Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Pleasure

What is pleasure and what are its consequences?


Figure 1. Music is often a pleasurable experience that is universally practiced by most cultures.

Have you ever pondered the question why does one feel delight when biting into an inviting piece of dessert or seek out the touch of a warm embrace? Perhaps you have felt the euphoric thrill of listening to your favourite music play during your morning workout. These intense feelings can be attributed to a single experience, pleasure.

Pleasure can be described as an experience that is strongly associated with feelings of happiness, gratification, euphoria or thrill (see Figure 1). However, pleasure is more than a simple experience; it has been shown to be a strong motivating force that aids in preserving our physiological well-being through motivating our basic needs and intrinsic goals. Despite this, pleasure has also been shown to have adverse consequences as overindulgence of pleasure is attributed to drug, sex, and food addiction in addition to impaired neurological functioning.

This chapter discusses the concept of pleasure, its significant role in human nature, and how an overindulgence of pleasure can result in adverse consequences.

Focus questions:
  • What is pleasure?
  • Why and how does one feel pleasure?
  • What are the benefits and consequences of the pursuit of pleasure?

What is pleasure?


The concept of pleasure is a complex dimension of emotion, however, it is often used interchangeably as both an emotional state or an effect of emotion; an experience. Commonly, pleasure is associated with feelings of extreme happiness, euphoria or gratification. This experience, while present biologically in most animals, has shown to be highly subjective as what an individual feels is pleasurable can vary greatly from each person or situation (Ivanova & Loonen, 2015). The notion of pleasure was first introduced by Aristippus, a Greek philosopher who constructed the perception of pleasure as a key component of human life in addition to the avoidance of pain (Moore, 2004). Furthermore, pleasure or perhaps the overindulgence of pleasure is noted to have become popularised in the late 18th century through the guise of hedonism; a philosophy that prioritises the pursuit of pleasure whilst elevating its role in the human experience (Moore, 2004). This philosophy, while often viewed as problematic, offers an insightful perspective into the role of pleasure in human culture and society.

Pleasurable emotions


A pleasurable emotion is categorised as a feeling that elicits pleasure or a sense of emotional wellbeing. Pleasure, whilst not an emotion, is present in and contributes to several emotional states evident in humans.

Table 1. Pleasurable emotional states.

Emotion(s) Description of emotion(s)
Happiness A general feeling of well-being and contentment. E.g., lounging on the couch with your partner whilst watching a movie.
Euphoria An emotion characterised by a feeling of intense elation and a sense of wellbeing. E.g., laughing to the extent of extreme happiness.
Gratification An emotion characterised by the feeling of pleasure when a desire is fulfilled. E.g., eating a sugary treat when on a diet.
Pride An emotion characterised by satisfaction and contentment for one's achievements. E.g., receiving a medal for one's hard-earned achievements.
Amusement An emotional state characterised by finding a situation, event, or person amusing or humorous. E.g., watching a comedian on television.
Schadenfreude The experience of pleasure when an individual is in misery or perceived to have received the punishment deserved. E.g., watching the person who cut you off in traffic get a speeding ticket.

Positive emotions versus pleasure


Despite pleasure's presence in several emotional states, pleasure is also seen as an isolated experience, separate from the aforementioned emotions. The separation between the experience of positive emotions and pleasure is a relatively difficult task due to the similarity in features, however, it is evident that a distinction exists.

Fredrickson established that pleasure dulls our senses and draws us into our own personal desires while positive emotions create the opposite effect of opening us up to the outside world (Fredrickson, 2001). However, despite this distinction, Berridge and Kringelbach found that both pleasure and positive emotions activate similar areas of the brain, indicating a possible degree of overlap in the reward system (Berridge & Kringelbach, 2015).

Questions to consider:

  • Is pleasure truly separate from other emotional states?
  • What is the differences between negative and positive feelings of pleasure?

Types of pleasures


John Stuart Mill (1998) made the distinction between two types of pleasures through his research to conceptualise the understanding of pleasure beyond the sensory experience. Over the years, Mill's work has been adapted however, the basic structure has been maintained and applied to various experiences.

Fundamental pleasures are compromised of sensory pleasures we seek to fulfil due to animal instinct and desire. These pleasures satisfy the body and include sex, food, and drugs.

