Daily Pleasure

A French journalist asked me last week why it was that Cantabrians are such an up-beat lot in the middle of the earthquake mess. The question prompted me to think about what makes us happy. Martin Seligman thinks (with good evidence to back up his thought) that there are some behaviors that are sure to make us feel happy (even if just for a little while). One is counting our blessings and the other is doing something nice for someone else. I don’t know of another place where more of these two is going on. Every conversation about earthquake-related issues (and most conversations have some of that) includes a statement about how lucky we are (to be alive, to have a home, to have a workplace or a job), and the quantity of kindness that is being spread around is overcountable!

This led me to think more about happiness and life satisfaction. What hard times we are living through – the significant disruptions to our lives caused by the earthquake saga continue to harass, inconvenience, distress, shock, and disorient us. I imagine that an opinion poll would reveal a decline in our general life satisfaction in the past 10 months. What to do about it? Well, we know that physical pleasure is associated with our life satisfaction, although the effects are short-lived. Cognitive science has shown us that fundamental physical pleasures associated with taste, touch, smell, and hearing, and higher-order pleasures associated with social connection, being kind, or feeling thankful have the same basis in our brains. We also know that, without sufficient pleasure, we run the risk of becoming unhappy – even depressed. So, there is a direct link between experiencing pleasure and being happy and satisfied with life, and an obvious strategy to cope with our current life stressors is to ensure that we experience pleasure daily.

The problem is that we’re so busy just getting through the difficult days that we’re ignoring our need for pleasure. Not only that – lots of our familiar daily pleasures are no longer available. The gym has gone, the local café has gone, friends and family have moved, CBD workers re-settled in the suburbs have lost their access to the social buzz that was part of their daily lives, and favourite shops have gone. This means that we have to reorient ourselves to finding our old pleasures elsewhere, or finding new pleasures. I’m tired just at the thought of the effort involved…

However, it probably isn’t as hard as it sounds. We miss lots of little pleasures just because we’re so busy missing the big ones and feeling bad about that. I’ve been trying to notice the little pleasures and have been surprised by how many there are – if I slow down for a moment and become aware of my every-moment experience, I notice little pleasures I usually miss. The flavors and smells of my food, the colours of the sky or the land or people’s clothing, the feeling of warmth when I’m cold, the flow of conversation with a friend, realizing I have a few free hours – they’re pleasureable, and I’m starting to deliberately create these experiences just because they feel good. When I keep up the good feelings and put them together with decent sleep, a bit of exercise and eating well, I know I’m doing my bit to keep myself healthy and happy.

Fran Vertue is a clinical psychologist, practicing at the Child and Family Psychology Centre in Christchurch. You can learn more about her and her work at www.christchurchpsychology.co.nz.


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