The (Scientific) Importance Of Pleasure

The new year is here and for many of us that means resolutions of all kinds and, hopefully, a yoga retreat in 2019 (ha). Pledges typically involve a dose of sacrifice and self-denial, and those can be very powerful tools, but they can also quickly tip into guilt whenever we have a lapse in discipline.

So, we thought this would be a good time to tout the super real value of pleasure. If that sounds a bit touchy feely, take a look at the scientific evidence suggesting positive mental states actually strengthen the immune system. For 2019 it’s time to finally wrap our heads around the idea that staying happy is actually a pretty important job.

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The good stuff starts early. You’ve probably heard the expression “play is the work of childhood.” We owe our basic motor skills to the time our little-selves put in with building blocks and skipping ropes. Ditto for language, because all those weird nursery rhymes helped sharpen our verbal wit and ability to make unexpected connections. Or take social skills — we all get along a little better in an office environment thanks to practice cooperating in the baseball games of yore (even if you sat down in the outfield). We didn’t do that stuff knowing it would pay dividends when we grew up, we did it because was fun. Pleasure was the guiding principle that helped us develop our most basic and foundational skills.  The older we get the more we lose touch with the giggles and playtime. It might seem ‘adult’ to lean into the boredom and frivolous to follow your bliss, but pleasure is the obvious lightbulb telling you you’re where you ought to be.

Unfortunately, stress is easier to measure, scientifically, than happiness. Pleasure is harder to pin down and more varied between individuals, though the mood-lifting neurotransmitter serotonin, known as “the happy chemical”, plays a vital role. It’s so important that Canadian doctors will soon be able to prescribe museum visits to patients with mental health issues, chronic pain, or those in need of palliative care. How unbelievably cool is that?  The serotonin boost from basking in the presence of great art is similar to that provided by a trip to the gym. (We, of course, interpret “gym” to mean yoga retreat… hahaha).

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The medical community seem to think it’s time we gave pleasure its due, because Scottish doctors are now prescribing hiking trips by the same rationale, and they in turn are piggybacking off a Japanese national public health program which promoted “forest bathing” (spending quality time with trees, basically). Their findings suggest that you’ll reap the health benefits of a weekend in the woods for up to month.

Of course, not all pleasures are created equal. Superficial or harmful pleasures don’t last — they’re quickly forgotten, end in regret, or do more damage than they’re worth. The good stuff, the lasting pleasures are had from experiences we want to share, re-tell, and return to. According to research we’ve cited, social choices often offer the bigger immune boost. So take the time to go out with friends or try new activities.  Have a dinner party or grab your bestie for a run or a yoga practice.  These little can-do resolutions will, according to the really smart scientists studying this stuff, make us healthier, happier and more able to deal with life’s bumps.  The power of pleasure is real, healthy and necessary.  With any luck, 2019 can be a year we all learn to truly enjoy enjoyment.

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