Why We Need Emotional Pleasure

Find out why doing what we enjoy makes us healthier.

Emotional pleasure is not about exciting concerts or roller coaster rides. It's about feeling utterly relaxed and involved with whatever you're doing. This kind of pleasure is an emotional experience, not just sensory stimulation. It involves all of you and is the opposite of zoning out by sitting down with a beer or bowl of chips.

Emotional pleasure puts you in a good mood and holds you in a state of deep interest. The activity may not be easy, but it is extremely satisfying to do. In a state of emotional pleasure, it feels like you've got all you need and more is coming.

Nevertheless, we might feel embarrassed to admit what we like. We might compare what we love to do with other sanctioned activities and come away feeling like time-wasters. This is because popular activities are likely to involve other people and involve some measure of travel. But this emphasis on new horizons can blind us to what is available to us right now. We don't have to wait for the flashier emotions of joy and bliss. Emotional pleasure is a smaller, subtler thing and, like hope, a thing with feathers.

Before we had so many options for activities, people used to enjoy quieter, simpler pursuits. During times of isolation, we can still call upon these emotional pleasures to fulfill us. We can muse about who we are and who we want to be, nourishing a self-dedication that is lost in busier times. We can indulge in knowledge for its own sake. We can make things with our hands even if we will never sell them and research things even if we'll never have a quiz.

Curiosity is a sufficient motive, and reading becomes an immersion experience, not something to crowd in before the next book club. We can enjoy being instead of doing. We can gaze out the window and feel replete. Walking can become an awakening, not just moving ourselves from one place to another. Once we become aware of our need for immersive activities, we can practice them when social activity is less available.

Uncomplicated moments of emotional pleasure are not wasting time; they decrease stress and eliminate boredom. It might be as simple as a jigsaw puzzle or as complex as oil painting; as easy as reading a magazine or as demanding as digging holes. But whatever we enjoy doing feeds both our mental and physical health.

Emotional pleasure eases our nervous system into a state of safety and fulfillment, which is the very opposite of the fight-flight-freeze stress response. In this calm and gratifying state of emotional pleasure, the body begins healing and lowering inflammation.

When you're feeling good, your body stores up energy reserves. Think of it as replenishing your inventory and tidying up the warehouse before the next onslaught of orders. Too often we are taught that the only way to get ahead is to push ourselves beyond our reserves and worry about catching up later. We keep promising deliveries even if we don't have the inventory. We insist on accepting all demands and then find ourselves in a chronic state of running behind as we scramble to maximize future profits.

Running ourselves like a business puts a strain on our stress system, sharpening our vigilance and stretching us too thin. One health researcher, Dr. Janet Hranicky, warns against shutting down our desires for emotional pleasure and neglecting the activities that make us feel good.

When we put a freeze on pursuing pleasure, we increase our tension and fatigue. Instead of taking frequent breaks to do something emotionally rewarding, we keep emphasizing productivity, trying to finish up everything in a fruitless quest to get free of guilt and worry. But freedom from guilt and worry occurs naturally whenever we seek emotionally enjoyment.

A driven lifestyle is not just unpleasant, it is unhealthy. We will never catch up that way. Pushing ourselves without regular infusions of pleasurable pastimes sets us up for emotional exhaustion. This is what the old expression, "A change is as good as a rest," means. Our brains require interludes of enjoyment, allowing us respites from the pressure of stress and preventing burn out.

Allow yourself to discover what you really like to do in your free time. You don't have to put enjoyment on hold until everything else is done. It feels great to do something pleasurable that doesn't increase your marketability. Find out what you would do if you didn't have to self-create your own value.

Emotional pleasure restocks your inner shelves, so you'll be ready for the future. There's nothing frivolous about it: for a small investment, it brings huge psychological and physical benefits. Be honest with yourself about what leaves you with a sense of satisfaction. Don't refuse these opportunities just because they're not on your agenda; your health and well being depend on them.

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and Who You Were Meant To Be. Visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.

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