How do I write about hedonism without making it sound all sexy? This is a serious question. In fact, there are few things that are more serious than the ways that pleasure overlaps with morality, and we tend to oversimplify all of that by making it about sex. I’m a very shy person, and I have no intention of going there on this blog. What I have noticed, though, is that my people (my clients, my students) are really poor at identifying things they like and enjoy. They’re also really poor at imagining a positive future for themselves. Here are some of the hardest things I’ve asked them to do:
Describe your perfect day
Make a list of things you enjoy
Tell me your favorite
What would you like to happen between now and this time next year?
This area is wide open for research. Is it something about depression and anxiety that prevents people from enjoying themselves and imagining better times? Or is it this disconnect from pleasure that perhaps leads to anxiety and depression? Does this all just have to do with the amygdala being activated or something? I think these ideas are objectively testable. As with everything, of course, we can test ideas on ourselves. Say it with me: does it work, or does it not work? Does it work for you, or does it not work for you?
One of those ideas we can check is the idea of sin, or morality in general. I’ve noticed that my people tend to moralize about things that simply aren’t moral issues. “I was bad.” Ooh, naughty. One of those areas is housework, another is money, and another is food and body image. A close friend of mine was trained from childhood that a clean house is morally virtuous and that household dirt is shameful, perhaps evil. THIS IS A MATTER OF OPINION. I keep a clean house because it’s a cheap workout and because otherwise I can’t find anything or think straight. I also like how it looks, feels, and smells, and more on this later. Many people have been taught that money leads to evil, which is a bummer, because most of these same individuals would probably be terrific at fundraising for charity if they allowed themselves to think that way. A million volumes could be written on all the ways we’ve been taught that certain foods are “decadent” or “sinful” and how we’re “bad” or how we’ve “been good” for eating in certain ways. If we want to be decadent and sensually indulgent, my dears, there are so many better ways...
There are zero, zero rules for what you can find pleasurable or not pleasurable. Nobody else can tell you whether you like something or don’t like it, just as they can’t tell you what emotions you are feeling. As you learn to inhabit your body more fully, you’ll be more aware of what you do or don’t like and what you are sensing and feeling. Not knowing is a promising sign that you have a lot of fun experiments ahead!
Also, it’s nobody else’s business what you enjoy privately. The reason so many people cherish time alone is that this is when we get to do all the stuff we like to do. For instance, when my husband goes on a business trip, I watch horror movies and eat eggplant for dinner, because we don’t share those delights in common. It’s nobody else’s business what you listen to on your headphones, how you season your soup, or what you choose for your favorite colors.
There are a bunch of things that are commonly perceived to be pleasurable or fun, things that I personally dislike. Start with the word “pampered.” UGH! That will only ever make me think of disposable diapers. Also, I despise being waited on or having very attentive customer service. I’m shy and independent, and I distrust flattery. I’ve never had a professional manicure or pedicure, although I’ve bought them for men I’ve dated, because it sounds awful to me. Two words: toenail fungus. In fact, just stop at the word ‘toenail.’ Let’s see, what else? I don’t like alcohol or coffee, I think cheese is revolting, and there are a lot of desserts that turn me off. I don’t like croissants, gummy candy, or anything with powdered sugar or syrup. I don’t care for chocolate either.
Each and every one of those items that I dislike are things that another person would love. That’s awesome. More for you!
I’m attentive to what I dislike or find ‘blah’ or uninteresting, because one part of expanding into pleasure is avoiding the icky stuff. This is an existential position. Practical philosophy! I believe that I have the right to move toward things I love and enjoy, and the right to say a firm NO to things that I don’t. This is a radical, revolutionary position. A lot of us don’t necessarily believe that we really exist, that we have a right to our own opinions. This is something that can take a lot of work, something that is worthy of exploring with a counselor or therapist. Why shouldn’t you wear socks in your favorite color, listen to your favorite musicians, or say “no thank you” when you’re not interested in eating something? Huh? Why shouldn’t you?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from coaching is that each of my clients has a highly idiosyncratic, negative story behind whatever painful, ineffective thing it is that they’re doing. That’s why I really mean it when I mean that you should put serious thought into why you think you’re not entitled to basic pleasures or basic, fundamental boundaries. Because you are. Of course you are!
As a matter of fact, the vast majority of pleasurable things you can indulge in won’t affect anyone else in any way. They don’t even have to know. If you like cutting your sandwich on the diagonal one day and horizontally the next, go ahead!
I’ll go on to say that claiming pleasure for yourself has a positive ripple effect on others. It helps as a foundation of strength, something that supports you as you do difficult things, like contributing at work, serving others in your life, volunteering, being a good citizen, or taking on challenges and quests. Pleasure nurtures you, helping you to avoid burnout, draining the boil of irritation or futility that you might otherwise spatter on others, venting and complaining about various miseries. It’s pretty hard to feel pleasure and annoyance or disappointment at the same time. Trust and believe that most people would rather hear about something enjoyable you did than something that frustrated you, unless of course you were able to make it into a funny story.
Spending time in nature, either physically or virtually. The phases of the moon, sunrise and sunset, clouds, stars, the weather. Trees, landscapes, flowers. The sounds of wind, water, birds - I’ll never forget the first time I heard a fox bark. Pictures of mountains, the ocean, the surface of Mars, anything that increases your sense of awe and delights your eye.
Visual delights. Color. Symmetry or asymmetry. Scrolling through museum collections online. Gazing into the middle distance. Changing your phone wallpaper a lot.
Music. Which is greater: the pleasure of listening to a beloved song over and over, or the pleasure of hearing something that captivates you for the first time?
Fragrance. Gardens in your area. Soap. Lotion. Candles. Spices. Home cooking. Removal of bad smells. Nostalgic scents like pencil shavings.
Sleeping. Probably the single most underrated pleasure of them all.
Exploration. Adventure. Learning new things. Anything that you find inspirational, anything that ignites your sense of curiosity, anything that impresses you or makes you want to know more, should be pursued. Learning new skills is an entirely distinct pleasure, the satisfaction of efficacy.
Storytelling. Story sweeps us away like nothing else. The great thing about the internet is that there’s so much out there, from blogging to fanfic to podcasts. Not everyone likes comedy but most people appreciate storytelling.
Connection. Snuggling with pets. Dancing. Working in groups. Singing in a choir, or so they tell me. Hugging - some people like it! Deep listening.
Pleasures of the body. This is a subject for a book of its own, but food is only one of the many, many ways the body can experience pleasure. I think it’s actually the weakest and fundamentally the most boring. Describing the pleasure of waking up as a well-rested, nourished, fit, active, strong, supple body is like giving people directions to the unicorn rides. Nobody believes you. It’s like a religious experience that you can only understand by living it for yourself. Shake it off and think of something else. Physical warmth, massage, stretching, working out a kink in your neck or shoulder. Sighing, deep breathing.
It’s possible to live surrounded by beauty, indulging in pleasures throughout the day, and still be a productive, caring, ethical, morally correct person. This is an affirmation. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it because it’s what your friends and loved ones would want for you. Do it because it sets a good example for your kids or for other young people, for other humans in general. Do it because it’s good for the economy. Do it because nobody would begrudge it of a shelter dog, so why not you? Do it because nobody else will notice and nobody else will care. Do it as an experiment. Do it in the nature of philosophical exploration. If you can’t bring yourself to do anything else, at least just pause, stretch, take a deep breath, and allow the idea that pleasure is okay for someone, somewhere in the universe. You think?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.