The Pleasure Zone: Why We Resist Good Feelings and How to Let Go and Be Happyby Stella Resnick
While writers including Paul Pearsall, Deepak Chopra, Bernie Siegel, and Joan Borysenko have recently identified the benefits of pleasure, to a large extent they have been concerned with positive mental attitudes and visualizations. Dr. Resnick advances the exploration of pleasure further by linking optimism, physical health, emotional fulfillment in love, deeply… See more details below
While writers including Paul Pearsall, Deepak Chopra, Bernie Siegel, and Joan Borysenko have recently identified the benefits of pleasure, to a large extent they have been concerned with positive mental attitudes and visualizations. Dr. Resnick advances the exploration of pleasure further by linking optimism, physical health, emotional fulfillment in love, deeply gratifying sex, and positive aging to our ability to fully enjoy eight core pleasures. These are: primal pleasure, pain relief, the elemental pleasures of play and humor, and mental, emotional, sensual, sexual, and spiritual pleasure. In this ground-breaking work, Dr. Resnick discusses each core pleasure, pointing out subtle and not so subtle ways we deny ourselves and how each core pleasure is relevant to our health, emotional well-being, and interpersonal relationships. Complete with inspiring stories of people who have learned to reclaim pleasures they had cut themselves off from, each chapter concludes with a set of simple personal experiments designed to aid readers in gaining skill at enjoying that pleasure more completely.
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The Pleasure Zone
Why We Resist Good Feelings & How To Let Go And Be Happy
By Stella Resnick
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1997 Stella Resnick
All rights reserved.
The New Pleasure Principle Discovering the connection between happiness and pleasure
We cannot say what joy is. We must go the further step and discover its true nature for ourselves.
—Robert A. Johnson
We're not as happy as we might be—not in our everyday lives, not in our love lives. And it's not because our lives or our loves are so lacking. Rather, it's because most of us have lost the ability to fully take pleasure in what we have.
Happiness involves skills for everyday living that few people consistently practice. Instead of taking pride in our accomplishments, we tend to be self-critical. Instead of holding positive visions of the future, we run worst case scenarios, thinking that's the way to be prepared for emergencies. Rather than regularly expressing appreciation to those we love, we find fault with them, hoping to make them "better." Genuine pride in a job well done, maintaining hope even during hard times, spontaneously expressing gratitude to someone—these are some of the simple pleasures that can enrich and vitalize our everyday lives, which we just don't enjoy often enough.
As a psychotherapist, I'm often aware of the opportunities for inner pleasure my clients routinely deny themselves. One man in his early forties would see me weekly and in each session I'd suggest he take a few breaths and check in with himself, and each time he would tell me his body was tense—his shoulders were tight, his neck and back hurt, and his chest was heavy. It always felt good to him to breathe and relax during a session; he would think more creatively and have some good insights. Yet, when I suggested that he stop periodically during the day to stretch and relax for a few minutes, he would shrug and say that he kept forgetting. One day he admitted that he was afraid that if he let himself relax, he wouldn't work at all.
I've heard this attitude expressed in so many different ways by so many different people—that if they're not all wound up, they feel like they're not working hard enough. Somehow, they think they'll get more out of themselves if they grit their teeth and stay in pain. Finding energy and purpose through relishing the pleasurable possibilities of the situation sounds hopelessly naive to them as a way of getting anything accomplished.
The same is often true in intimate relationships. We seem to hold a curious philosophy that what brings people closer is talking about how they displease one another. I've seen couples who could easily itemize what was lacking for them in the relationship—carefully spelling out their resentments, disappointments, and sexual complaints—who would resist saying how much they appreciated one another. Eventually they would acknowledge that while they do have a lot of love and high regard for one another, they felt that expressing tenderness would hinder, not help, them in getting what they want from one another.
The fact is that our whole society diminishes the value of pleasure. We think of pleasure as fun and games, an escape from reality—rarely as a worthwhile end in itself. Amazingly, we don't make the connection between vitality—the energy that comes from feeling good—and the willingness to take pleasure in moment-by-moment experience. As a result, we fail to appreciate the truly significant role pleasurable experience plays in leading a meaningful and fulfilling life and, more specifically, in maintaining deeply satisfying relationships.
A Personal Odyssey
That was certainly my story. After years of graduate study and training, I became a successful therapist with a thriving practice in San Francisco. I bought a home, made many friends, and traveled widely giving talks and seminars. The only problem was that I wasn't happy.
By the time I was thirty-two, I had had two brief marriages and had embarked on a stormy three year relationship that was full of anger, with lots of fighting and hurtful tears. After that breakup, I kept myself constantly on the go. Every night I scheduled work, business meetings, or dinner with friends. I told myself I was leading an exciting life. In truth, I was lonelier than I had ever been and was doing everything I could to keep from being home alone.
Yet here I was—a therapist. I clearly had something worthwhile to offer others; my practice was full. Why wasn't it working for me? I had been in the best therapy for years, with the leaders in my field. I had my insights, my dramatic breakthroughs when I would erupt into tears and rage over the pain of my childhood—my parents' divorce when I was five, the years living with a neglecting mother and a physically abusive stepfather. I did yoga. I meditated. I exercised. I became a vegetarian. Why did I still suffer? Why wasn't I happy?