Higher-order pleasures are pleasures we pursue to stimulate and engage the sophisticated mind. These pleasures differ from fundamental pleasures as they satisfy the mind. Acts that fulfil this criteria could be listening to music, reading a book or admiring art.

Neuroscience of pleasure


The regulation of reward within the brain is a highly scrutinised area of research in neurobiological science, despite this, evidence has established the active role of dopamine in the activation of reward and pleasure.

Mesolimbic pathway

Figure 2. An illustration of the dopamine pathway.

The expectation of pleasure in behaviour results from the mesolimbic pathway; a system in which the neurotransmitter, dopamine is transported through the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens and amygdala, areas heavily associated with the aspect of reward and mood (see Figure 2). The activation of this pathway occurs when a stimulus (i.e., food, drugs) is presented, resulting in the VTA signalling the release of dopamine into the nucleus accumbens. However, this process is not entirely fixed on natural rewards as research has shown the pathway to extend to 'higher-order pleasures' including music and social intimacy. This is noted in a neuroimaging meta-analysis conducted by Berridge and Kringelbach (2015) as it illustrated how several hedonic and secondary rewards exhibited immense overlap in their reward networks, elucidating to a shared system of neural coding and integration (Berridge & Kringelbach, 2015).

Moreover, pleasure perception is not limited to the reward pathway, as numerous structures have been shown to contribute to the experience of pleasure, namely the orbitofrontal cortex, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex (Berridge & Kringelbach, 2015).

Table 2. Brain regions associated with pleasure and their roles.

Brain region(s) Role(s)
Insula Contributes to conscious pleasure, urges for natural rewards, and decision-making (Bechara & Naqvi, 2010).
Anterior cingulate cortex Activates and processes pleasure and pain.
Medial orbitofrontal cortex Shown to code and record associative learning and memory of reward.
Mid-anterior orbitofrontal cortex Shown to code the experience of primitive pleasures/rewards (e.g., sex and food).
Lateral orbitofrontal cortex Shown to code non-rewards and punishment.
Why does music feel good?
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A study conducted in 2019 found the significant role of dopamine release and the feeling of pleasure when listening to music. Within the study, participants were placed into three conditions, one where they were given a dopamine precursor, dopamine antagonist, or a placebo. The results illustrated how the dopamine antagonist leads to reduced feelings of pleasure while the precursor and placebo lead to increased feelings of pleasure.

Similarly, the brain imaging results indicated that music aroused the same brain regions (i.e., nucleus accumbens) as other rewarding stimuli such as food and sex (Alicart, et al., 2019).

1.1 - Module overview

Pleasure is experienced in the brain through the release of the neurotransmitter ______ in the nucleus accumbens.


Theoretical frameworks


While a largely evolutionary and biologically focused concept, the role of pleasure has been applied to various theoretical frameworks due to its prominent role in explaining personality development, associative learning and reward.

Peak-end theory


According to peak-end theory, an experience is appraised and recalled only based on how the individual felt during its peak and conclusion. Do, Rupert, and Wolford (2008) observed these effects on 'pleasurable experiences' and concluded that an experience is more memorable if the end is pleasurable. Additionally, they found that participants preferred an experience to conclude pleasantly rather than having more pleasure but only a mildly pleasurable conclusion (Do et al., 2008).

Psychoanalytic approach


The psychoanalytic approach focuses primarily on the unconscious mind and the implications of personality. In relation to pleasure, the approach focuses on innate constructs to explain the concept of pleasure.

Pleasure principle

Figure 3. During the early stages of human development, the 'id' dominates the infant's personality.

First posited by Sigmund Freud, the pleasure principle insinuates that the main role of pleasure is to drive the body to pursue basic primitive needs (eating, drinking, and sex) for instantaneous rewards. The principle works primarily from the 'id' construct, an aspect of the personality that seeks the immediate gratification of instinctual needs (Johnson, 2008).

An example of this is evident in young children; a child who is hungry may snatch a snack out of their classmate's hands, immediately eating it and satiating their 'id'. However, as an individual develops, other aspects of their personality mature in accordance with social norms and the pursuit of 'id' desires are gratified in a socially respectable way. Johnson (2008) proposed that a possible need for this 'id' or pleasure dominated personality is to ensure survival due to the vulnerable nature of early development (see Figure 3).

Thus, according to Freud, the primary role of pleasure is to motivate the fulfilment of our basic survival needs (Johnson, 2008).

