We all want happiness. We should all take the sensible step of learning that there are three laws of pleasure which, if followed, will make the attainment of happiness immeasurably easier.
The first law: If you are ever to have a good time, you cannot plan your life to include nothing but good times. Pleasure is like beauty; it is conditioned by contrast. A woman who wants to show off her black velvet dress will not, if she is wise, stand against a black curtain, but against a white backdrop. She wants the contrast. Fireworks would not delight us if they were shot off against a background of fire, or the blaze of the noonday sun; they need to stand out against the darkness. Lilies bring us a special pleasure because their petals rise, surprisingly, on the waters of foul ponds. Contrast is needed to help us see each thing as being vividly itself.
Pleasure by the same principle, is best enjoyed when it comes to us as a “treat,” in contrast to experiences that are less pleasurable. We make a great mistake if we try to have all our nights party-night. No on would enjoy Thanksgiving if every meal were a turkey dinner. New Year’s Eve would not delight us if the whistles blew at midnight every night.
Fun rests on contrast, and so does the enjoyment of a funny situation. Our enjoyment of life is vastly increased if we follow the spiritual injunction to bring some mortification and self denial into our lives. This practice saves us from being jaded; it preserves the tang and joy of living. The harp strings of our lives are not thin, made slack by being pulled until they are out of tune; instead we tighten them and help preserve their harmony.
The second law: Pleasure is deepened and enhanced when it has survived a moment of tedium or pain: this law helps us to make our prized pleasure last for whole lifetime. To do so, we must keep going at anything we do until we get our second wind. One enjoys a mountain-climb more after passing through the first moment of discouraged exhaustion. One becomes more interested in a job or work after the first impulse to drop it has been overcome.
In the same way, marriages become more stable only after disillusionment has brought the honeymoon to an end. The great value of the marital vow is in keeping the couple together during the first quarrel; it tides them over their early period of resentment, until they get the second wind of true happiness at being together. Marriage joys, like all great joys, are born out of some pain. As we must crack the nut to taste the sweet so, in the spiritual life, the cross must be the prelude to the crown.
The third law: Pleasure is a by-product, not a goal. Happiness must be our bridesmaid, not our bride. Many people make the great mistake of aiming directly at pleasure; they forget that pleasure comes only from the fulfillment of some duty or obedience to a law – for man is made to obey the laws of his own nature as inescapably as he must obey the laws of gravity. A boy has pleasure eating ice cream because he is fulfilling one of the “oughts” of human nature: eating. If he eats more ice cream than the laws of his body sanction, he will not longer get the pleasure he seeks, but the pain of a stomach ache. To seek pleasure, regardless of law, is to miss it
Shall we start with pleasure or end with it? There are two answers to the question: the Christian and the pagan. The Christian says, “Begin with the fast and end with the feast, and you will really savor it.” The pagan says, “Begin with the feast and end with the morning-after headache.”