Greg Bruce set out to find the limits of pleasure, then he went beyond them.

My wife came home from a one-hour massage a couple of months ago and when I asked how it went she said a massage was the type of thing you could never get sick of.

It's not hard to test a proposition like that in a job like mine. You send an email to a PR person and there's some back and forth about logistics and next thing it's Friday morning and you're lying in a 38 degree Cleopatra milk bath in a dimly lit room with seven hours of purest social science ahead of you.

East Day Spa's lead therapist was not initially too keen on the idea. She emailed the PR person: "That is too much stimulation for the body. You are adding and using oils which detox and stimulate the body internally as well as manipulation of muscles, bringing toxins into his body. This will create a reaction whether it be straight after the treatment or when he gets home.

"He could even get very, very sick from it, like a cold or something similar."


Getting a cold was the opposite of what I wanted, so we compromised. Instead of an all-day massage, I would have a range of treatments: 30-minute Cleopatra Milk Bath, 45-minute sandalwood drench scrub, 30-minute coconut and vanilla creme body wrap, 90-minute aromatherapy massage, 90-minute facial, 60-minute manicure, including a neck and shoulder rub, some lunch from Gusto at SkyCity Grand and a piccolo of Moet.

Seven hours is a ludicrous amount of time to spend having massages and massage-related treatments bu,t because time compresses during pleasurable experiences and again in retrospect, it doesn't feel ludicrous. It would now - I assume - be hard for me to have something as prosaic as a one-hour massage. Another way of looking at it - I have ruined something I used to like.

For most of the day I was dressed only in a pair of enormous black paper underpants. By the time I got to the facial, which took place in what I assume was the early afternoon, my sense of time was entirely warped. It was years since I had gone so long without access to a clock or window and at some point I entered a borderland between consciousness and sleep and wandered around there, disoriented and delighted.

Did I ever get sick of it? Of course I didn't. The only negative emotion I had all day - and the first time this happened was with more than six hours to go - was sadness at the thought it would soon be over.

A far more interesting question is, "Did it make me happy?"

Here are some of the positive experiences it gave me: anticipation, relaxation, pleasurable tactile sensation, human connection, gratitude, dissolution of time. Do any of those things comprise "happiness"? Which ones? In what ratio?

At home that night, I felt good - not as good, I think, as if I'd had a productive day at work, or completed a DIY project, or organised a great birthday for my wife but if you'd asked me during the day whether I'd have rather been doing any of those things, I would've said your annoying questions were ruining my massage.

We love pleasure and we spend a lot of our lives chasing it and that's strange because we don't value it very highly. We know this because parents often say they want their children to be happy but never say they want their children to lead lives of pleasure.

Pleasure has many stupid aspects. It is what they call in the literature a "fast decay" experience. In other words, "What's this pleasant experience doing for me, other than making me feel good in this precise moment?" Once it's over, all we're left with is the desire to do it again.


Research has also shown that pleasure isn't as enjoyable as we think it is. There are more and stronger pathways in the brain available for desiring pleasurable acts than there are for enjoying them. In other words, we're not chasing the rewards pleasure gives us - we're chasing the rewards we get from wanting it.

Researchers in Germany in 2010 conducted a study comparing the happiness of the employed and the unemployed, called "Dissatisfied with Life, but Having a Good Day".

What they found was that when both groups are doing the same activity, the unemployed feel sadder. But maybe because the unemployed get to spend more time doing activities they enjoy and less time standing in meetings in shared workspaces with people they hate, their total quantity of lived happiness - what the researchers called "average experienced utility" - is about the same as that of the employed. Finally, the study found the unemployed are less satisfied with their lives overall.

So which of these measures - life satisfaction, moment-to-moment happiness, total quantity of happiness - are we talking about when we talk about happiness? Or are we talking about something else altogether? And, oh dear God, does any of this matter?

The all-day massage was the climax of a week-long project in which I tested the nature and limits of pleasure.

