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The Pleasure Principle

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The Pleasure Principle

Our cat Stella has it all figured out. She wakes up in the morning and stretches languidly. She ambles slowly downstairs to her food bowl, mews out her demands to be fed, eats languidly. When we rub her tummy, she purrs with full-throated delight. She is clearly a creature built for pleasure.

As I watched her wistfully, I realized that, fundamentally, I want the same things she wants (though she gets it more than me): to stretch languidly, to have my tummy rubbed, to cry when I’m hungry, and have someone feed me. Fundamentally, we’re all like cats, or field mice, or penguins, or gorillas: like those other creatures, our basic instinct is to Seek Pleasure and Avoid Pain. It’s what drives us and motivates us.

The concept, also called the Pleasure Principle, is powerful, and very primal. Our bodies are designed for pleasure, and clearly, nature wants us experience it. Many of the things that ensure the survival and continuation of the species—obtaining adequate shelter, sleeping, making babies, eating—are mildly to intensely pleasurable. Of these and other pursuits of pleasure, food is the one activity we practice in public, several times a day.

The taste and texture of food are pleasurable; satiety, or feeling full, elicits pleasurable feelings. Even the act of chewing can relieve tension in the jaw. Some foods, like sugar and carbohydrates, flood the brain with feel-good chemicals. And when you combine endorphin-promoting substances like sugar with high-satiety substances like fat, you get the perfect pleasure-inducing food. Ice cream is a perfect example; that’s why it’s one of the most universally revered and feared foodstuffs.

Next: More on guilt and 4 ways to find pleasure

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Lisa Turner

Lisa Turner is a food writer, intuitive eating coach, and nutrition consultant in Boulder, Colorado. In her consulting practice Lisa combines her training and degrees in nutrition, mind-body practices and Food Psychology, to help clients explore both what to eat and why they eat. For more information, or to schedule a consultation, visit Lisa is also the developer of The Healthy Gourmet iPhone recipe app; for more information, visit


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4:53AM PDT on Oct 25, 2013

Now I'm wondering what cheese doodles are.

1:51PM PST on Dec 2, 2011


11:07AM PDT on Oct 9, 2011


6:29AM PDT on Sep 15, 2010


4:11PM PDT on Sep 10, 2010

Thanks for the info.

11:47PM PDT on Sep 8, 2010

Great info.

11:03PM PDT on Sep 7, 2010

I agree fully with Jonathan's comment. I would also add eating while being distracted with something else (work, demanding conversation, stressful thoughts). You eat a piece of chocolate and don't register the expected pleasure, so you have another piece and the next thing you know - the whole bar is gone.

9:14PM PDT on Sep 7, 2010


7:03PM PDT on Sep 7, 2010

The tips are helpful, but I feel maybe Freud should get a nod given that he was the one who coined the terms "pleasure principle" and "reality principle" - as you described them.

2:21PM PDT on Sep 7, 2010

I suspect that much of the issues with overeating are not coming from the pleasure principle.

Instead, I think that the inability to register pleasure or pain may lead to overeating, because of a loss of connection with your own body, due to medication, toxins in your system, or illness.

If you hit satiation point with food, under normal circumstances, eating becomes actually unpleasent or painful, and can even induce nausea and vomiting, if continued beyond the capacity of the stomach.

If you cannot register that you are full, and do not feel the pain of overindulgence, you may be experiencing a numbing effect.

This numbing may be due to illness, or toxicity of the body from too much processed foods, and additives and artificial sweeteners, or medication that is disconnecting you from the body feedback that you need to feel your body.

Like the person who has lost nerve sensitivity, and damages his feet from walking on a foot sore, the overeater may just not be able to feel satiation, and overfilling, which is unpleasent or painful to regular people.

I avoid aspertame and sucrulose whenever possible, due to the fact that they seem to block my ability to sense body signals of satiation.

I also try to limit my food intake when I am sick, or running a fever, or using pain killers, since I cannot register my satiation as well, and can overeat in those situations.

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