Behaviourist approach


The behaviourist approach towards pleasure largely emphasises the role of learning and association, emphasising the notion of pleasure as an attribute of behaviour.

Operant conditioning


Developed by B.F. Skinner, operant conditioning suggests that animals learn through the association between reinforcement and punishment over a period of previous encounters. The application of conditioning towards the concept of pleasure can be attributed to associative learning where an event or stimulus can be conditioned to elicit pleasure (Whalley, 2015). An instance in which this is shown is in a 2012 study conducted by Mari, Montes, and Weatherly in which 45 participants were subjected to a virtual poker game with the chance to receive a $50 gift card. The results illustrated how momentary rewards from gambling can elicit a pleasurable response which encouraged the continuation of the maladaptive behaviour (Mari et al., 2012). Further emphasising, how a stimulus such as money cannot evoke a pleasurable response unless it is positively reinforced[grammar?].

Subjective nature of pleasure: Many aspects of pleasure are subjective to the individual, from a behaviourist perspective it can be assumed that we learn what we find pleasurable through a conditioned association.

Humanistic approach


The humanistic approach focuses on free will and human growth. From a humanistic perspective, pleasure is a construct that motivates the fulfilment of an individual's basic needs in order to advance into a self-actualised being.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs


First introduced by Abraham Maslow, the hierarchy of needs proposes five stages of human growth, beginning at the basic physiological needs then progressively trending towards self-actualisation. The role of pleasure within this approach is encapsulated by several elements within the hierarchy structure such as the fulfilment of pleasure-oriented needs and the avoidance of pain. For example, a human cannot progress unless their basic needs are met; once satiated, one is rewarded with pleasure.

Furthermore, this is not only present in Maslow's physiological needs, but extends to one's psychological needs as the need for social validation, belonging and intimacy are aspects that are driven by pleasure. This is illustrated in a study by Darvishzadeh et al. (2013) that found that social interactions in mice signalled oxytocin release in the nucleus accumbens. Correspondingly, when this released was blocked, the mice received no pleasure from the social interaction, demonstrating the significance of pleasure in both physiological and psychological needs (Darvishzadeh et al., 2013).

1.2 - Module overview

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs of needs is considered a ______ perspective to pleasure.


Beneficial impact of pleasure


Pleasure is an extremely important factor in human existence as it gives motivation to participate in essential activities, such as eating and drinking as well as the pursuit of individual intrinsic goals.

Evolutionary function/Basic needs

Figure 4. A hug is often a pleasurable experience that satisfies our need for intimacy and belonging.

The existence of pleasure is an essential mechanism in species preservation. As stated with Freud's pleasure principle, humans seek to fulfil physiological needs through the guise of pleasure and avoidance of pain. It is understood that the evolution of pleasure functions as a drive to satisfy crucial aspects needed for survival; an example of this is illustrated through the experience of satisfaction when eating a meal (Ivanova & Loonen, 2015). This concept has additionally been applied to social pleasures such as a sense of belonging; humans aspire to belong and bond, and when achieved the behaviour is rewarded through the release of oxytocin (i.e. pleasure) (Ivanova & Loonen, 2015).

Have you ever pondered why hugs feel so good? One hug has shown to release endorphins that result in the instant feeling of pleasure (Campbell, 2010).

Goal pursuit


Another aspect that pleasure contributes to is intrinsic goal pursuit. Intrinsic goals are derived from an individual's inner motivation, exempt from external influences. Pleasure is often seen as an intrinsic reward linked to emotions such as satisfaction and gratification, pleasure motivates the pursuit of the goal for the manifestation of these feelings.

An example of this can be seen in a child's motivation to compete in a football game. While they do not receive any extrinsic reward from the activity, they are intrinsically motivated through the pleasure they receive from competing and playing with their friends.

1.3 - Module overview

Pleasure is inherently bad, however it has some positive aspects that are beneficial to humans.


Negative consequences

Figure 5. Recreational drug use is often motivated by an individual seeking to experience a pleasurable state of consciousness.

Despite its positive implications, the effect of pleasure on an individual can result in profound life consequences including addiction, impaired mental well-being and physiological health.



