Try to remember the last time you really enjoyed yourself? What were you doing? Who were you with? What did having fun feel like? Now, stay there in your mind for a minute and feel it in your body. What was that like?
Was this easy for you? Could you do it, but it was hard? Or maybe you couldn’t at all. If this exercise was difficult, chances are you often feel overwhelmed with stress, may have trouble feeling connected to others, and are generally having difficulty enjoying the life you have. You aren’t alone. We’re all so stressed with our day to day lives, the experiencing of pleasure may be small or non-existent. It’s not your fault, so don’t add this to the list of things you should do or should do better.
There are a few things happening here. First, we are wired to remember negative experiences and worry about possible threats to our safety (both physical and mental). This has likely kept us alive since the dawn of man.
Second, our culture tends to focus on the negative. How often does someone ask you, “What’s wrong?” We’re encouraged to “get it out”, “talk about it”, and otherwise talk about our pain, and what is going wrong in our lives until we feel better. In fact, as a therapist, that is one of the things we are taught in school. Enable people to talk about their problems and they will feel better. Sounds right, right? In fact, we are so accustomed to this, it is practically a habit for most of us.
There are a few problems with this habit of focusing on what is going wrong. For example, if you have told your story over and over, you know focusing on the pain often causes you to relive the painful experience and drudges up old feelings. That is unless you’ve told the story so many times you have become numb to it and that is something else altogether. Maybe it’s not a past experience, but something that is worrying you, so mind focuses on that worry all of the time causing anxiety and the more you talk and think about it, the worse you feel.
I’m not saying talking about problems is a bad thing. I’m simply saying it should not be the focus of our being and needs to be balanced with feelings of strength, empowerment and enjoyment. Focusing on the pain, what is going wrong, and negative feelings can leave us feeling overwhelmed, stuck, helpless and exhausted, and can lead us to feeling like we “can’t”. A shift toward orienting to pleasure some of the time, leaves us feeling like we can. We can better handle emotions, stress and feel competent in our lives.
This is slightly different than focusing on being positive, though genuine positivity doesn’t hurt either. While humans are wired to remember pain, and danger we are also wired to feel pleasure, enjoyment and connection. We are meant to feel good, and meant to heal. It is different than thinking positive per se, because it is actually feeling more positive rather than telling ourselves something we may not believe or be able to buy into. This is powerful news. It is absolutely possible for you to do this, and it is important to learn how to make this connection. Connecting to healthy pleasure reduces the effects of stress, makes us more resilient, increases physical health and increases our quality of life.
Because most of us are in the habit of focusing on pain and unpleasant aspects of life, it can require learning and practice to be able to recognize, truly connect to and enjoy pleasurable experiences. First, it is important to know the difference between healthy pleasure and potentially addictive, unhealthy pleasure. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference because some unhealthy things feel good, but harm you. For example, bingeing on food or substances, gambling and porn can trigger the pleasure centers of our brains, but are addictive, and damaging to our bodies, minds and relationships.
Healthy pleasure is simple, and all around us. Here are some pointers on how to access and benefit from the enjoyment of pleasurable activities.
1. Be present in your life. This means, notice what you are doing when you are doing it. Don’t let your mind wander on to other things.
2. Allow yourself to connect to the sensation of pleasure in your body.
3. If you are in the presence of something pleasurable, be an observer. Notice what you are doing, and then notice how you feel in your body. Try to focus on the sensation of pleasure in your body for at least 30 seconds. An example of this is, many people feel warmth in their chest when they feel happy. It may be different for you.
If you practice these things, it will help you to hold on to the feeling of pleasure longer, notice when you are experiencing something enjoyable, and with practice over time, you will notice you are enjoying more of your life and your experience of stress and pain will have diminished because you have gained a greater capacity to manage those things in your life. Even if it is difficult for you to find enjoyment in anything, it is possible. You can start small. Notice the beauty around you. What is that experience like for you?
Here are some more examples of healthy pleasurable activities to help you: going for a walk in nature, reading, taking a warm bath, looking at beautiful pictures, listening to music, dancing, cooking, creating, planning a vacation (even if you aren’t going to take it), talking to friends, pursing an interest, having a creative outlet, looking out a window, playing with a pet, spending time with people you like, and playing games.
I often recommend to my clients to track their pleasurable activities on a pleasant activity calendar for a week or longer until noticing pleasure becomes a habit. I ask people to write down at least one pleasant activity a day, how they felt emotionally and physically before, during and after the activity, and any thoughts connected to the activity afterward. It’s good to have fun.
If you find you are having difficulty enjoying your life, and would like support in orienting to pleasure and reducing your stress and pain, please call or e-mail be and I can help you to get the most out of your life at any age.