitment. Playing hard to get ensures that the other person is ready to make a commitment to an enduring relationship.

Habituation (or less liking over time) is another view to understand the diminishing response to stimulus. Habituation is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated presentations. Increased exposure to stimuli is shown to cause habituation in domains ranging from tastes for food to tastes for consumer goods. Many people describe the termination of eating in ways consistent with habituation, such as the food no longer tasting good or becoming tired of eating.

However, the presentation of a novel food may slow down the rate of habituation. Food variety increases appetites (known as sensory specific satiety). When people consume a variety of foods, they tend to overeat. Variety increases intake of less healthy foods (e.g., all-you-can eat buffets). This explains why do we always have room for dessert?  The recovery of appetite to eat is apparent to anyone who has consumed a large meal and is quite full, but decides to consume additional calories after seeing the dessert cart.

The tendency to seek out and respond to food variety may be an evolutionarily advantageous phenomenon that may have arisen to ensure a balanced nutrient intake. Food variety has consistently been shown in animals and humans to increase energy intake.

In contrast, lack of variety (monotony) suppresses appetite. For example, US soldiers given a supply of prepared food rations in a limited variety lost more than 10 pounds in a matter of a month because they reduced their caloric intake so drastically. This weight loss actually necessitated adding a greater variety of foods to the prepackaged meals to increase intake. Overweight people who enter weight control programs are more successful if they reduce the variety of high energy density foods they consume.