Pleasure and alcohol



From:  ‘Oh go on – HAVE ONE MORE‘  

(Published by Nest, Sri Lanka:

Alcohol is all about pleasure but tobacco hardly at all. Given that both substances are socially used for presumed effects on the brain, legally available in most countries and promoted globally by merciless commercial machines, this difference is curious.

The reason may lie in tobacco being rapidly and strongly addictive. So it cannot convincingly be presented as pleasure-giver. Even media portrayals intended to glamorize smoking are increasingly failing to deliver. Nearly all real-life smokers are dependent on nicotine and only the undiscerning can be seduced into interpreting the ceaseless nursing of an addiction as delight. The perception or experience of pleasure with alcohol is quite another matter.

Alcohol users, unlike smokers, are generally seen as happy. This is because most alcohol users are not addicts. In the case of smoking, addicted people have to present their confined life as pleasure, while the claimants of pleasure on behalf of alcohol are largely unfettered. Most alcohol users are not dependent while smokers on the whole are.

The principal proponents of pleasure in alcohol are the armies of social drinkers, not addicts. They are supported by the alcohol trade as well as a few bemused neuroscientists and pharmacologists, whose claims are hardly ever subject to critical scientific scrutiny. I believe that this is because alcohol as pleasure giver is simply a given in western mythology.

And no force nowadays is strong enough to overthrow western mythology – other than the west’s own science.



Pleasure is of many kinds. One is pleasant sensation. All touch is pleasure, as are quenching thirst, orgasm or relieving a full bladder. There are other kinds of pleasure, beyond sensation, if we choose to use a broader definition. Owning things, for instance – as in, ‘This is my house, my car.’ So is giving things away or anticipating giving or receiving. Pleasure seems to flow from anything one can think of: reading, solving silly puzzles, wallowing in luxury, or just having expensive things at home. There is pleasure when others recognize and envy the frightfully expensive trinkets we possess. Ownership though is not as powerful as some other sources of pleasure – caring, for example. Caring and love are extraordinarily pleasure giving. Intimacy feels good too. Pleasure in these latter examples includes more than just the sensory experience, and extends especially to emotion.

The range of things we call pleasure is wide and confusing. To make sense we need to narrow or classify pleasure in some way. One possible solution is to limit our consideration to sensations alone. A possible classification of sensory experiences is as follows:

1. Pure or primary pleasures.  These are based on a quality of particular sensory experiences. Primary pleasure is an involuntary or automatic accompaniment of the sensory experience itself, and it is so experienced by all or nearly all of us.

2. Learnt pleasures.  Sensations that are not in themselves pleasant can be made so through learning. Acquired tastes probably become as truly pleasurable as those of the primary kind.

3. Forced pleasures.  These are sensations that we feel obliged to report as enjoyable even though we don’t really find them so. When it is widely held that a particular experience is desirable, or extolled by sophisticates as divine, nobody socially savvy dares contest it, or for that matter doubt it.




(…. and we examine alcohol pleasure under each of these categories in some detail before coming to conclusions.)



To get the best out of life we must learn to handle pleasures – natural, conditioned or thrust upon us – exactly right.

As long as western mythology dominates we shall all need to subscribe to the notion that alcohol intoxication is in itself, or primarily, pleasurable – despite the fact that the weight of the relevant scientific evidence does not support this premise. Whether alcohol is chemically the provider of pleasure is however only of theoretical interest. Many people who truly enjoy alcohol do so because they have trained or conditioned themselves over the years to enjoy it and now enjoy the chemistry too.

Some individuals who claim to enjoy alcohol derive their enjoyment only from the relaxed mood that prevails in many drinking settings and the associated tastes, smells, rituals, appurtenances and symbolism. Such persons should continue to take pleasure in these but take care not to be enticed into attributing their enjoyment to alcohol or intoxication. If they do, they risk converting what is now a genuine addition to the range of things they enjoy into a necessity or condition for enjoying things – in effect a millstone.

Many of those who say they like their drink will discover, if they deliberately experiment, that the dose of ethyl alcohol they ingest is not really a significant contributor to their good feeling. Such persons should consciously recognize this fact and try to maintain their relatively unimpaired state. This is most easily done by keeping at a minimum the volume of ethyl alcohol consumed and by not connecting alcohol with all good times. They should remain vigilant to ensure that alcohol does not become central to their enjoyment of life.

For people who’ve learnt to tune into alcohol itself, the options for maximizing pleasure in life are rather less straightforward. These individuals have progressed beyond those described as within  the previous category. They need to feel drunk to feel good. Although they may not yet be addicted, they are impaired. They have work to do, to recapture their previous ability to enjoy life and gradually reduce the place given to alcohol. If this isn’t possible, all they can do is to continue to use alcohol as the only means available to enjoy their now restricted life – but try not to progress into addiction.

People at the other end of the spectrum, who find that the alcohol experience is for them still unpleasant, should first note that this occurrence is entirely normal too. Many alcohol users do not succeed in training themselves to enjoy it, or in convincing themselves that they do. Such people may find it difficult to declare openly that they find alcohol a bore or overrated or downright ghastly. This reluctance should not lead them to think that their response to alcohol is in some way abnormal or inadequate, which in turn may make them overrule the evidence of their own senses. Deceiving oneself is quite the pathetic response. Faking to others is preferable, especially if the others concerned are blindly insistent.

All of us, whatever our current relationship with alcohol, would do well to start questioning from our different standpoints, the alcohol pleasure mythology. Pricking this balloon, and exposing for what they are the worn-out antics used to sustain a particular aura around alcohol, also offer opportunities for genuine entertainment.

The only force now capable of toppling western alcohol mythology is science. The study of alcohol’s claims to pleasure has to be taken up by science, if there is to be substantial progress. In explaining alcohol effects, western science has so far chosen to be handmaiden to western mythology by proffering beguiling justifications of its assumptions. But a social move to expose alcohol’s effects, as we truly experience them, may succeed in stimulating physiologists and pharmacologists to apply their science to alcohol. We must ask them to employ with alcohol the same criteria that they utilize with other chemicals in determining the results they produce, shorn of placebo and conditioned effects.



 I thank the Physiological Society of Sri Lanka for stimulating me to explore the ideas set out here, and the evidence for them, through its invitation to me to deliver the K. N. Seneviratne Memorial Oration, entitled ‘Alcohol and Pleasure?’, in 2006. 




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