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Pleasure describes the broad class of mental states that humans and other animals experience as positive, enjoyable, or otherwise to be sought out. It thus includes more specific mental states such as happiness, entertainment, enjoyment, ecstasy, and euphoria. In psychology, the pleasure principle describes pleasure as a positive feedback mechanism, motivating the organism to recreate in the future the situation which it has just found pleasurable. According to this theory, organisms are similarly motivated to avoid situations that have caused pain in the past.

The experience of pleasure is subjective and different individuals will experience different kinds and amounts of happiness in the same situation. Many pleasurable experiences are associated with satisfying basic biological drives, such as eating, exercise, sexuality, and even defecation. Other pleasurable experiences are associated with social experiences and social drives, such as the experiences of accomplishment, recognition, and service. The appreciation of cultural artifacts and activities such as art, music, and literature is often pleasurable.

Recreational drug use can be pleasurable: some drugs, illicit and otherwise, directly create euphoria in the human brain when ingested. The mind's natural tendency to seek out more of this feeling (as described by the pleasure principle) can lead to dependence and addiction.

Philosophical views[]

Epicurus and his followers defined the highest pleasure as the absence of suffering,[1] and pleasure itself as "freedom from pain in the body and freedom from turmoil in the soul".[2] According to Cicero (or rather his character Torquatus), he also believed that pleasure was the chief good (and, conversely, that pain was the chief evil).[3]

The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer understood pleasure as a negative sensation, as it negates the usual existential condition, that of suffering.[4]

Philosophies of pleasure[]

Utilitarianism and Hedonism are philosophies that advocate increasing to the maximum the amount of pleasure and minimizing the amount of suffering. Examples of such philosophies are some of Freud's theories of human motivation that have been called psychological hedonism; his "life instinct" is essentially the observation that people will pursue pleasure.[citation needed]


The pleasure center is the set of brain structures, predominantly the nucleus accumbens, theorized to produce great pleasure when stimulated electrically. Some references state that the septum pellucidium is generally considered to be the pleasure center,[5] while others mention the hypothalamus when referring to the pleasure center for intracranial stimulation.[6] Certain chemicals are known to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. These include dopamine[7] and various endorphins. It has been specifically stated that physical exertion can release endorphines in what is called the runner's high, and equally it has been found that chocolate and certain spices, such as from the family of the chilli, can release or cause to be released similar psychoactive chemicals to those released during sexual acts.

Pleasure as a uniquely human experience[]

There has been debate as to whether pleasure is experienced by other animals rather than being an exclusive property of humankind. On the one hand, Jeremy Bentham (usually regarded as the founder of Utilitarianism)[8] and Beth Dixon[9] both argue that they do, the latter, however, in a carefully worded manner. Some[attribution needed] might argue that it is a form of anthropomorphism to ascribe any human experience to animals, including pleasure. Others view animal behaviour simply as responses to stimuli; this is the way behaviourists look at the evidence, Pavlov's dogs (or rather his explanation of their behaviour) being the best-known example. However, it may be argued that we simply cannot know whether animals experience pleasure, and most scientists, indeed, prefer to remain neutral while utilizing anthropomorphisms as and when they need them.[10] It appears, though, that those who recognise emotions in animals are in the ascent: many ethologists, for example Marc Bekoff, are prepared to draw the conclusion that animals do experience emotions, though these are not necessarily the same as human emotions.[11]


Masochists are those who derive pleasure from receiving pain. The existence of masochism complicates the commonly-held view that pleasure, as a positive experience, is fundamentally opposite pain, a negative experience. It should be noted that masochism is context-dependent: masochists enjoy certain kinds of pain in certain situations.

See also[]


  1. The Forty Principal Doctrines, Number III.
  2. Letter to Menoeceus, Section 131-2.
  3. About the Ends of Goods and Evils, Book I, From Section IX, Torquatus sets out his understanding of Epicurus's philosophy.
  4. Counsels and Maxims, Chapter 1, General Rules Section 1.
  5. Walsh, Anthony (1991). The Science of Love – Understanding Love and its Effects on Mind and Body, Prometheus Books.
  6. Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessell TM. Principles of Neural Science, 4th ed. McGraw-Hill, New York (2000). ISBN 0-8385-7701-6
  7. Giuliano, F., Allard J. (2001). Dopamine and male sexual function. Eur Urol 40: 601–608.
  8. Bentham, Jeremy (1996). An Introduction to the Principles of Moral Legislation, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  9. Ethics & the Environment, Volume 6, Number 2, Autumn 2001, pp. 22-30, Indiana University Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, see also: Emotion in animals
  10. Horowitz A. 2007. Anthropomorphism., In M. Bekoff, ed., Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships, pp 60-66, Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport, CT.
  11. Do animals have emotions?, From The Sunday Times, August 24, 2008.

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