When I turned thirty-four, I learned that my mother was dying of cancer. I decided to take a leave from my practice and go back to New York to see if I could make friends with her before her death. That August I rented an apartment in Manhattan and began taking the subway to Brooklyn twice a week to sit with her at her hospital bed. Unfortunately, even as she lay dying, my stepfather continued to poison our relationship by saying things that made her mistrustful and guarded around me. When she died in July of the following year, I felt profoundly sad, not so much because I had lost my mother but because I never had one.
At that point, I felt I couldn't just go back to my hectic life in San Francisco. It was time to confront my pain and loneliness and discover what was keeping me so unhappy. A month after my mother's death, I moved to Mount Tremper, New York, a town in the Catskill Mountains near Woodstock. The few people I knew there had summer homes, and in winter they came up for only an occasional weekend. I found a small house surrounded by woods, without a TV, and signed a lease for a year.
I spent that year in the country more alone than ever before—but this time it was a chosen solitude. For guidance, I read Henry David Thoreau's Walden, the famous nineteenth-century account of a similar retreat in Massachusetts. Like Thoreau, I had a pond full of croaking frogs in the summer, which froze over in winter. Like Thoreau, I had a visitor now and then and made regular forays into town for supplies. And like Thoreau, days and days would go by when I neither saw nor spoke to another living being.
At first, my days were terribly lonely. I cried a lot and felt sorry for myself. I read, wrote in my journal, and took long walks in the woods. Sometimes I would find myself staring at a wall, not knowing how long I had been sitting there or what I had been so lost in thought over. On better days, I could spend hours looking out the window, fascinated by how the birds fought over birdseed at the feeder in the tree. In winter, I chopped kindling to feed the fires in the two potbellied stoves and fireplace that kept me from freezing. I cooked plenty of soups and stews. Some nights when the cold winter wind blew especially hard, I would stay awake stuffing newspapers between the planks of the uninsulated walls of this summer house, grumbling to myself and wondering how this was ever going to make me a cheerier person.
What I began to discover during those endless days was how little I knew about how to be happy on a daily basis. I knew how to drive myself to succeed. I knew how to criticize myself for how I wasn't good enough. But I didn't know how to take on a day and enjoy it.
I nagged myself constantly. I played old movies in my head of past events I regretted and of the people in my life who had done me wrong. I resented my father for leaving me when I was five with my badgering mother in Bensonhurst, a working-class section of Brooklyn, even though I had begged him to take me with him. I resented my stepfather for ten years of beatings, when he would throw me against walls and hit me on the face and head. I resented my mother for not standing up for me, and instead provoking him further into trembling, uncontrollable rages with her incessant complaining about me.
I hated them both for what I had to do, when I was eighteen, to make it stop. Coldly, I told my stepfather that if he ever laid a hand on me again, one night while he slept, I would drive the big kitchen knife through his ugly heart. He must have believed it because that ended his violence toward me.
I felt disgust when I remembered the rage I let out in fights with other sullen girls like me who hung out on rival street corners. I could still call up the heartache I felt at the odd mix of kindness and cruelty from my first boyfriend, the leader of my neighborhood gang. I never felt lovable enough for the men in my life. I resented men for denying me the male closeness I craved—but I also felt guilty. Obviously I wasn't good enough to be loved.
I thought I had dealt with this in therapy. Yet despite all my cathartic tears and rages and all my insights into how my past contaminated my present, I still didn't know how to do things differently. I knew all about what didn't work. But I didn't know what did work, and in the absence of any real skill at having an enjoyable inner life, I fell back on old patterns of negative thinking and painful feelings.
Finally, just as I was getting settled into the quiet of my country retreat, I had the flash of insight that would turn everything around. I suddenly realized: It isn't enough to know what you are doing wrong, you have to know how to do it right. You have to learn how to enjoy this life—this brief blip in eternity that is yours.
Carpédiem, dammit! I railed at myself. Lighten up! Learn how to enjoy your life—moment by moment and day by precious day.
Like so many people, I wasn't happy because I didn't know how to be happy. I had no role models of happiness in childhood. I knew how to have a good time and to distract myself from my frustrations and disappointments with external pleasures. I could be amused and entertained; I could enjoy parties, fancy restaurants, and the theater; I could relish being admired by others and indulge myself in a material success that was beyond anything this poor little girl from Brooklyn ever dared dream. But I didn't know how to get off my own case and relax, to enjoy the inner pleasures of a quiet mind and ease within my body. I didn't know how to invest myself in activity out of enthusiasm for the task, rather than to prove that I could do it better than anyone else.
So that became my grand revelation, what I had intuitively placed myself in exile to learn. I had not come to figure out what was wrong with me. I was already an expert on that. I had come to experiment with how to do things differently. More than that, I had come to discover what was truly right with me.
