For my whole career, I’ve struggled with the issue, “Why should people take care of themselves?” I think most people ask themselves that. If not consciously, our bodies are always asking, “Why am I here?” “Why should I get out of bed again?”
In my book The Art of Getting Well, I tried to answer those questions in a chapter called “Twenty-Four Reasons to Live.” I suggested several ideas for making life worthwhile. These included meaning, purpose, family, love, faith, having a cause or a goal that is important to you, and several others.
I also cited research on the value of pleasure. Many people with illness find pleasure hard to come by. With my MS, it’s a bit difficult to get out and do things, and whatever I do, there will be pain with it. It doesn’t stop me, but it does make it more difficult. And the self-care prescriptions we are given can make pleasure even harder to find.
Does it sometimes seem as though diabetes management means giving up everything you like? Worrying about everything you eat and doing a bunch of things you don’t want to do? Well, scientific evidence tells us to go the opposite way. Give up the things you don’t like; get more of the things you do, and find new ones that you like even more. Pleasure is actually good medicine, and we owe it to ourselves to experience some!
In their landmark book, Healthy Pleasures, David Sobel, MD, and Robert Ornstein, PhD, write, “Through pleasure, our senses guide us to experiences that enhance health. Sensory pleasure and positive mood are nature’s way of letting us know that we are doing things that contribute to our survival and our health.”
Consider some of the sources of sensory pleasure:
- See the visual beauty of the world around you — trees, birds, fish in an aquarium, flowers, children, good-looking adults, artwork, butterflies, the patterns on a leaf, attractive clothes, to name a few.
- Listen to the sounds in the air — birdcalls, children’s voices, the rush of wind or patter of rain, and, of course, music.
- Notice the delicious smells — coffee in the morning, bread baking, a fresh breeze. Lemon, garlic, lilacs, a light touch of perfume — pick your own medicine; thousands exist. There is even a field of alternative medicine known as aromatherapy that helps many people.
- Enjoy the sensation of touch, especially affectionate touch; find a way to give and get more hugs. Feel different textures; take up a touchy craft like pottery. Get an occasional massage from a professional or a loved one.
- And don’t forget your taste buds. We now have access to foods from all over the world. Eating a variety of foods will deliver a full range of useful nutrients and pleasurable experiences. Try something new once in a while.
Many overweight people and people with diabetes say they enjoy food too much. I beg to differ. I suggest they don’t enjoy it enough; that’s why some need more to feel satisfied. Try going really slowly, savoring each bite, focusing on the good feelings and flavors.
I know some of us were raised not to enjoy life. Some religions teach us to be careful about pleasure or even to avoid it. These attitudes may come from a time when life was much harder. We couldn’t afford to worry about long-term health or about enjoying life — just surviving and reproducing. Hopefully, those days are over, although I fear they may return.
Still, this is now, and pleasure is good for us. Some of us may need to learn selective attention, filtering out ugliness to focus on the good stuff. Unfortunately, many of us are better at doing the opposite, but we can learn.
There are a few studies of the benefits of pleasure. In one Harvard study, men who ate candy lived, on average, roughly one year longer than those who did not (up to age 95.) But men who ate lots of candy (3 or more times a week) had less of an advantage over the abstainers. I think the message is enjoy life but don’t go overboard. One small bite might be enough if you take the time to really, really savor it.
I figure it like this: There are bad things all around us, and maybe they’re getting worse. But there are also good things, pleasures, fun, purpose, love — and we need to get more of those and enjoy them as long as we’re here. Otherwise, our self-management will slack off and our bodies will tend to give up.
So what do you do for pleasure? How important is it? When I asked a couple of years ago, “What’s your motivation?” a lot of commenters mentioned family and faith. That’s all good, but pleasure is also valuable — so where do you find it?