Anhedonia is an impairment in which an individual is unable to experience pleasure. While a common symptom of depression, anhedonia has been found to be synonymous with substance abuse. Garfield, Lubman, and Yücel (2014) conducted a meta-analysis across 32 studies and found a strong correlation between anhedonia and alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine and opioid abuse (Garfield, Lubman, & Yücel, 2014). Furthermore, a recurring conclusion was established that individuals afflicted with anhedonia were found to have decreased responsiveness to substance rewards. Moreover, this tolerance was not only present in substance responsiveness, but also in one's responsiveness to natural rewards (Garfield, Lubman, & Yücel, 2014).



Addiction refers to a condition in which an individual has a compulsive need to engage in a particular behaviour in order to receive the rewarding outcome, regardless of the negative consequences. The concept of addiction and pleasure-seeking are noted to be closely related due to the reward-based properties that fuel the drive for addiction (Kennett, Matthews, & Snoek, 2013).

Drug addiction


Drug addiction, also known as substance abuse disorder is an affliction in which an individual excessively abuses the use of legal or illegal drugs; the individual is then unable to control their usage despite the harmful repercussions. Bechara and Naqvi elaborate on this as they state that the motivational drive for participating in recreational drug use is often referenced as a gateway to experience the pleasurable state of consciousness that is commonly associated with the usage of illicit substances, see Figure 5 (Bechara & Naqvi, 2010). However, inevitably, tolerance builds with continual abuse often resulting in addiction and a constant need to achieve the previous state of pleasure (Kennett, Matthews, & Snoek, 2013).

Due to the human instinct to seek out behaviours that instigate pleasure, it is hypothesised that drug addiction is the bodies wrongful perception of the drug as a basic need, thus encouraging approach behaviour to the substance through an artificial drive (Bechara & Naqvi, 2010). This is further reinforced by Thomsen (2015) which established that dopamine increases the "want", not the "liking" aspect of the stimuli (Thomsen, 2015).

Questions to consider:

  • Why do people purposely engage in activities which negatively impact their health?
  • Is pleasure the single motivator for recreational drug use?

Food addiction

Figure 6. Foods high in fat, sugar and salt are highly appealing and are often the choice for individuals who binge.

Food addiction refers to an extreme preoccupation and overindulgence of food, specifically food rich in palatable properties such as sugar, salt, and fat (see Figure 6). Due to the large role of food in survival, motivational theorists present the argument that the brain reinforces the act of eating through its dopamine-mediated system; resulting in the pleasurable release of dopamine when consuming a meal (Correa & Salamone, 2013).

However, when an individual lacks rewarding stimuli either through underlying mental health issues or situational causes, the tendency to adopt poor eating habits to compensate for the lack of pleasure is largely increased (Koob et al., 2011).

The repercussion of food addiction is widely documented as research indicates severe physiological and psychological risks including obesity, cardiovascular disease, withdrawal-like behaviour and increased levels of depression and anxiety (Koob et al., 2011). Additionally, Correa and Salamone build on preceding research and present the notion that food addiction can ultimately result in impaired brain reward functioning as dopamine D2 receptor availability is reduced, causing a weakened response and release to natural rewards (Correa & Salamone, 2013).

Food addiction is an extremely common occurrence, as illustrated through the rising obesity rates within Western society (Koob et al., 2011). Further research into the application and understanding of pleasure could aid in combating the addictive properties of food.

Case study

Tom is a 21-year-old male who has recently started attending university. Tom has found that despite overwhelming support from his tutors and friends he constantly “feels low” and anxious due to the newfound pressures of university life. Recently, Tom has found himself “snacking” at night, especially during periods of stress or sadness. These “snacks” are usually foods high in fat and sugar as Tom notes to feel a sense of euphoria or ‘high’ during his binge. Yet, after his binge, Tom feels intense shame over what he has done and swears to stop. Despite this, Tom binges again later that night.

Questions to consider:

  • Why does Tom feel the need to eat when he is feeling low?
  • What are the risks involved with Tom’s ‘habit’?

Sex addiction


Sexual addiction, also known as sex addiction is a diagnosable condition in which an individual has a large preoccupation with the thought of sex, may participate in many sexual activities or may have excessive ruminating thoughts concerning sex. Sex addiction is thought to be a behavioural addiction that is reinforced through the same reward process as food and drugs. In addition to this, the pursuit of sexual pleasure can even cross the boundary into sexually predatory behaviour where individuals may participate in acts such as rape or abusive behaviour to fulfil their sexual desires and obtain pleasure (Koob et al., 2011). Evidently, this is not only a distressing condition for the individual but also has the potential to negatively affect others in the community.

