Which Principle Are You Governed By?
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure”. Jeremy Bentham, British Philosopher.
As I was watching the documentary Hungry for a Change, personal life coach and weight loss guru Jon Gabriel touched upon something I found interesting; why we give into to food cravings is because of what is known as the pleasure principle. In essence all animals (humans included) are hardwired to seek out pleasure and avoid pain at all costs and, as infants and children these desires translate into life sustaining pleasures i.e. eating, drinking, etc. During our formative years, we are constantly seeking to satiate these desires. In fact, we must as it is imperative to our survival. As we grow and mature, we begin to learn that sometimes delaying these instincts can lead to much a greater happiness. This deferral is known as the reality principle, and it’s a fortunate thing because without the reality principle we would be unable to follow even the simplest social rules, constantly giving in to impulses for immediate gratification. In short, our world would be one of hedonism and anarchy. Our brains are constantly weighing the possible social costs and benefits of a particular action before deciding to act upon them and, more often times than not the reality principle wins. Thus, as we mature our lives are shaped and honed by these decisions. It is easy to see that in the case of someone with a food addiction, he or she has chosen the pleasure principle far too often, thus the imbalance in their life. While Gabriel was applying this theory to explain our predilection to over eat, I could not help but think to myself how the pleasure principle vs. the reality principle applies to other addictions.
Biochemically speaking the brain registers all pleasures in the same way, in other words the brain doesn’t care if the source of pleasure is coming from a drug, a drink, a donut or a sunny day. Once that area in the brain associated with pleasure is stimulated it will release dopamine a.k.a. the feel good drug. Alcoholics and drug addicts alike are always looking for the next drink or fix that will deliver this dopamine surge therefore, a majority if not all of their actions are predicated on the pleasure principle. Alcoholics and addicts alike, are unable to grasp the plausibility of the reality principle because they are unable to internalize the notion that just as pleasurable moments are fleeting, so are painful ones. It is their undying desire to remain in a state of pleasurable euphoria that has them choosing instant gratification time and time again. Therefore, it is key for a person in recovery to remain constantly mindful of the fact that nothing is forever good and nothing is forever bad. The addict or alcoholic who internalizes this truth will be able to make the decision to not give in to their need for immediate gratification, and these choices will result in sustainable recovery.
We as humans are hardwired to desire a state of homeostasis, or consistency internally (our bodies) and externally (our environment) and, whenever we overindulge we adjust our behaviour in such a way so as to restore this balance. Our quality of life or, lack thereof is based upon the choices we make between the pleasure and reality principles, the trick is to be able to sustain a balance between these choices.