It is hard to be against pleasure. You could probably run for office on the “More pleasure less pain” platform and pick up some votes. Sigmund Freud called it the Pleasure Principle. We all want to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Of course, some of the things we do for pleasure are not always that good for us and may cause us some pain later on. But, while most people are wary of future pain that usually doesn’t stop them from the pursuit of momentary pleasures. After all, the pursuit of happiness is in the Declaration of Independence.
Unfortunately, I ran across some disturbing news about pleasure. While I could keep it to myself, I do feel a need to share it. Not just because misery likes company, although there is some truth there, but also because I do have some thoughts about how to deal with the news. Like a lot of news items, we can hope that in the future this information will be reversed. But for now, here it comes.
Laurence Steinberg, PhD is a brain researcher and in looking at some teenage brains he noticed their nucleus accumbens was enlarged. This probably means as much to you as it does to me. But, what it means to him is that, the nucleus accumbens, also known as the pleasure center of the brain, is maximally extended during our teen years. What that means for you and I is summed up by Dr. Steinberg: “Nothing—whether it’s being with your friends, having sex, licking an ice –cream cone, zipping along in a convertible on a warm summer evening, hearing your favorite music – will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenage.”
Okay, there is the bad news. As good as we are going to feel it is not going to compare with highs of our teen years. Doesn’t matter whether we win the lottery, get the corner office, find the ideal mate and parent the perfect children. Our fullest sense of pleasure has already peaked for most of us. While we still may be able to feel great pleasure it is not going to have the full body effect that it did in our adolescence.
Of course, those years had their lows. But, whatever highs they had are the ones that are going to remain on your short list. Sure you might learn how to appreciate pleasure and have greater appreciation for life’s pleasures, but at your most evolved grateful self, you are still going to not max out like you once did.
But, the important thing here to realize is it is that the “Is this all there is?” feeling is not an indicator of your dissatisfaction with your life, but rather just your diminished ability to feel as good about something as you once could have felt. That convertible ride, even if it is in a better car and a better driving companion, is not going to feel as cool as it once did.
That doesn’t mean you don’t take the car out for a spin. It just means your enjoyment now hums along at a lower volume. The things you do that give you pleasure are still viable and worth pursuing. They just need to be attended to with the knowledge that the joy and vibrancy that accompanied your earlier life was there because of your brain and now your brain wants you to settle down.
Many people have challenging stressful lives and are happy to embrace pleasure whenever they can. Certainly as people age, it seems the ratio of pains that come with life grows as the pleasures flatten out. People often drink and take drugs in order to feel as good as they once felt. Others play games, do sports or engage in other activities that they can get swept up into. As the stressors and pains in life make their presence felt we like to find ways to lose ourselves or at least that part of our self that is dealing directly with the pain.
Whatever you do to give yourself pleasure and relief to minimize pain, please disavow yourself of the belief that if you just did more you would feel better. Those days are gone. Instead of aiming for the heights of youthful pleasure, aim for comfort, lightness and the satisfaction that you still have pleasure in your life even if it isn’t sparking like it once did.
I know comfort and lightness are not exciting words. But, they aren’t bad words. Contentment is not to be overlooked. Many people do not have as much contentment or pleasure in their life as they would like. Often we are anxious about what is next and it is hard to dwell in contentment when we do find it. I now find pleasure in the small contentments that come my way. The view out the window, the cereal in my bowl, the interaction with a loved one, the new moment – I do my best to take a moment and find my pleasure, contentment, comfort and lightness before I move on. It is not zipping along in a convertible, but it is pleasurable.
I have also discovered that what I lack in the ability to feel the highs of pleasure, I have made up for in my appreciation and gratitude for those things that I do enjoy. Appreciation and gratitude may not give you that jump in the air joy, but they do provide a deeper fuller sense of well-being. We may not be blissing out quite the way we did, but we also have a greater perspective that makes that convertible ride just as, if not more, welcome.
The shaving mug pictured belonged to my dad. Someone gave it to him and he used it daily. It is in my bathroom now, although I rarely use it. Seeing it reminds me to enjoy the day before me, including the memories that have come along with me.