There is not much more important than experiencing pleasure for us human-type beings. Pleasure is a label for certain types of sensory experiences: some things we do are pleasurable. Sometimes, things that once were pleasurable do not seem to evoke pleasure any more. When I hear that from people, I take note. Anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure, often accompanies depression, and sometimes is the most difficult part of depression.
Pleasure is an enormous motivator for us. We’ll do a lot of things because the consequence is experienced as pleasurable. These things can range from preparing and eating gourmet cuisine to climbing up rock faces. And when pleasure as a motivator is not available, due to depression, stress, or preoccupation, then it can be difficult to do some of the things that we need or want to do.
Pleasure is a body experience. That is, we have an experience of pleasure through our sensory systems. There is also a cognitive component, as there is for many emotionally-based experiences. We’ll have words or images to reflect our pleasure (“Mmm, mmm, good..”). We savor pleasure. Pleasure requires our sustained attention, and when we cannot give our attention to our experience, we have a dearth of pleasure in our everyday life.
When people present in the office with symptoms of depression, I ask a lot about what they enjoy….have they been having any fun lately? Lots of times people are taken by surprise by this question. First surprise, then a sudden realization and often sadness….no, no fun lately. In fact, often people cannot think of anything at all that would be fun.
Finding the pleasure again is essential. When depression is the diagnosis, we look at shifting thinking, motivating activity, and regulating sleep, appetite, and attention. Simultaneously, I ask people to start to notice where they can feel pleasure, even the most limited little bit of enjoyment, or even just relief of negative symptoms. This is a mindfulness task, requiring attention to sensory experience in the here and now, and is a very useful marker for getting better.
Pleasure is our birthright. We are creatures who have a wonderful and awe-inspiring capacity for pleasure….what will you enjoy today?