One of the first actions I took was to turn all the clocks toward the wall and to tape over the clock on the stove. Even though I was completely alone, I still found myself fixated on time—what time to wake up, when to eat a meal, how much time was left in the day, and how late I was staying up. I realized I was uncomfortable with open-ended time. I remembered the terror I would sometimes feel, back in San Francisco, when I had nothing scheduled on a Sunday and no one to be with until Monday when I could gratefully get back to the office.
It was hard at first, but I came to appreciate the freedom in the open space. Since there was nothing to do and nowhere to go, I started to give myself permission to enjoy whatever there was to enjoy.
When I released myself from the tyranny of time, I became more attuned to my own natural rhythms—what felt good to do now, when my interest ebbed, what I felt stimulated to do next. I also became more aware of how my incessant inner voice of self criticism was even worse than my mother's nagging. If there was a choice at any moment either to give myself a hard time or to treat myself kindly, I saw how easy it was for me to be hard on myself. More and more I began to choose kindness.
Much to my surprise, instead of dreading each day, I began to awaken each morning with a new spirit of adventure. How would this day unfold? What would I experiment with? What insights would I have? How could I enjoy my own company? I began to notice that when I read, I was less impatient and more invested in what I was reading. Sometimes I listened to music with my legs draped over the arm of the couch. Sometimes I danced to the Temptations, other times to Bach and Vivaldi. Chores like cooking and cleaning became opportunities to be creative, and I stretched and did leg raises as I waited for pots to boil. I found myself energized rather than exhausted by chopping wood and felt a distinct sense of pride that this city girl could build a fire and keep it going all day. I felt more lighthearted and actually began to like myself better. I finally comprehended what Thoreau had meant when he wrote, "I love to be alone. I never found the companion so companionable as solitude."
Toward the end of my stay in the mountains, I met a man who was briefly to become my lover, and my friend for life. Our relationship was immediately different from any other I had known before. I didn't try to impress or control him because I didn't need him. I liked him; he liked me. No preconceptions. We were free to be ourselves. And if we had a fight about something, we got over it. It didn't mean anything. It certainly didn't mean I could never be happy with any man, as I had been prone to think after disagreements with past lovers.
Pain Is Not the Route to Happiness
When I returned to California that next summer and resumed my practice, I soon recognized in my clients the same incapacity to enjoy their everyday lives that had blighted my own. Like me, many of them had spent years in therapy digging into the unresolved issues of their early childhoods and had come to terms with them. Yet, while most felt that therapy had been helpful, still they couldn't really say they had been able to translate their insights into actually doing things differently. Many felt that the same issues kept cropping up time and again and that some of their greatest hopes and desires still seemed elusive.
I began to see that while understanding and releasing pain is certainly crucial for lasting results in psychotherapy, it's not enough. Getting good at struggling with problems just makes you more skillful at struggling with problems. To enjoy your life more, and especially to have more love, it's better to become skillful at what inspires your enthusiasm and generates vitality and good feelings.
Because having an intimate connection was so important to me, I began to focus on working with people, individually and in couples, on their dissatisfaction with their intimate relationships and their sex lives. Deep down inside, I suppose I felt that if I became an expert on loving relationships, maybe someday I, too, would have one. Happily, my hunch paid off. Though we've done our share of struggling, I've now enjoyed more than seventeen years with the only man I've been able to both love and live with.
I certainly have learned a lot over the years, watching people at the office grapple with their need for love and their sexual longings, and then watching my husband and myself grapple with these same issues at home. Amajor factor that goes unaddressed in most relationships because it is so completely taken for granted is the common tendency to make matters worse by inflicting pain on ourselves and the people we care about—all in the name of trying to make things better. We punish ourselves; we punish each other. We withdraw and act cold, whine and sling guilt, attack each other verbally, or withhold affection and sexual contact. Apparently, few of us have had good role models for how to deal effectively with emotional and sexual differences in a relationship, while maintaining a loving and supportive manner.
It's clear to me now that you can't get positive ends by using negative means. The way to resolve differences in a relationship so that everybody's happy is not to strongarm each other into submission, but to draw upon one another's love, empathy, trust, affection, and emotional excitement—all pleasures of the heart.
I have also come to see how important a good sex life is to feeling fulfilled in a relationship. Oddly, withholding sex often seems to be the preferred way to have power over your partner, but doesn't it make more sense to expect people who give each other loving physical pleasure to be more emotionally available and in tune with one another?
It's actually contrary to how we're been trained, but the route to happiness is not through pain and sacrifice. If there is a path to the highest levels of well-being, it is lined with what nourishes us the most and brings us joy.
The Connection Between Happiness and Pleasure
Until very recently, psychologists rarely studied happiness; unhappiness seemed a lot more fascinating. But times have changed. Suddenly there's a burgeoning scientific interest in finding out what makes people happy. Social scientists run surveys and ask people to rate their level of "subjective well-being" and to say what makes them happy; physiologists and medical researchers study our genes and brain chemistry to seek the same answers.
Excerpted from The Pleasure Zone by Stella Resnick. Copyright © 1997 Stella Resnick. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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