Entire volumes are written on the pleasures of eating and drinking, sex, or meditation, but the pleasures of evacuation, though frequent and free, barely ever get a look in.
Natural versus vain desires
The Ancient philosopher Epicurus recognized that pleasures generally arise from the satisfaction of desires, and distinguished between two different types of desire, ‘natural desires’ and ‘vain desires’. Natural desires can either be necessary, such as the desires for food and shelter, or unnecessary, such as the desires for luxury food and accommodation. Vain desires, such as the desires for fame, power, or wealth, differ from natural desires is that they are (1) inculcated by society, (2) not urgent, (3) not naturally limited, and (4) neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy. To minimize the pain and anxiety of harbouring unfulfilled desires, one should submit to necessary natural desires while detaching oneself from unnecessary natural desires and entirely avoiding vain desires. In other words, if you want to be happier, stop being so ambitious and make more of your time on the toilet.
Moving versus static pleasures
Epicurus also distinguished between two different types of pleasure, ‘moving pleasures’ and ‘static pleasures’. Moving pleasures involve the satisfying of a desire, for example, eating a meal when hungry. Static pleasures on the other hand involve the state of comfort that arises from having had a desire satisfied, for example, feeling sated after having eaten the meal. Static pleasures are better than moving pleasures because they free us from the discomfort of need or want. Evacuation, like eating and sex, clearly leads to both types of pleasure; and though the static pleasure is the greater, the moving pleasure is the more intense, and the more neglected.
The physical pleasures of pooing
Defecation involves complex physical, physiological, and psychological processes. At a physical level, the colon propels stool into the rectum, leading to rectal distension and reflex relaxation of the internal anal sphincter. At this point, the urge to defecate leads to the voluntary relaxation of the external anal sphincter, with the stool expelled by peristaltic waves and the combined action of the pelvic floor muscles, abdominal wall, diaphragm, and expiratory chest muscles. The urge to defecate can be successfully resisted, with the stool returned into the rectum by reverse peristalsis. But repeated postponement leads to hardening of the stool and, eventually, constipation. Relaxation of the external anal sphincter is linked with relaxation of the urethral sphincter: once the feces have been extruded, urination signals that defecation is at an end. The act of defecation is intensely physical, and offers some of the same rewards, and risks, as exercise.
The anus is rich in nerve endings that are stimulated by the passage of feces. But more importantly, defecation fires up the enteric nervous system, the mesh-like system of neurons that inhabits the gut. Though the effect of this action remains unclear, the enteric nervous system contains over thirty neurotransmitters, including about 50% of the body’s dopamine and more than 90% of the body’s serotonin. Activation of parasympathetic afferents from the gut leads to a fall in blood pressure and heart rate, often accompanied by feelings of light-headedness and euphoria. Rarely, the fall in blood pressure can lead to loss of consciousness, so-called ‘defecation syncope’. The relaxing effect of defecation is heightened by the withdrawal and seclusion offered by the toilet. Toilet time, like prayer or meditation, offers a hiatus from the pressure and tumult of everyday life, or just a few moments to catch up with phone messages.
Relaxation goosebumps brought on by defecation may be accompanied by a tingling or shivering sensation that begins at the back of the head and runs down the neck and spine. A similar phenomenon is also experienced towards the end of urination, as the sympathetic nervous system acts to restore blood pressure. These ‘pee shakes’ are more common in men, perhaps because men usually pee in the standing position and therefore require a bigger sympathetic kick. Urine is generally odourless but certain foods can lend it a more or less appealing aroma. Among my favourite pee smells are asparagus and the French oak found in certain barrel-aged wines. Feces on the other hand never smell appealing. Oddly, many people enjoy the fragrance of their own farts, but not, generally, that of other people’s. This could be because other people’s farts are a vector of disease, whereas our own bacterial bouquet, assuming no one is around, cannot do us much harm.
Sigmund Freud identified the anus as the most important source of pleasure in the so-called anal stage of psychosexual development. For Freud, potty training represents a child’s first conflict with authority, and establishes his or her future relationship with all forms of authority. Even in adult life, successful evacuation—especially involving big, well-formed feces—evokes positive feelings such as achievement, mastery, and pride. Happy defecation in the face of diarrhoea, constipation, haemorrhoids, and so many other potential problems is no mean feat. Happy defecation is a testament to health and vitality, and an endorsement of lifestyle choices involving diet, fluid intake, exercise, stress management, and much else besides. As a medical student, I literally learnt how to read poo, and few people, I think, can resist peeking at their poo.
But now you’ll never see it in the same way again.