How Pleasure Works – A Book Review

Quick Take: This book goes into the depths of the mind and looks for what feeds the source or core of happiness. There are stories of art theft, belching contests, bed pans, and cannibalism and I bet none of these you’d put on par with a birthday cake. And that is the point of the book, pleasure is not a straight forward emotion. A man paid $772,500 for a set of golf clubs. It makes you wonder why?  Hint – they were John F. Kennedy’s (if you’re still thinking “so what” then this book is really for you). Either way, I enjoyed it.

Detail Review: Paul Bloom is a psychologist at Yale University. He’s the author of other books, but those have a slightly different take on the brain: how it develops in regards to language. I think because this isn’t his first take, he writes in a style that is easy to read. His narratives are clear and support his point very well. In a world where books are taken in 15 minutes at a time, this is a good quality to have.

I normally start with the aesthetics. The hard cover has a simple white sleeve with the title, the subtitle, the author’s name and then a picture of an oyster with a pearl. I think that’s a metaphor for cracking open the mind and finding treasure. I like the less is more approach, but I’ve heard white is the worst choice because it shows smudges and dirt easily. That may be true, but I like it. The font is medium to large in size and the book is a solid 227 pages counting the preface.

How Pleasure Works Cover

The book ultimately is a cross between psychology and philosophy and it centers on something called essence. And as a psychologist he has many studies supporting his argument. But essence is as much a philosophic topic as anything. You can refer to it as the life force, the soul, or the mass effect of billions of neurons firing in a self aware brain. Cultivating one’s own essence is the basis of pleasure. Whether it’s through the adoption of other people’s essence or the exercise of your own. As Bloom states in the preface:

     There is an animal aspect o human pleasure. When I come back from a run with my dog, I collapse onto the sofa, she onto her dog bed. I drink a glass of cold water, she laps from her bowl, and we’re both a lot happier.

This book is about more mysterious pleasures. Some teenage girls enjoy cutting themselves with razors; some men pay good money to be spanked by prostitutes. The average American spends over four hours a day watching television. The thought of sex with a virgin is intensely arousing to many men. Abstract art can sell for millions of dollars. Young children enjoy playing with imaginary friends and can be comforted by security blankets. People slow their cars to look at gory accidents, and go to movies that make them cry.

Some of the pleasures that I will discuss are uniquely human, such as art, music, fiction, masochism, and religion. Others, such as food and sex, are not, but I will argue that the pleasure that humans get from these activities is substantially different from that of other creatures.


There’s great analysis of the value of art, particularly how a copy, or forgery, is no where near as valuable as an original. If I know Paul Cezanne painted a piece in my collection, then I know it’s worth more than if someone else painted in a similar style. The reason is because I know Cezanne was an artistic genius. The means in which he assembled color, stroke, and arrangement shows a mind – an essence – that no one else originally came up with. Jackson Pollock is the ultimate test for this. His art is labeled abstract expressionism. I see paint splats, but others see a chaotic reflection of the subconscious and because of that, he is heralded.

And the author doesn’t really get into it, but I think portraits are the ultimate in revealing essence, especially if they are self portraits. For the Seinfeld fans out there, you’ll remember an episode where Jerry dates a painter. The painter does a portrait of Kramer and when George asks Jerry why, he responds “She sees something in him.” Kramer has an essence and the painter captures it. Later in the story an older couple is viewing the portrait, “The Kramer,” and has this exchange:

Seinfeld Comments 4

Although this is comedic, it’s true. Art isn’t only about beauty. There’s a pull of something greater than a cloth with ink on it. Performance art and shock are continually testing society.

There’s a story called Where the Red Fern Grows. It’s about a couple of coon hound dogs befriended by a little boy. It’s an early adolescents tale. My sixth grade English teacher read it to my class of 14. It’s over 20 years later and I can’t remember her name, but I do remember the entire class welling up in tears as the story unfolded. We were saddened by what happened, but this fictional story was enjoyed by each one of us.

This pleasure resonates in the imagination of everyone, be it sappy love stories, video games, horror movies, or some other mental escape. I agree with the author that this is a hold over from the evolution of planning. He doesn’t really discuss it, but the way the brain is structured is by layers, somewhat like it grew from the center out. The center is the emotional core. Emotion is great for survival, so it makes sense. The prefrontal cortex and other cognitive regions evolved on top of the emotional engine. It’s kind of like we take in all this data via our senses, but the brain needs a way to answer the “so what?” Stories are powerful because they tap the emotional center and push for action. Imagination is a means for practicing these situations and the strange pleasure it elicits is motivation.

I devise fantasy lands of unicorns and I dream of taking over the world. Each of these escapes adds to my essence.


