Finding pleasure in life plays a very important role in our happiness.
For some this may seem obvious. Of course happiness is about “feeling good” and experiencing positive and pleasurable experiences. The more pleasure, the better. How can that not be the case?
For others this may seem despicable. Seeking pleasure is indulgent and selfish. It can’t truly bring happiness, because we are always chasing after our next desire, like a drug addict looking for his next fix.
Both of these views are partly right and partly wrong. Some philosophers have even coined this problem the “pleasure paradox.”
However, recent scientific studies on the nature of pleasure are now revealing exactly how we can make the most of pleasure in our lives and its relationship to our overall happiness.
Here are the main findings:
Moderate your pleasurable experiences
Pleasurable experiences are more valuable to us when we are able to abstain from them for short periods of time.
This is because our pleasure often follows a law of diminishing returns: the first piece of cake you eat tastes better than the second one; and as you eat more it’s going to become less and less pleasurable to you.
In a 2013 study published by Harvard psychologists Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth W. Dunn, it was found that individuals who took a 1 week break from chocolate (Group 1) reported a more pleasurable experience the next time they had chocolate when compared to individuals who were told to gorge on chocolate for the week (Group 2) or who weren’t told any special instructions (Control Group).
Being able to moderate our pleasurable experiences allows us to appreciate them more when they happen.
Treat moments as if they are your last
New research is showing that we have a “positivity bias” toward last experiences.
In a 2012 study published in Psychological Science, psychologists found that participants were more likely to rate a piece of chocolate as more pleasurable when they were told it was their “last one” rather than their “next one.”
This is because when we think something is going to be our last experience, we try to make the most out of it while we can, thus we’re more motivated to savor it. We tend to want things to end on a happy note.
Imagine if we treated all of our pleasure experiences as if they could be our last? This attitude could help us make the most of every experience.
Focus on positive sensations
All pleasure boils down to a physical experience through our senses, like sight, sound, taste, smell, or touch.
Meditation is a great exercise to become more attuned to our body and senses. Many people experience sharpened awareness when they improve their focus through breathing meditation or other mind-body exercises (Yoga/Tai Chi/Alexander Technique).
In one 2011 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers found that individuals who took a 12-week mindfulness training class reported increased sexual satisfaction and higher arousal in response to sexual stimuli.
Another ground-breaking 2006 study published in Neuroreport found that mindfulness meditation can lead to long-lasting structural changes in areas of the brain associated with sensory, cognitive, and emotional processing (a growth in grey matter).
These studies indicate that disciplined meditation can have a real effect on heightening our senses and the way we process our experiences.
And increased engagement and focus + pleasurable experience = an even more heightened pleasurable experience.
Pleasure is not synonymous with “happiness”
A life filled with pleasure is important to happiness, but certainly not the only factor.
Of course we have to give ourselves permission to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, but we also have to take into account the potential risks and costs, and the bigger picture behind our actions.
We wouldn’t want to throwaway a marriage because of a one night stand, or ruin our lives by abusing drugs. That kind of pleasure-seeking is ultimately destructive and unhealthy.
Try to find pleasure in relatively safe and low risk situations. And keep in mind that balance is key.
Learn more knowledge and tools in psychology in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement