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

So if we’re really pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding creatures, what stops us from hauling a chair up to the freezer and spending our days digging in to a quart of cookie dough ice cream? Ah. That’s where the mental and emotional side of pleasure comes in. Too much pleasure of any kind—sex, alcohol, idle days, ice cream, cheese doodles—leads to mental and emotional pain in the form of guilt, remorse and regret.  And remember, we are built to Seek Pleasure and Avoid Pain.

This is where the corollary of the Pleasure Principle comes in: the Reality Principle. We are compelled to defer pleasure as a necessity of functioning in our environment.  In other words, if you can put off momentary thrills, you’ll net greater pleasure in the long run. The stair master hurts while you’re doing it, and you’d rather be anywhere but under the fluorescent lights in your cubicle at work, but the long-term payoff—making lots of money and looking fabulous in shorts–seems worth it. And if you can just stick to the grapefruit-and-celery-stalks diet for long enough, the story goes, you’ll experience a quantity of pleasure sufficient to override the momentary pain of avoiding food.

So we slog through our days, exercise our bodies in often-punishing regimens, and starve ourselves in pursuit of tight abs, trim bottoms and longer lives. Thus deprived, our bodies, which Seek Pleasure and Avoid Pain, scream out for some kind of intensely gratifying experience. What’s legal, inexpensive, easily available (at least in our culture) and immediately satisfying? You guessed it.

We know pleasure is essential to life; you gotta have it. But where else can you get it, besides food?

Next: 4 ways to find pleasure

Figure out what makes you breathless with delight. Stop reading for a minute, close your eyes, and consider what brings you comfort, gratification, sheer delight. It may be the sunrise over the ocean, the soft down on your baby’s cheek, an afternoon matinee, walking barefoot through the morning dew, the curve of a lover’s shoulder, the sound of rain, a hike in the forest, an afternoon nap, your favorite band, the smell of freshly mowed grass, dancing until midnight. The list can go on, and on. See how many things you can list, that don’t involve food.

Related: 29 Simple Pleasures

Decide if you’re hungry before you snack. The next time you feel like having a nibble or nosh, stop before you indulge it, and ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” You might be; if your meals are lacking in fat, protein or caloric value, you may physically need food. Or, if you’re eating according to a regimented diet that excludes foods that you find delightful, you might need more pleasure from the food—even if it’s nutritionally sound. You should enjoy your meals. That’s why we have taste buds.

Related: Why Am I Always Hungry?

Choose another pleasure. If you’re truly not hungry, why do you need a snack? Most of the time, it’s because you really need a hit of pleasure; mainline a little sugar, and get some endorphins on board, and you’ll feel better, fast. Is there something else you can do, besides eat when you’re not hungry, to fulfill your desires? And again, if you’re not getting any pleasure from your meals, find ways to add gratifying foods to your diet. Unless you’re diabetic, allergic or on a sugar-restricted diet for a very specific condition, a bit of chocolate—or whatever food is gratifying to you–can go a long way to adding pleasure at the end of a meal.

Related: Banish Compulsive Eating

Get physical. We have so many outlets for mental pleasure—movies, music, entertaining blog sites, telephone conversations. Physical pleasure is harder to come by, but our bodies require it. Where can you get it? Massage works. So does movement. But not exercise. I don’t exercise; I tried for years, and hated it immensely. Finally, I cancelled my gym membership and started moving my body in ways that bring me great pleasure: yoga, dance, martial arts, hiking, biking. From the outside, it still looks like exercise. Inside, my motives are different; I finally stopped hauling my body to the gym, dragging it from machine to machine. Yes, I know, it’s a matter of semantics. But it’s also a lateral shift in thinking that involves looking at movement from a different perspective.

Related: Get Physical!

And above all, don’t fear or hate your desire for pleasure. Remember that, like cats and penguins, you’re built for it. Find a way to indulge it authentically.

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Emma S.
Emma S.2 years ago

Now I'm wondering what cheese doodles are.

Santanita G.
Santanita G.3 years ago


KARLOLINA G.4 years ago


Barbara D.
Barbara D.5 years ago


Loretta K.
Loretta K.5 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Nita O.
Nita O.5 years ago

Great info.

Vicky L.
Vicky L.5 years ago

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.

Betty C.
Betty C.5 years ago


Rachel R.
Rachel R.5 years ago

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.

Jonathan B.
Jonathan B.5 years ago

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.