Sara Speed, LMHC
The Pleasure Principle
Many people seek therapy looking for the meaning of life, grasping at the meaning of their life. What is my purpose? Why am I here? What is the reason for all of this? If you search the depths of your heart you may come up with answers like human connection, self-expression, generosity, love, or success.
Whatever you feel resonates most with you, the one thing that all of these have in common is a feeling of warmth and satisfaction, an intangible yet intoxicating sensation of yes, this feels good. This… is pleasure.
So, what is the actual definition of pleasure anyway?
How can I know if I am experiencing it, not to mention getting enough of it if I don’t even know what it means? According to Merriam-Webster, pleasure is, “a state of gratification, frivolous amusement, a source of delight or joy.”
Can you remember the last time you felt delight? How large of a part has frivolous amusement played in your life lately? Right, that’s what I thought. With the mounting pressures of an overly complex world, pleasure seems to take more and more of a backseat in our endless to-do list of responsibilities and priorities. Knowing however, that overall balance is key to mental well-being and life satisfaction in the long-term, it’s time to put pleasure back in the spotlight.
American culture, as well as many other cultures around the world have put an increasing emphasis on people’s accomplishments. These accomplishments are often measured by external factors like the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the number of “0’s” in your bank account, or letters after your name.
With the pressure to learn more, achieve more, earn more, there seems to be less and less time to experience joy and pleasure. And after all, isn’t that what all that work is for anyway?! To give us the stability and opportunity to enjoy ourselves? Unfortunately, the drive to achieve and gain often turns into an empty loop of “more,” or, “I’ll be happy when…” that fun, delight, and pleasure get crowded out of our lives or seem to exist in perpetuity just over that next hill.
It is important to understand that there are many kinds of pleasure available to us every day so try not to get too caught up on an ideal of pleasure having to be expensive or grandiose. Opportunities surround us all the time, we just need to pay attention.
For example, that first bite of food when you are starving. The feeling of crawling into your bed after a long day. A new movie coming out that you are dying to see. How about when your dog jumps up on the couch and curls up beside you? Or when your child says, “I love you!” Though it is easy to see how major life events or accomplishments can be a source of pleasure, in actuality it is the little things like this that create a life rich with joy and fulfillment.
Being overwhelmed by daily demands or mental health struggles like depression, anxiety, or trauma can cause a numbness to pleasure, an immunity to the “warm fuzzies” that make life worth living.
A common assignment I give my clients is to document three positives from each day before they go to sleep at night.
With a world so threatening and demanding, we become pros at spotting the dangers and the negatives and slowly become blind to the positives, which I like to call, “glimmers.” Make no mistake, we are surrounded by a fairly even balance of both every day, positive and negative. It is what you choose to notice and focus on that dictates your life experience.
This task forces the brain to become more sensitive to the glimmers as it consciously scans your day and interactions seeking something to document each night. It re-sensitizes you to the positive, and even encourages you to create some glimmers of your own in an effort to complete your assignment.
Some of my other favorite “glimmers” are:
When you slow down and allow someone to enter the highway in front of you, and then notice the faint outline of their hand come up through their rear window in the universal, “Hey, thanks man!” signal.
Or when someone goes out of their way to hold a door open for you, or looks you right in the eye and says, “Thanks!” when you do it for them.
Then there is the gardenia bush I pass by when I’m walking my dog in the morning and for a split second, I can almost swear I am in my grandma’s lap watching Saturday morning cartoons.
What about the heaven of that first sip of overly priced iced coffee as the sweetness dances on your tongue and you tingle with excitement of the caffeine rush to come?
To me, this is pleasure. It is easy to see how the grand events in life can bring joy, like the promotion at work or birth of a child, but it is these tiny details, these glimmers that compose the story of our lives.
How to create opportunities for more pleasure in life (aka “glimmers”):
When in doubt as to which rock to look under to find pleasure, I encourage you to tune into your senses, the simpler the better just like the examples above.
Another great way to create a sense of gratification and connection to the world and your purpose is acts of service.
As Ghandi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service to others.” And remember you don’t have to volunteer for forty hours per week to be of service.
An act of service can be taking the extra time to tell someone they did a great job or being intentional about making eye contact and smiling when you pass someone in the grocery store.
An act of service is any action in which you go out of your way or step out of your comfort zone to make someone else feel good. Sometimes nothing brings more pleasure for you than creating it for someone else.
And keep in mind, depression and anxiety can be very self-centered states in which it is often hard to see beyond the bubble of your own unhappiness. Assisting or bringing delight to someone else can be a great step toward popping that bubble and rejoining the world around you.
Now that you’ve got a pretty darn good idea of what pleasure is and how simple it can be to find it and create it, an important point must be made… to experience pleasure you must first believe that you are worthy of it.
Ask yourself, “Do I deserve happiness?”
“Am I allowed to feel proud?”
“Do I get to have butterflies in my belly, the warm blush of flirtation, or wild giggles of excitement?”
Make no mistake, pleasure must be claimed and to do so you must have an innate sense that you are worthy of it. And this is where therapy can be particularly helpful. Our feelings of worthiness are rooted deep into our early life experiences in what we observe in our homes, our relationships with our primary caregivers, what is written on our souls long before we ever have a choice of our own.
Speaking with a therapist can help you unravel the tangles of a life hard lived to help you accept the fact that, YES you too deserve to feel good. Not because you are a surgeon, or a minister, or a supermodel. Simply because you are here. You are a living, breathing soul on this planet who has just as much a right to be here as anyone else.
A trained therapist can help you find your value, your worthiness of pleasure. Together they can guide you on spotting the “glimmers” in your own day-to-day life. According to the infamous poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, “Pleasure is the only thing one should live for, nothing ages like happiness.”