We assume we like things because they feel good and dislike others because they don’t feel good. In other words, pleasure is primarily a response to sensory experience, at its core simply a perceptual thing.
Yet imagine putting on a sweater that had been owned by Adolph Hitler, that had been his favorite. Creepy feeling to put it on, right? Physically it is of high quality, does an admirable job of performing its designated task of keeping you warm. Still, somehow it feels wrong.
Or imagine being kissed by your favorite movie star or his identical, indistinguishable twin. Most people want the “real” thing. Even though physically it is the exact same sensation, mentally it is very different. Which brings us to the essence of Bloom’s book: a concept called essentialism: “things have an underlying reality or true nature… and it is this true nature that really matters.” Bloom’s thesis is that it is this essential nature of things from which we derive pleasure or displeasure.
Bloom may be right, but since the essential nature of things is open to interpretation and judgment calls, and what I choose to find pleasurable you may not, what Bloom chronicles is a repeat of John Milton’s “The mind in and of itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” Or Abraham Lincoln’s, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Our likes and dislikes are complex to say the least.
That said, “How Pleasure Works” is an interesting read and will have you thinking about why you like the things you do. If you enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” or Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness” or Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics,” you’ll appreciate this book, too.