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Pleasure and pain

Pleasure-Seeking Behaviour

Avoiding Pain

Help Linked Module: L’être biologique : Douleur et plaisir Linked Module: À la recherche du bonheur perdu Linked Module: Neuroscientists Learn Why Some People Like Surprises
Linked Module: Pleasure Deficit Link : The Brain Is Stimulated by Beauty, Study Finds Link : Fun, fun, fun Link : L'empire du plaisir
Research : Michel Cabanac

Learning How To Pique Curiosity

Pleasure is only one part of what we call happiness. Happiness appears to be a far more complex state, one that cannot be reduced solely to the activation of the dopaminergic pathways in the reward circuit. A second necessary condition for feeling happy is the absence of negative emotions, because as soon as we are experiencing fear, anguish, or sadness, pleasure vanishes.

Consequently, anything that reduces the activity of the amygdala, the brain structure associated with negative emotions, brings us closer to the state of happiness. Performing non-emotional mental tasks, for example, reduces the amygdala’s activity, thus providing a biological foundation for the widespread idea that keeping busy is the way to be happy.

But for someone to be happy, yet a third requirement must be met. The ventral medial prefrontal cortex must be activated, because it appears to provide the feeling that the world is coherent and makes sense, which is also necessary for happiness. Interestingly, in depressive people, the activity of this region is diminished.


The brain’s main function is to keep the body that houses it alive and capable of reproducing. Say what you will about human intelligence, before Mozart’s and Einstein’s brains could let them produce their works of genius, they had to keep their owners alive!

Hence it is no surprise that the systems in our brain that influence our behaviour the most are the ones that let us meet our vital needs - eating, drinking, reproducing, and protecting ourselves from danger.

Three phases can be distinguished in the operation of this powerful organ that maintains the equilibrium of our body’s internal environment.

First, in response to stimuli, the brain drives us to take actions to satisfy our needs. For example, hunger makes us eat when the glucose in our bloodstream drops below a certain level. Sexual desire drives us to make love with available partners. And loneliness makes us go out and meet other people, to satisfy the more specifically human need to socialize.

Second, our actions are rewarded by sensations of pleasure. But it is important to note that it is mainly the action itself that is rewarding, not just the actual reward. For instance, receiving glucose solution intravenously will get your blood sugar back up to an appropriate level, but it will never give you as much pleasure as sharing a good meal with friends. The action, which often takes the form of a ritual, is therefore at the very heart of the pleasure experienced.

In the third phase, the feeling of satisfaction brings an end to the actions–until new signals trigger new desires. The behaviours that are vital for our survival are thus under the control of the desire/action/satisfaction cycle which enables the organism to maintain its integrity.

However, such “approach” behaviours are not always the best way of ensuring your survival. Fight or flight can also save your life, depending on the situation.

To feel happy, you not only need to experience pleasure, you also have to be able to represent it to yourself. You have to be able to say: “We drank some wine. It was good. Do you remember? It was for your birthday!"

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