Strange Pleasures and Hedonic Motivation

My feet in my inflatable kayak and an interesting stump in the lake

Hedonic Motivation

Spring has sprung here in the great Northwest and my interests have turned to fun and joy. Last weekend was all about planting the garden and Monday I inflated my kayak and had the lake all to myself. The inflatable kayak, acquired two years ago, suddenly became a brilliant purchase as the lake (actually a humongous reservoir) is still well below recreational levels and to get on the water I had to carry my boat down a hill of rocks and unstable sand. Soon the stumps will be safely deep under water and motorboats will make it difficult and unsafe for rowers, so my adventure crossing the lake to explore the stumps was a unique pleasure.

Yesterday, I planned on continuing to talk about Writing Like The Masters with a discussion of Dostoevsky, but I noticed that I needed to return The Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee to the library. I had already renewed it to the limit because I had trouble getting into the story, but I wanted to know why it was award winning (the Booker Prize), so I began to skim it before heading for the library. The immediacy of needing to return it must have finally drawn me in because I read the whole thing before one in the afternoon. I found interesting parallels to Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky. Coincidence? Maybe the timing was just right to see the Dostoevsky in Coetzee’s book and how they both focused on strange pleasures.

From Coetzee:

“There was pleasure in spending without earning: he took no heed of how fast the money went.”

“There was a pleasure in abandoning himself to sickness.”

From Dostoevsky:

“I was rude, and found pleasure in it.”

“–what can a decent man talk about with the greatest pleasure? Answer: about himself.”

“I would feel a certain hidden, morbid, nasty little pleasure in the acute awareness that I had once again committed something vile that day, that what had been done could no longer be undone; and I would gnaw and gnaw at myself in silence, tearing and nagging at myself until the bitterness would finally begin to turn into a kind of shameful, damnable sweetness and, in the end–into a definite, positive pleasure! Yes, a pleasure, a pleasure! I stand by that. The very reason why I brought it up is that I’ve always wanted to find out: do other people experience such pleasures?”

“This pleasure comes precisely from the sharpest awareness of your own degradation; from the knowledge that you have gone to the utmost limit; that it is despicable, yet cannot be otherwise; that you no longer have any way out, that you will never become a different man; that even if there were still time and faith enough to change yourself, you probably would not even wish to change; and if you wished, you would do nothing about it anyway, because, in fact, there is perhaps nothing to change to.”

Each of these statements made me pause. It seemed contradictory for the characters to find pleasure in things that are socially considered wrong or bad, which made me want to research pleasure as motivation.

This reminded me that while I was mowing recently, I enjoyed listening to the Dwight Swain Master Writing Teacher audio book. Mr. Swain mentioned character motivation as following the four wishes from the work of sociologist W. I. Thomas, so I started my research there.

According to W. I. Thomas, people’s desires fall into four categories:

1. The desire for new experience – adventure

2. The desire for security -physical needs, fear of death

3. The desire for response – love, appreciation

4. The desire for recognition – position, power, ambition, vanity

Each one of these categories could be pleasure or pain, but weren’t specifically pleasant or unpleasant, so I kept looking which led me to:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is similar to Thomas’s desires, but puts them in an order:

human motivation pyramid based on needs

from Wikipedia

Again, each of these motivations could be pleasurable or painful which brought me to Hedonistic Motivation:

From the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:

hedonic – adj. 1. of, relating to, or characterized by pleasure

hedonism – noun 1. the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief goal in life.

I think hedonism has become confused with being selfish, otherwise how could it have a bad connotation? Isn’t the true goal in life to be happy? Of course, happiness cannot be defined by anyone but the self, so philosophically happiness is selfish. Ha Ha.

But, think about it, if everyone was happy, life on earth would be wonderful. It is the human instinct to not be happy with what we have that breeds discontent, not pleasure or happiness. It is the idea that the goal of happiness cannot be reached, or that the attainment of happiness is somehow a bad thing that has turned hedonism into a bad word. But isn’t happiness what everyone strives for; haven’t people worked themselves to death for a bit of happiness?

The Theory of Hedonic Motivation is the idea that people approach pleasure and avoid pain. A  basic idea when we speak of ourselves physically, but more complicated when we include emotions. The theory includes the idea that a person’s behaviors result from emotions such as: love, hate, fear and joy. Emotional experience is understood on a scale from bad to good and our primary motivation is to avoid bad and increase good.

So, here’s where we get to the strange pleasures; each person creates his or her own emotional scale of what feels bad and is to be avoided, and what feels good and is to be achieved, based on nature vs. nurture: perception, learning, environment, genetics, chemistry, biology, physics . . . who knows the combination? the eternal joyous question.

Now, to apply all of this to my writing life:

First, I did a cluster of the word pleasure. I put the word pleasure in a circle in the middle of a page and set my timer to three minutes. Then, I wrote all the words that came to mind about the word pleasure. The results: It looks like I associate pleasure with natural energies: wind, sun, touch; and activities (mostly outdoor): hiking, gardening, adventure, jumping, singing and dancing. When the lake comes up, I’m sure I would include swimming, floating, and rowing. I only mentioned a few physical sensations: warmth, giddy, and tingly.

Conclusion: In three minutes of clustering the word pleasure, I didn’t come up with anything very strange.

Second, I wrote down some of my strange pleasures: I like diving into freezing cold water; I pick at scabs and tear at my cuticles even when it hurts and bleeds (I know I’ll scar, but it feels good), I love finding ugly spandex fabric, I like improvising horribly discordant sounds on the piano (and guitar) even though I know how to read music, understand theory, play well and spent my entire youth in lessons; when I have a good day, I tend to stay up all night, even until dawn, because I don’t want it to end, but I get really sick to my stomach about three in the morning.

Strange pleasures may turn the mind to well known fetishes and kinks which can be interesting hedonic motivations (and, perhaps, the reason hedonism can be considered a bad word by some), but not what I’m exploring here . What I’m trying to find, as I turn this study toward the characters of my work in progress, are their contradictions, quirks, and foibles that make each character unique and interesting.

Application to my work in progress:

Anna is a hermit who finds pleasure in certain kinds of pain: pinpricks and tingles–the cold of the lake to the hot of the hot-tub. She finds her primordial scream in the night after playing discordant music on her almost tuned piano. She hates being told what to do and says she really hates humans, but likes to give away what she has and wants to make others happy.

Brittany finds pleasure in being bad; she’s experimenting with her power as a young, attractive woman whose sexuality has power over men. The death of her mother and complete absence of her father due to grief made her quit college to take care of her younger brother. She finds pleasure in being the provider and keeping her brother’s hopes of college alive, but she also finds pleasure in complete irresponsibility.

Rick finds pleasure in the absence of pain. After an injury, he became addicted to pharmaceuticals, though compulsive lying, and addictive behaviors were always part of his semi-adult life. He finds pleasure in manipulating people to do his will and to believe his lies which he believes makes his life easier.

Now that I have strange pleasures for each of my characters, I want to create a couple of concise sentences for each one and find the perfect places to put them. I’ll get into that and more in my next post: Strange Pleasures Part Two.

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5 thoughts on “Strange Pleasures and Hedonic Motivation

  1. Pingback: My First Blog Award: Liebster! And Eleven Great Blogs You Might Not Have Checked Out Yet. | Maria Berg's Writing Life

  2. Pingback: Strange Pleasures Part Two * | Maria Berg's Writing Life

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