I spent all of Monday reading a critically acclaimed novel and all of Tuesday watching a critically-acclaimed television series. I had contacted the Auckland Council to get their mowing schedule so I could spend all Thursday morning smelling fresh-cut grass but then it rained, so I sat by myself in my 1996 Daihatsu Mira in the Bastion Point carpark and watched the lawnmowers through my increasingly foggy windscreen. I ate my favourite burger every day and I ate five large bags of my favourite gourmet popcorn across the week.

I had spent weeks thinking about what book I would read. I had a long and delightful email exchange about it with the rightly-lauded bookseller Jenna Todd of Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden. I had never before read a whole novel in a day and the prospect filled me with a feeling I used to be confident I knew the name of.

I built a file of prospective titles; I discussed ideas with friends. Eventually, on Todd's recommendation, I settled on just-released, short-priced favourite for the Booker Prize, Normal People.

Before I could sit down to read it on Monday morning, I had to run the juggernaut of hugs, kisses and tears that is saying goodbye to my three children. This is one of the hardest parts of being a daddy. It takes so long.

Once I was free, I sank into the beanbag by the glass doors, the heat pump set to 24, luxuriating in the solitude, the prospect of eight hours of solid reading ahead of me. It was hard to remember the last time I felt so strongly whatever it was I was feeling.

Full engagement in the world of a novel necessarily involves the loss of self-consciousness and, if what that brings is not happiness, it is at least an absence of happiness's rough antagonists - anxiety, guilt and disappointment.

A few weeks after I read it, Normal People, the overwhelming favourite to win the Booker Prize, failed to even make the shortlist.

I felt a lot of guilt on Tuesday, but none more so than at 5pm when I looked down at my recumbent, blanket-covered form disgraced with the remnants of two large bags of Serious Popcorn's sweet and salty varietal while I listened to my wife upstairs, struggling under the bitter load of early evening childcare, being screamed at by three children who were also screaming at each other.

I had, since 8am, been lying downstairs on the leather couch with the TVmoved in close, a blanket under me to warm my bottom and another on top, while the entirety of Fargo season two played out before me.

I remember, as a child in the mid-1980s watching What Now in my pyjamas at 9am on a Saturday and having my dad tell me I was wasting the day. I have internalised that critique and carried it into middle age, so while Fargo held my attention and its story compelled me, there was part of me that would not allow itself to be twisted toward pleasure.

Compelling storytelling involves a relatively simple equation: how many questions are up in the air, for how long, and how intense is the emotion embodied in their potential and eventual resolution? But storytelling doesn't happen independent of its environment.

Greg Bruce, with a book, in the Cleopatra milk bath at East Day Spa.
Greg Bruce, with a book, in the Cleopatra milk bath at East Day Spa.

I was supposed to have finished by 4.30pm but hadn't, so I pushed on until 5.40pm. During that period, for any childcarer, every minute is 100 hours long. As a result, the satisfaction of the gripping resolution of Fargo season two will always be tainted for me, and probably more so for my wife, who has still yet to see it.

After my week of pleasure, I skyped with Dan Haybron, world-renowned happiness expert, professor of philosophy and author of the excellent Happiness: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press).

It was a warm, late afternoon in Saint Louis where he lives and he was sitting outside on his deck, surrounded by trees and other pleasant greenery, talking about a subject he loves and has devoted his life to. I could feel and appreciate the pleasure he took from it. Much of what he told me has already appeared in this article without anything approaching the sort of attribution he would demand of even his worst undergrad students.

One of the most interesting things he told me about was the growing research into the idea that - contra much psychological therapy - we spend most of our mental lives in the future.

A notable study in the field, which buzzed 500 people at random times to ask about their thoughts, found they were thinking about the future three times more than the past. Even when they were thinking about the past, they were typically thinking about its implications for the future.

When you think about it, there's already plenty of evidence for this. Overseas holidays - which we continue to take in spite of the fact they're spent predominantly in delays, anxiety, bus trips, arguments with taxi drivers, carbon footprint creation and queuing - are one clue that, if we're thinking at all about the past, we're not doing it well.

I believe this is a survival mechanism, evolved in order to deal with the fact our past will eventually contain, if it doesn't already, too much pain.

I spent most of Wednesday engaged with the poster child of science-backed, research-tested happiness boosting exercises: gratitude journaling.