Lulled Into a Sense of Ever Improving Job Prospects

Autumn begins at Wednesday September 22, 2010 at 11:09 PM ET, but I’ve already felt it. I recently sat at a family friend’s bare dining room table. I looked out the window to avoid seeing the pain in his eyes. The setting sun created an epilogue hue – uneasy and fated.

My friend was mentally torn down. He said “I don’t know what to do? I’m 51 years old and without a job.” I slowly nodded my support. “I wish I had known.” His words trailed off and a deep breath was taken.

He’s a divorced father of two: a boy who’s six and a daughter all of nine. He has debts from the divorce, but mostly he has fears for the future. His daughter is a sufferer of a rare childhood disease. It isn’t life threatening, but it’s life altering. And it’s costly.

I don’t know what he wish he had known. I think it’s about his decision making over the last 15 years. But I think it’s less about the decisions made as it is about the opportunities missed. He was lulled into a sense of ever improving job prospects. He was a senior member at a medium sized company. The Vice President was a friend of his. All things seemed good. He did his job day and day out without any hiccups until 2008 came. His company, like many others, had to make some tough choices and he was given a severance package.

In my eyes he became too good at his job. He could do it half asleep. He didn’t challenge himself and take classes or training that would push him out of his comfort zone. He became as memorable as a Tuesday morning commute. That is one moral of this recession – constantly improve your skills, think about how you think, and shake things up.

Not Always Ready to Hear Feedback

For the past year I’ve coordinated a once a month meeting with many higher ups to discuss relevant issues. I usually only speak occasionally during these sessions; I want the leaders to take ownership of what’s going on. Last month I poached 15 minutes on the agenda for a topic I’m an expert on. I prepared a few slides and went through them with my message to the group. My delivery was intentionally aggressive because I wanted to elicit questions. With about 5 minutes left my higher level boss transitioned my presentation to his. It was a natural place for it so I didn’t think much of it. But I was slightly disappointed I didn’t get to finish.

Two weeks later I was chatting with my immediate boss and she gave me feedback from the meeting. The feedback was that I was a bit too caustic, meaning this wasn’t the audience for that. I wasn’t ready to hear the negative feedback. Not because I can’t handle it (it isn’t really a big deal), but because it was a surprise. It did touch a nerve with me, the reason is because it was my intention to be forward with this group. I wanted a response, I wanted to push buttons, I wanted action as a result of my overview. And this response means I misjudged the situation. Making a mistake in execution happens, but a mistake in judgment opens a chasm of doubt.

I mention all this because Peter Bregman at wrote up a blog with a few steps to deal with surprise criticism.  The post is called How to Handle Surprise Criticism and the advice is to:

Look beyond your feelings. We call it constructive criticism and it usually is. But it can also feel painful, destabilizing, and personal. Notice, and acknowledge — to yourself — your feelings of hurt, anger, embarrassment, insufficiency, and anything else that arises. Recognize the feelings — label them even — and then put them aside so the noise doesn’t crowd out your hearing.

Look beyond their delivery. Feedback is hard to give, and the person offering criticism may not be skilled at doing it well.

Don’t agree or disagree. Just collect the data.

Later, with some distance, decide what you want to do. Data rarely forces action, it merely informs it. Recognizing that the decision, and power, to change is up to you will help you stay open. Once you’ve got some time, space, and grounding, think about what you heard — what the data is telling you — and make choices about if, what, and how, you want to change.

Taking On Tests

I’ve been on an education kick lately since it’s back to school time. I often comment that I believe tests are overused as an evaluation tool. I think they have a time and place, but programs like No Child Left Behind are making the test the apex of the curriculum.

I often argue that most tests are designed to assess memorization and not problem solving. I’d like to see students create something. That is how the world improves, through the value of creation. This effort requires the student to apply the learned material plus it reinforces real world skills like managing time and resources.

Tests have positives though. They are efficient in their use of time and measurement. And as I learned from Benedict Carey’s article Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits tests act as another associative method for learning. Over the last few years I’ve read books like Geoff Colvin ‘s Talent is Overrated and Drive by Dan Pink which have hammered the point that if you are motivated to practice and to practice novel approaches with immediate feedback you will succeed.

The article also talks about the use of association. In other posts , like Using Fables , I talk about the use of stories as a learning tool. Stories provide a narrative for later recall of the material. If you are studying mental fortitude and strength while routinely looking out the window at some oak trees you are going to subconsciously relate the two. During the test, I suggest you gaze out the window, it might trigger the association.

The use of tests are themselves both a narrative and a practice method. They require the test taker to consider the topic in an abstract sense and with different combination of scenarios. They also provide immediate feedback. In this way, tests are great.