1.4 - Module overview

Food and sex addiction share many similarities with drug dependence as they all compromise long-term physical and mental well-being for momentary pleasure.




The concept of pleasure is understood as both an experience and a dimension of emotion that is perceived in both humans and animals. However, a distinction that has arisen is the existence of fundamental (i.e. instinctual pleasures) and higher-order pleasures (i.e. intellectual pleasures) as one prioritises the body and the other the mind. Furthermore, this distinction is also present in the experience of pleasure and pleasurable emotions as research indicates the importance of pleasure in turning our focus inward and positive emotions as an expression that opens us up as an individual.

Pleasure is experienced through the mesolimbic pathway, a process that transports the neurotransmitter, dopamine to the brain region, the nucleus accumbens. However, research has shown how this process is not exclusive to this pathway, as structures such as the orbitofrontal cortex, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex have illustrated activation and processing of the perception, coding, and activation of pleasure.

Furthermore, various psychological approaches have illustrated the important role of pleasure in human survival and growth. However, negative implications have been shown to arise due to an overindulgence in pleasure, such as anhedonia, food, drug and sex addiction.

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Take home message: The concept of pleasure is a distinct multifaceted experience that is observed globally. However, despite its positive implications in motivating survival and goals, its adverse effects can lead to poor consequences such as addiction and at times death.

See also


[Use alphabetical order.]


Alicart, H., Antonijoan, R.M., Ferreri, L., Gomex-Andres, A., Marco-Pallarés, J., Mas-Herrero, E., Olivé, G., Riba, J., Ripollés, P., Rodriguex-Fornells, A., Valle, M., & Zatorre, R.J. (2019). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(9), 3793-3798.

Bechara, A., & Naqvi, N.H. (2010). The insula and drug addiction: an interoceptive view of pleasure, urges, and decision-making. Brain Structure and Function, 214, 435-450.

Berridge, K.C., & Kringelbach, M.L. (2015). Pleasure systems in the brain. Neuron, 86(3), 646-664.

Campbell, A. (2010). Oxytocin and human social behaviour. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(3), 281-295.

Correa, M., & Salamone, J.D. (2013). Dopamine and food addiction; Lexicon badly needed. Biological Psychiatry, 73(9), 15-24.

Darvishzadeh, A., Dölen, G., Huang, K., & Malenka, R.C. (2013). Social reward requires coordinated activity of nucleus accumbens oxytocin and serotonin. Nature, 501, 179-184.

Do, A.M., Rupert, A.V., & Wolford, G. (2008). Evaluations of pleasurable experiences: The peak-end rule. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 15, 96-98.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226. https://doi/10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.218

Garfield, J.B.B., Lubman, D.I., & Yücel, M. (2014). Anhedonia in substance use disorders: A systematic review of its nature, course and clinical. Australian and New Zeland Journal of Psychiatry, 48(1), 36-51.

Hyman, S.E., & Malenka, R.C. (2001). Addiction and the brain: The neurobiology of compulsion and its persistence. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2, 695-703.

Ivanova, S.A., & Loonen, A.J.M. (2015). Circuits regulating pleasure and happiness: the evolution of reward-seeking and misery-fleeing behavioural mechanisms in vertebrates. Fronteriers in Neuroscience, 9, 394.

Johnson, B. (2008). Just what lies “beyond the pleasure principle”? Neuro-Psychoanalysis, 10(2), 201-212.

Kennett, J., Matthews, S., & Snoek, A. (2013). Pleasure and addiction. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4, 117.

Koob, G.F., Parylak, S.L., & Zorrilla, E.P. (2011). The dark side of food addiction. Physiological Behaviour, 104(1), 149-156.

Mari, K., Montes, K.S., & Weatherly, J.N. (2012). Gambling in a laboratory setting: A comparison of gambling for positive reinforcement versus as a potential escape. Analysis of Gambling Behaviour, 6(2), 83-90.

Moore, A. (2004). Hedonism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Thomsen, K.R. (2015). Measuring anhedonia: impaired ability to pursue, experience, and learn about reward. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1409.

Whalley, K. (2015). Pain or pleasure? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(316).