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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.


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 brain's main pleasure center is the nucleus accumbens (NA), and the adjacent grey matter of the anterior septum pellucidum. Both of those areas are located at the bottom of the anterior part of the lateral ventricles. The nucleus accumbens is activated by its D1 receptors, which bind to the neurotransmitter dopamine. There are also GABA interneurons that regulate the release of dopamine onto the nucleus accumbens. Those GABA interneurons, in turn, are regulated by other receptors and neurotransmitters, namely 5-ht2C serotonin receptors and mu beta-endorphin receptors. Those two receptors respectively serve "stop" and "go" functions. 5-ht2C receptors serve to maintain GABA activity and prevent dopamine loss, to store-up dopamine for sexual functions, and probably also other functions. The mu receptors serve to halt that GABA activity, thereby releasing a significant amount of dopamine. The 5-ht2C receptors of those GABA interneurons can become desensitized, sometimes permanently, by excessive exposure to serotonin, thus eliminating the efficacy of beta-endorphin in releasing dopamine and causing pleasure.

The part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area (pronounced with a hard G; abbreviated as VTA) is comprised of neurons that produce dopamine, and project that dopamine forward, via their axons, onto the nucleus accumbens pleasure center. That dopamine-supplying pathway is called "the mesolimbic pathway". Upon the VTA neurons are 5-ht2A serotonin receptors, which regulate the production of the two dopamine-producing enzymes, and thus the level of dopamine that is produced and made available to the nucleus accumbens. A moderate and short-term surge in serotonin, upon those 5-ht2A receptors, increases dopamine production in the VTA for a similarly short period of time, but a surge of serotonin that is too large and/or long-lasting desensitizes those 5-ht2A receptors, thus causing a major drop in VTA dopamine production and dopamine availability to the nucleus accumbens, thus causing general anhedonia. The degree of 5-ht2A receptor desensitization is proportionate to the quantity of serotonin in the synapses. VTA 5-ht2A receptor desensitization is thus a consequence of consuming serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs), especially when at a high dose, and/or on a chronic basis. The SRIs citalopram and escitalopram are especially effective at blocking serotonin reuptake, and thus exceptionally effective at causing anhedonia. Cessation of consuming SRIs usually allows those 5-ht2A receptors to gradually recover, though they usually do not recover entirely, and the degree of recovery varies greatly between individuals, with some people experiencing no such recovery, and thus permanent anhedonia.


Masochists are people who derive pleasure from receiving pain. The existence of masochism seemingly contradicts the principle that pleasure, as a positive experience, is fundamentally opposite to pain, a negative experience. It should be noted that masochism is context-dependent: masochists enjoy certain kinds of pain in certain situations. In the case of masochism, the masochist is sexually excited by the pain, and the pleasure of their sexual excitement exceeds the pain, but if the pain is too great, then it exceeds the pleasure.

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.

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