If I were a teacher I’d start teaching the material with a story. I’d then require the students to create something related to it. I’d finish the lesson with a series of small tests. Why a series of small tests? I’d make it like a golf handicap – the top 10 of 20 are the ones that count. The others just create the pool of eligible scores. I feel this is most optimal because it allows for each test to be a teaching aid while  reducing the all or nothing effect.

Now, if I can only remember where I put my keys.

Teachers Often Go the Extra Mile for Their Students – There’s a Means to Help Them Get There

It’s back to school time. Parents have spent precious dollars getting their kids backpacks, notebooks, new clothes, and other supplies. But I’ve observed first hand that many teachers also spend getting ready for school. Often times there’s the perfect lesson that needs this or that to be perfect. Or there’s a student or two who are hurting financially, so a few extra supplies are made available to them. All this adds up though. For instance, Kathy Casaday of Gardendale Elementary in Alabama spent $400 for her class room. has 5 other examples of teachers, who aren’t getting big pay increases, contributing to the learning environment. These are passionate people, people who are rewarded by the epiphanies of kids.

It’s a good time to think about helping teachers make those ah-ha moments happen. is a great place to review different teaching lessons that teachers have planned. It’s personalized, so if you like rockets, then Dr. Y of Lakewood High School in Salemburg, North Carolina has a project for you. Not near you? That’s OK, there’s nearly 50 other similar Rocket related projects to choose from. Perhaps theatre is your favorite. Mr. B of Endeavour Middle School in Lancaster, California (South) has a project requiring two speakers so the actors can be heard. It’s $272 away from meeting the goal.

The point is that teachers go the extra mile for the kids, but sometimes they need someone to help them.

Also, there’s a movie coming out called Waiting for Superman . I don’t completely agree with the methods of Mr. Canada, but getting more attention to the matter is important either way. Check it out:

Working Thoughts 9/9/08
What is promised to Wall St and what is promised to the CEO are not the same

August 2010 Jobs Report and Wages

Here are the job market and compensation numbers for August 2010 (based on the job report):

Net loss
of 54,000 jobs in the month
(revised to a loss of 57,000 workers)

  • Census workers accounted for a loss of 114,000 jobs as they rolled off the federal payrolls (143,000 census workers were released last month)
  • Private sector payrolls increased by 67,000 (71,000 last month)
  • Analysts expected an overall loss of 120,000
  • One year ago the US lost 211,000 jobs
  • June was revised to a loss of 175,000 from a revised 221,000 jobs and an original reading of a loss of 125,000
  • July was revised to a loss of 66,000 from an updated read of a loss of 54,000 jobs and an original reading of 131,000 lost jobs
  • 6.2 million people have been jobless for more than 6 months (long term unemployed) – an improvement by 323,000 jobs

    • 42.0% of the unemployed are long term unemployed, a drop from 44.9%*
  • Businesses (private sector) have now added 763,000 jobs since the start of 2010, after cutting 8.5 million in 2008 and 2009 combined

Unemployment rate rose to 9.6%

  • Analysts predicted it would be 9.6%
  • The employment to population ratio is 58.5%. It’s been a year since it’s been over 59% and two years since it’s been above 62%
  • The U-6 report, which is a broader group to count, rose to 16.7% from 16.5% (it had held steady for a few months)
  • PMI, a measure of manufacturing pace, is 56.3 from 55.5% last month and the 16th consecutive month of readings over 50 percent. Anything above 50% means the machines are running
    • A sub-index, which measures the proportion of manufacturers that say they are hiring, rather than reducing jobs, came in at 60.4. This is the highest number since November of 1983 (perhaps signaling the wait and see period is over in manufacturing)

  • The number of job openings has risen by 704,000 (30 percent) since the most recent series low of 2.3 million in July 2009
    • A person without a job is averaging 19.9 weeks to find work. Down from 22.2 weeks
    • There are currently 5 applications for every 1 job opening. In November, 2009 there were 6.2 and in September 2003 there were 2.8

Specific Segment Job numbers:

  • Manufacturing lost 27,000 jobs (expected to be a seasonal loss)
  • Construction added 19,000 jobs
  • Retailers lost 4,900 jobs
  • Leisure and Hospitality Services grew by 13,000 jobs
  • Government sector lost 121,000, Federal losses were 111,000
    • State and Local Government losses have moderated their losses

  • Education and Health Services grew by 45,000 jobs
    • Health Care and Social Assistance grew by 40,200

  • Professional and Business Services grew by 20,000

Wage (can be revised):

  • The average weekly paycheck (seasonally adjusted) is $639.18 – an increase
  • The average hourly earning (seasonally adjusted) is $19.08 – a three penny increase
  • Average weekly hours and overtime of production and nonsupervisory employees on private nonfarm payrolls by industry sector, seasonally adjusted is 33.5 hours – a increase of 0.1 hours

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Report Stats Summary