“I just don’t enjoy anything any more!”
And a little later…
“Life shouldn’t just be about personal gratification!”
And of course it shouldn’t.
To just be hedonistic, to do nothing but selfishly seek sensual pleasures is a dead end, a seemingly infinitely-rich-in-promise road leading inexorably to a cul-de-sac of addiction, disillusionment, chaos, infantilisation, fractured relationships and wasted potential.
And strangely, through the process of habituation, to the inability to enjoy life.
Not that Lionel with his defeated face was at immediate risk of throwing it all in and catching the rock and roll express to artificially generated good feelings, leaving his responsibilities gathering dust behind him.
But we all need a balance.
Feeling good and being well
Some pleasure in life is vital for physical and mental health.
It’s often assumed (thanks to the malign influence of MovieLand versions of what being ‘in therapy’ is all about) that when people go for therapy to deal with their depression and anxiety, the focus will all be ‘deep stuff’. You know, awful childhood traumas, terrible ‘personal issues’, that sort of thing.
But just as a million tiny pin pricks can bring down a mighty giant, hundreds of small different stresses (without any major catastrophe) can gradually have a cumulative effect that results in serious depression and despondency.
And the loss of lots of little, everyday, but healthy pleasures can be both the cause and the result of depression.
Life isn’t just about enjoyment because it’s not just about anything. The clawing slide into depression brought about by a blend of one’s personal psychology and lots of different stresses is also accompanied, more often than not, by many losses.
These losses are not necessarily great big dramatic MovieLand-therapy-type losses. They might consist of hundreds of seemingly small and not very important in themselves losses of simple pleasures – not seeing friends, not baking any more, not gardening, not getting to play football, not listening to music, not going for walks, not having colleagues to talk to every day…
As such small sources of enjoyment diminish or disappear, it can steadily chip away at our reserves of resilience, almost without our noticing.
When treating depression we use a ‘multi-pronged approach’ to help clients overcome a million minor stresses (as well as any major ones if they are there), and also to encourage some pleasures back into their lives.
Not the kind of pleasures that are grossly grabbed, ‘forced’ and greedily consumed (rock and roll living!) but the kind of pleasures you can savour as a reward for efforts and legitimate healthy behaviours.
Here’s five ways I helped Lionel, whose tank had run dry of all pleasurable feelings, reintroduce pleasure (as part of the wider treatment plan) into his life.
You might find it helps you too.
1) Sell pleasure
Imagine a medical treatment for both mind and body that can diminish heart disease, relieve depression, boost immune function, promote sleep, have life feeling more meaningful, block pain and whose only side effect is feeling good.
Sounds pretty wonderful, doesn’t it? When will this treatment be available?
But I’m not talking about some new block-busting drug. I’m talking about the effects of pleasure itself. (1)
People who are prone to perfectionism or workaholism or other forms of pathological seriousness can have a hard time feeling it’s okay to enjoy themselves, and do something purely for the pleasure of doing it.
Now imagine talking about or ‘selling’ the idea of simple pleasures to your client in this way.
But don’t just imagine!
2) Sell subtle pleasures
People who are depressed or highly angry are, almost by definition, viewing life from extreme all-or-nothing standpoints. I asked Lionel what he had enjoyed in the past, and he said (in absolutely classic all-or-nothing terms) “I’ve never been really happy!”
I reassured him that I wasn’t looking for rare ecstatic sublime moments of sheer joy but just stuff they he had ‘quite liked to do’ before he started feeling so bad.
Eventually he grudgingly agreed that he used to enjoy walking in the countryside with his wife, playing guitar, listening to music, having a laugh with his co-workers and making love. (I couldn’t help but wonder as he spoke how he combined these activities, but I kept my wondering to myself.)
Seeing a child laughing, taking time to smell the roses (literally) and that pleasant evening stroll can all have us feeling and being healthier and happier.
Pleasure can be subtle and still be wonderfully healthy – in some ways perhaps more so than the explosive highs of life.
But you still may have to circumnavigate your client’s tendency to see pleasure and misery only in all-or nothing terms to get them to buy.
3) Re-evoke healthy pleasures of the past
Have you ever sat reminiscing with a friend? If you were talking about good times, you felt those good times, and if you spoke of hysterically funny times, those feelings of deep mirth could wrap you once again in their life-affirming velvet arms.
Life can get awfully serious. Bills, pressures, illness, strained relationships, the limiting idea that certain things are ‘important’ and ‘serious’ and others are ‘superficial’ and ‘frivolous’. That enjoyment is not ‘what life is about’.
We can forget to enjoy.
So I had Lionel close his eyes and re-evoke walking in the country with his wife and laughing with his friends at work. It took a while, but I suggested his body could recall those feelings even if he couldn’t. This gave him permission to stop trying to please me.
Eventually he visibly relaxed, and I talked about how ‘endorphins’ start to circulate in his body, the moment his subconscious mind knows he is about to laugh, seconds before he actually laughs…
The edges of his mouth twitched like a fisherman’s line finally hooking something. A smile escaped from the depressed dungeon and he… laughed long and hard at some long forgotten joke.
I suggested he’d have more opportunities to laugh in the coming days, weeks, months and years.
4) Stress less for pleasure
Uncontrolled stress gradually squeezes the natural simple pleasures out of life. A desperately stressful life can prompt (some) people into increasingly desperate attempts to secure some pleasurable experiences.
When the fast lane city investor develops a coke habit (to use a cliché) or the harried single mother tries to snatch some end-of-the-day pleasure from the inside of a vodka bottle, they are only trying to tip the balance and empty out all the stress in one go.
But of course the ‘pleasure’ they experience can actually lead to greater pain (and more stress) down the road.
To help people enjoy subtler forms of pleasure less likely to backfire on them, we might need to prepare and clear the ground first, so the seeds of pleasure can take root and grow.
This means helping them feel less stressed more of the time.
Give your clients the tools to manage their stress better – teach them ways to relax, how to use worry time usefully, how to compartmentalize, how to say no, or whatever techniques you deem to be useful in their specific circumstances.
5) Prescribe pleasure
Once you have sold the benefits of and the need for more healthy pleasures, then you can prescribe pleasure.
I asked Lionel to ‘force’ himself to take his wife for a walk in the country at the weekend. He told me he had work to do, but he would try.
Upshot? He enjoyed the pleasure both of being in nature and spending time with his wife and he found he got more work done the following week.
Over time he began to enjoy spending time with his friends again, laughing, loving and living healthier and more happily.
and at the same time we can look for ways to magnify and encourage the myriad small pleasures that lend us all resilience, spark and energy.
My online course Conversational Reframing contains more subtle ways to help a client overcome negative thinking and feel much happier.
- See the great book Healthy Pleasures by Robert Ornstein, PhD and David Sobel, MD
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