Maximising pleasure is more than giving ourselves a series of nice feelings. Otherwise we might simply lie around all the time gorging ourselves on delicious snacks and, er, tickling ourselves.
Some pleasures we discover are transient and not connected to anything else. So, over time, we learn not to invest excessive amounts of time in pleasures which do not pay off, or which bring downsides.
Thankfully, however, as uniquely sophisticated, conscious mammals capable of reasoning, our range of pleasures are uniquely wide, varied and adaptable. It is no coincidence they take in activities which help us thrive.
We typically get great pleasure from learning, practising and succeeding, getting a buzz from passing exams and triple-twenties in darts. And we enjoy work, music, movement, socialising, sights, sounds and sensations.
And we can even conjure joy from outwardly tedious activities which pay off. Some of us can, for instance, with the right mind-games, elicit unlikely gratification from catching up with paperwork or sweeping behind the tumble dryer.
Epicurus, a Greek hedonist from 2,300 year ago (pictured), plumped for chilling in a communal garden talking with mates about philosophy. He rejected the idea that drinking a lot of alcohol as the best route to pleasure.
Alcohol, a psychoactive, gives us an out-sized impression of its reward. This can mean we invest more time and energy in alcohol than it deserves. Our human relish for persistence in the face of hardship does us no favours here.
We can persist in drinking alcohol even though it brings scant pleasure and is causing us grief. We can want alcohol without liking it, with its pleasures and rewards long outweighed by hangovers, crappy sleep and low mood.
Not drinking for a month or longer is a good way for us to weigh up the pleasures and downsides of alcohol. What things positive and negative do we correctly attribute to it? And what downsides does it have we did not notice?
It can take us from three months to a year to be free of side-effects that heavier alcohol drinking can bring, like anxiety and low or changeable mood. If we make one month it can be worth banking the investment and carrying on.
Taking time without alcohol is a route to finding more pleasure in life. And it can also be the beginning of a life devoted to pursuing of long lasting pleasures without serious downsides. This is a pure form of hedonism.
Stopping alcohol for any length of time we choose is not a hair-shirt exercise. It is time we can use to rid ourselves of any illusions conjured up by alcohol and to focus on greater pleasures. ■