Pleasure guides us to better health. When experiences are enjoyable, we want more of them.
Our bodies tell us that sleep, reproduction, eating, companionship, and exercise – to name just a few of our common daily activities – are enjoyable. Our survival depends on engaging in these activities. And we define these basic actions as sources of fun or pleasure, and this may explain why we feel impelled to engage in them.
The brain has several pleasure centers which are activated by chemicals which speed satisfying sensations from one nerve to the next. Children the world over, when they are left alone to do what they choose, engage in endless hours of play. They pursue fun. Childhood may be the time in life when our brains are trained to experience pleasure. If we accomplish this task well as children, we may have healthier lives as adults — as long as we don’t lose the ability to play that we acquired in childhood.
Think about what children do when they play. They lose themselves in the pleasure of the moment. We have all observed children at play. They glow with pleasure — they shout, smile, and move their bodies. Engrossed in their world of play, they are aware of neither the past nor the future. There is only the moment. As adults, we also have an ability to shift our awareness from rational and logical concerns to a level which is freer and centered on the moment. People who can shift appropriately between the “there and then” to the “here and now” are good at reality testing and adapting to the demands of the world. They can draw on both their thought processes and their ability to take effective action. What would happen if these behaviors were not pleasurable? Eating would disappear and sleep would vanish. We could no longer survive.
Balance is the key to understanding the role of having fun vs. meeting real-world obligations in our lives.
We can’t really appreciate fun without the counterbalance of work and the responsibilities of living. And we can’t truly value our work until we incorporate fun into our lives. For example, we may appreciate eating ice cream as a real source of pleasure, but what if our diets consisted of nothing but ice cream? We would quickly tire of this source of pleasure and may even come to see it as noxious. Or to take another example, a vacation is pleasurable, but only if we have a job to go back to at the end of the vacation. A permanent vacation quickly loses its appeal as a source of pleasure, which is one reason why retirement is difficult for many people. The healthy life consists of a good balance between fun and everyday responsibilities.
Unfortunately, we live in an era when fewer of us seem to have time for fun. The work ethic reigns supreme for most of us. We put in overtime on the job, often without compensation, and two-income families have become the norm. What little time we have for ourselves is devoted to the chores of daily living. Our ancestors in the past lacked our labor-saving tools and technological advances, but they had more leisure time. It has been estimated that hunters/gatherers and those who practiced simple agriculture could provide for all of their necessities of living by working only four hours per day. The rest of their time was spent napping, chatting, relaxing, entertaining, and playing. For us today, leisure is a luxury. We seldom have time for ourselves or other people. While we may be more efficient, productive and organized today, we are less joyful, spontaneous and connected to other people.
Medical opinions these days have done a great deal to destroy our sense of fun. We know that we are supposed to exercise, so we join a gym or walk half an hour a day — but there may be no fun in it. It can become just another chore added to our already busy schedules. We deprive ourselves of the pleasures of eating — no salt, no fats, no sweets, minimal protein, fewer carbohydrates — when in truth we can enjoy many of these foods in moderation with no ill effects. The latest health prescriptions are often premature alarms which are not based on solid scientific thinking. Many of the studies are current for the moment, but the recommendations are later reversed by other evidence. For example, it is now known that people who are not at risk for hypertension or heart disease can safely enjoy salt on their food. And some types of cholesterol are good for us, as well as some types of fat (like fish oil). What we seem to forget is that incorporating pleasure into our lives is as healthy as most of the scientific recommendations based on depriving ourselves of pleasure.
Adulthood is seen by many as that time in life when pleasure should be reduced.
After all we have responsibilities — to the world, to our work, to our families. What we forget is that fun brings balance into our lives. We can work better when we can take a break and have a good time. And we can enjoy pleasurable activities better when they are special and outside of the ordinary routine of everyday life. To achieve a healthy balance between work and play is to affirm the wholeness of life.
Some Healthy Pleasures
Healthy pleasures have two characteristics:
- Balance. Pleasures lose their meaning if they are not counterbalanced by attending to life’s other responsibilities. Fun can happen when one takes a break from the normal routine. For example, eating delicious food, even “unhealthy” food, can be a healthy pleasure if it is done in moderation and on occasion. To base one’s entire diet on rich and calorie-laden foods, however, suggests possible addictive tendencies – and addictive behaviors fall outside of the realm of healthy pleasures. Addictions are self-destructive, while the aim of engaging in healthy pleasures is to enhance the diversity and enjoyment of life’s experiences.
- The Experience of the Moment. People who worry a lot, who are depressed, or who have difficulty with trust may find it hard to abandon themselves to pleasure. They may need to develop the ability to let go of worry and outside concerns in favor of immersing themselves in the moment. This is a skill that can be learned. Here are some suggestions for engaging in healthy pleasures, although this list is by no means complete. All of these sources of pleasure have been shown to result in benefits to our health.