Addiction – a fine line between pleasure and pain

Public health has a problem with pleasure, often calling on people to suppress the pleasures of eating, alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex or gambling.

However, an academic forum being organised by Flinders University Professor John Coveney argues that rather than ignoring pleasure, it will be more beneficial to seriously assess the origins of pleasure and understand its driving forces.

“Most public health discussion is about either medical health, or happiness, which is cerebral,” says Professor John Coveney, who is Professor of Global Food, Culture and Health at Flinders University.

“The space between these two areas is pleasure, and that’s visceral.

“It’s a different type of trigger, and one that we don’t examine seriously enough.

“Intellectual assessment of what pleasure is and how it affects us is a good place to start.”

To explore further, ‘Pleasure and Health: A Colloquium‘ is being held at Flinders Victoria Square on June 15, organised jointly by Flinders University and Otago University, NZ, to explore such themes as “Pleasures That Are Legal But …”, assessing the pleasures of addictions, and methodologies for studying pleasure.

Presentations will cover diverse subjects – from attempts to curb binge drinking (“Losing the booze without losing the pleasure”). Photo: iStock.

The colloquium, the first of its kind, has attracted abstracts from academics based in the US, NZ and universities throughout Australia. It spans multiple disciplines including health, humanities, exercise sciences and psychology.

“This has emerged as a hot topic of discussion that cuts across different disciplines in a way that none of us expected,” says Professor Coveney.

“Being able to form a lot of new discussion between what has previously been isolated in very separate silos of learning is an added bonus to what this colloquium will deliver.”

Presentations will cover diverse subjects – from attempts to curb binge drinking (“Losing the booze without losing the pleasure”) and understanding reasons for high levels of alcohol consumption by middle-aged Australian women, to exploring reasons the presentation of sex as entertainment, and assessing problematic gambling.

One presenter will consider “Is Facebook ever good for you?”, while another makes a more gentle assessment of how pets provide valuable pleasure for older people.

Professor John Coveney, who will present at the ‘Pleasure and Health’ colloquium’ at Flinders Victoria Square, Adelaide.

“Pleasure is an area of public health that has not been investigated, but I believe it has great influence,” says Professor Coveney.

“Just look at how it affects our eating habits.

“We take pleasure in knowing the provenance of food (the influence of farmer’s markets), the pleasure in authenticity of food (critical assessment of food miles), and the company we keep when dining.

“In contrast, it’s a bad move to eat ‘al desko’ at the computer, because you can’t derive pleasure from that.”

The idea for the colloquium was triggered by a research paper on pleasure and health written by Professor Coveney and Associate Professor Lee Thompson, from the Department of Population Health at the University of Otago, Christchurch, NZ (“Human vulnerabilities, transgression and pleasure”, published in the journal Critical Public Health, Volume 28, 2018, Issue 1, pages 118-128).

The authors wanted to asses pleasure as an intellectual pursuit, and found that the paper gained considerable traction and discussion.

“Such an immediate response sparked an interest from Lee and myself to see what else was happening in this field, and we found there were a lot more people than just us exploring this idea, so we set the idea for the colloquium in motion – and the response has been fantastic.”

Sessions during the colloquium have been allocated longer times and more discussion opportunities at the conclusion of each presentation.

“I want to call this ‘slow academia’, so that the ideas aired at each presentation can really get worked on,” says Professor Coveney.

“Because this is such a new area of discussion, I want to make sure that all participants get the most out of every session.”

Professor Coveney hopes that the colloquium in June will prompt an annual discussion event focused on pleasure, and continue to broaden in scope across more learning disciplines.

“I’d like to see neurologists involved, to discuss how the brain responds to pleasure,” he says.

“There are bigger conversations to have across every area of health about the impact of pleasure on people, and I think this colloquium is the start of great possibility.”

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