Man in a kid pool getting sprayed with water by his family and friends

Healthy Pleasures

Patient: I’m not feeling any better.

Doctor: Are you sure you have given up everything you enjoy?

Imagine the world without pleasure. Life would appear colorless and humorless. A baby’s smile would go unappreciated. Foods would be tasteless. The beauty of a Bach concerto would fall on deaf ears. Feelings like joy, thrills, delights, ecstasy, elation and happiness would disappear. The company of others would not bring comfort and joy. The touch of a mother would not soothe, and a lover could not arouse. Interest in sex and procreation would dry up. The next generation would wait unborn.

Human beings evolved to seek enjoyment to enhance survival. What better way to assure that healthy, life-saving behaviors occur than to make them pleasurable? From eating to reproduction, from attending to the environment to caring for others, pleasure guides us to better health. Doing what feels right and feeling good are usually beneficial for health and the survival of the species.

Yet, at nearly every turn pleasure has gotten a bad name. People are almost phobic about having fun, increasingly viewing themselves as fragile, vulnerable, ready to develop cancer or heart disease at the slightest provocation. In the name of health people give up many of their life enjoyments. Compulsion, disruption, and disease lurk if we lapse.

Research and thinking in medicine and psychology reflect this pathological focus on the causes and treatment of disease, while virtually ignoring acts that build health. There is a strong anti-pleasure bias in medical research with a great amount of information about health hazards of pleasure and a scarcity of details about its health-promoting effects.

There are many more studies of the disastrous repercussions of life-long alcoholism than researches about the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. There are myriad studies about noise exposure but hardly a score on the therapeutic benefits of music. Researchers dwell on sexual dysfunction, the lethal dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, and catalogue thousands of sexual aberrations. However, they spell out little as to how a pleasurable sexual life contributes to well-being. We have to move beyond “Just Say No” to some positive messages about satisfying ways to improve health.

Don’t get us wrong. We recognize that exercising, not smoking or drinking to excess, wearing seat belts, avoiding extreme sunburn, all contribute to a long, healthy life. Even so, the sum total of all the “good health habits” still doesn’t add up to as much as we might believe and doesn’t explain the essential vitality of some people.

We have no quarrel with the evidence that some pleasures, like cigarette smoking, high alcohol consumption, addictive drugs, driving much too fast, are unhealthy and should be knocked off, whether you fancy them or not. Clearly some pleasures and some conditions are injurious to health. And some pleasures can become addictive compulsions, destroying lives, relationships, and pleasure itself.

The important point is that worrying too much about anything-including calories, salt, cancer, and cholesterol-can rob your life of vitality, and that living optimistically, with pleasure, zest, and commitment enriches if not lengthens life.

Some Healthy Pleasures

  • If the thought of surgery, hospitalization, or the dentist’s drill sends chills up your spine, you can try transcend-dental medication with sound. When music is played for patients before, during, or after surgery, it has been found to reduce anxiety, lessen pain, and speed recovery.
  • A whiff of spiced apple seems to modify the stress response: lower blood pressure, slower breathing, more relaxed muscles, and slower heart rate.
  • An afternoon nap may help us by-pass heart disease. One study found that those who routinely took a 30-minute afternoon nap were 30% less likely to suffer a heart attack.

Ornstein R, Sobel D: Healthy Pleasures, Addison-Wesley, 1989

Excerpted with permission from the Quarterly Newsletter, Mind/Body Health Newsletter. For subscription information call 1-(800)-222-4745 or visit the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge website.

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Written by David S. Sobel MD

Explore Wellness in 2021