Many, many studies indicate the many positive benefits of writing down things we're grateful for. They suggest maximising the benefits by writing down a handful of things once a week but I only had one week so I had to squeeze as much as possible out of my single available window. I ended up writing down more than 100 things I'm grateful for, three times more words than appear in this article.

At lunchtime, I took a break and went to Burger Burger Newmarket, where I ate one of their beef burgers, my single favourite foodstuff, while listening to the restaurant's terrible playlist.

When, during the writing of this article, I tried to recall the burger, I could taste its fatty goodness and pillowy doughness, could picture myself at that table, wiping sauce from my beard, wondering what it was about Will Smith's Gettin' Jiggy Wit It that had once made it so popular.

When I tried to recall my words of gratitude, though, I could recall not a single one. I had to go back and read over them.

I had written a lot of crap, particularly once I'd got clear of all the low-hanging fruit about my wife and family. I wrote, for instance, that I'm grateful for electric blankets, hand cream, nice accommodation I've stayed in, and the gold medals New Zealand has won at the Olympics

Assuming I really do feel gratitude for those things, and their inclusion wasn't just stream-of-consciousness pollution, could that gratitude be considered remotely the same as the gratitude I feel for my children and family? Or was I just using a remotely approximate noun for wildly disparate experiences because the English language is inadequate?

Here's how I expressed my gratitude for the cuddliness of my 18-month-old son: "Zanna got him up from his nap and he came running into the lounge where I was sitting on the floor and he had bare legs but his face was red and his body was warm from the sleep and he just fell against me there on the floor, his warm little body pressed against me, and put his warm red face in my neck and stayed there. Zanna went out to the kitchen, made a sandwich, brought it back in and he was still there in the same position. Something like that could go on forever."

I really am grateful for the intense relief I sometimes get from Aveeno Active Naturals hand cream but it's a very different thing.

Toward its end, the journal began to take on a half-baked teenage stoner aesthetic: "I'm grateful for nostalgia," I wrote, "for that feeling of warmth and the holding alive of moments that have passed, although increasingly I'm not sure they've passed, not entirely, because I know just enough about Einstein and Stephen Hawking to know that the nature of time is not exactly what we think it is and because I've been having memories lately about dreams I remember having years ago and they just pop back into my head and I know that memory is malleable, so I know that what has happened has always been happening and will always happen, eternal recurrence. This is the meaning of time, the nature of time. We have no idea about time. For these reasons, along with its gentle warmth and light sadness, I'm grateful for nostalgia."

I went on embarrassingly like that, presumably because I had a head of steam up, then I wrote: "Actually, maybe nostalgia is like training wheels for grief."

Eight days after I wrote those words, my dad called me from North Shore Hospital to say he'd "had a turn" in the night and been taken to hospital. He told me the doctors were talking about putting a pacemaker in, probably the following week. A few hours after that, the hospital called us in. An hour or so after that, he died.

I had approached my week of pleasure with extreme rigour. I didn't see it as a frivolity. It was a premeditated, predetermined attempt to extract maximum pleasure out of a particular period of time. How ridiculous.

I revoke my gratitude for nostalgia. I revoke my gratitude. I revoke this whole stupid project and the trivial, foolish pursuit of pleasure. Nothing is "training wheels for grief".

After the children were in bed on Thursday night, exactly one week before my father died, I told my wife we were going to have a meaningful conversation: "Oh, greaaaat!" she said, sarcastically. "A meaningful conversation!"

We used a conversation-starting app from the Gottman Institute, founded by noted relationship expert John Gottman, who was made famous by his extensive appearance in the Malcolm Gladwell book Blink.

The app got us talking about our hopes for the future. We talked about Zanna's to start with, which were mostly about our children and that kind of thing, then for much longer about mine, which were mostly about becoming rich and lauded.

I enjoyed it but after 45 minutes I felt as if we both wanted to watch TV, so we did. This could have been an environmental issue, because we were sitting on the couch in the lounge, where we always watch TV.

I have no recollection of what we watched.

Of all the pleasurable things I did during the week, this was the only one that involved Zanna, or - now I think of it - anyone else at all.