Pleasure Dread

Pleasure dread.

As one of the men in my year-long graduate Mastery group said, “great band name!”


Pleasure dread, in case you’re wondering, is what came to mind as we were talking about bringing more conscious play (our 2023 topic) into our lives.

To a man, we were looking at things we really want to integrate into our day-to-day activities, yet have a history of holding at arms-length.

When I mentioned pleasure dread, that strange combination of nervous laughter and nodding took a lap of recognition around our Zoom room. Evidently, it’s a thing.

Which raises some serious questions about our individual and collective relationship to enjoyment.

Just in case you’re wondering where I’m going with pleasure and enjoyment, we weren’t talking the sexual varieties of pleasure. It’s not that we were we avoiding the topic – it’s simply that the conversation went in other directions. What’s true is that, had we gone there, it’s likely we’d have landed in similar territory with only slightly different language.

In this case, the enjoyable stuff being chronically backburnered included making music, non-work-oriented reading, bicycling, hanging with friends, racquet sports, playing video games…

The common obstacle appeared as a strange, stanky fog of an endless need for productivity. Like if we even considered doing things perceived of as less-than-productive, red lights would flash and alarms would start howling.

It became quickly obvious that, where pleasure is concerned, our egos are on hair-trigger high alert, even while our inner children and adolescents are left neglected, hungry, and atrophying in their rooms.

Let’s be clear: this goes beyond the cliché that all work and no play makes Jack a dull fellow. We all know (cognitively, at least) that play, and the pleasure that goes along with it, sparks creativity, eases stress, and releases a whole mess o’ dopamine, endorphins, and other feel-good hormones.

There’s little downside to seeking out the pleasures of play… but damn that pleasure dread!

Play, if we want it to happen, sure seems to take some conscious effort.

I’m not sure a group of a dozen men qualifies as a statistically significant sampling, but I have a suspicion that if we gathered a hundred times that many men together, we’d find a lot of similarities and equal “desire to play/pleasure dread” ratios.

The mental minefield between over indexing on work and engaging in regular practices of play goes beyond simply being responsible for paying the bills. We’ve taken the demand for productivity-at-all-costs to pathological levels, and it’s biting us in the ass. From burnout to loneliness to lost and/or compromised friendships and intimate relationships – to say nothing of the compromised physical and mental health that get tossed into the mix – how many signals and signs does it take?

And we haven’t even gotten into our distorted notions of earning and deserving. That opens a very large can of fresh worms…

Our culture loves stories of overcoming, striving, and sacrifice – and the pull toward those stories is powerfully seductive, even addictive.

Personally, I know well how easy it can be to go there. I’ve managed (many times) to override every physical, mental, and emotional signal that tried to tell me that pouring more time and energy into work, that doing… just… one… more… thing… was the very last thing I needed to be doing.

In just about every instance, hindsight shows clearly that pleasure dread played a role.

Yes, great band name. But my goodness, what a painfully inadequate compass for navigating a life with a modicum of fulfillment.

I’ve made progress, but the old ways die hard, and there’s much to do and even more to stop doing. My practices include getting out on my bike, playing music, picking up a book, hanging with my family, and more enjoyable activities that give me joy and allow me to recover and reset.

I put it to you, Dear Readers, and particularly my fellow men, to find your own (make sure they’re your own!) practices to slow down and move away from the insatiable maw of endless productivity.

Not only will it lower your own levels of stress and give your adrenals a lovely break, it’ll also help an addicted culture heal.

Let me know what happens!