The New Pleasure Principle

This just in: Pain is not the route to happiness

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Don't worry. Be happy.

The philosophy is simple, but living it is not, especially in our achievement-oriented society. According to Los Angeles-based therapist Stella Resnick, that's because we focus on the pain in our lives—getting through it, around it, or over it. Pleasure, which she describes as the "visceral, body-felt experience of well-being," is a more effective path to growth and happiness, she contends in her book The Pleasure Zone (Conari Press, 1997). If only we knew how to feel it.

Resnick had to learn, too. Her childhood was unpleasant; her father left when she was 5, and, for 10 years, she endured beatings from her stepfather. She hung out on street corners and dated a neighborhood gang leader. By the time she was 32, she'd had two brief marriages and was involved in another stormy relationship. Although she'd managed to build a successful San Francisco practice as a therapist, she was lonely and miserable. Nothing helped: not yoga, or meditation, or exercise, or a vegetarian diet. "I was a very unhappy young woman," she recalls. "I'd had the best therapy from the best therapists, but with all the work I had done on myself, something was missing."

What was missing, she discovered, was the ability to enjoy herself. At 35, after she lost her mother to cancer, she moved to a small house in the Catskill Mountains, where she lived alone for a year and, for the first time, paid attention to what felt good. At first she cried and felt sorry for herself. But by year's end, she was dancing to Vivaldi and the Temptations, finding creativity in cooking and chopping wood, and taking pride in keeping a fire going all day.

She soon realized that most of her patients shared the same pleasure deprivation. "The fact is that our whole society diminishes the value of pleasure," she writes. "We think of pleasure as fun and games, an escape from reality—rarely 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."

Therapy too often concentrates on pain and what the mind thinks; Resnick decided to focus instead on pleasure and what the body feels. But when she first published her ideas in articles in 1978, epithets were hurled: "narcissist," "hedonist," "icon for the Me Decade." It wasn't until research on the positive effects of pleasure and the negative effects of stress began to accumulate in the '80s that the media and her colleagues became more receptive. "This is not about creating a society of me-first people," she says of her work. "There's no joy in hoarding all the goodies for our lonesome."

To help people understand pleasure, Resnick divides it into eight "core" categories: primal (the feeling of floating and buoyancy); pain relief (being touched and soothed); elemental (childlike laughter, play, movement, and voice); mental (the fun of learning); emotional (the feeling of love); sensual (the five senses, plus imagination); sexual (arousal, eroticism, orgasm); and spiritual (empathy, morality, and altruism).

Her prescription is body-based and simple. Listen to a fly buzz. Float on your back. Tell a dream. Her number-one tip for falling and staying in love is . . . breathe. Conscious breathing enhances relationships, she claims, because it allows us to let go in sweet surrender, rather than fighting or resisting ourselves or each other.

Experiencing pleasure opens the body, releasing enormous energy, says Resnick. Ironically, this energy flow is often what scares us, causing us to tense up and shut down, because we're not used to it and don't know what to do with it. We can miss the healing power of great sex, for example, by wanting to release the energy as soon as we get turned on. Instead of focusing on the genitals, she advises allowing the excitement to build and circulate so that "it's something you feel in your heart. And in your big toes."

Repressing one's desire for pleasure was once considered virtuous, a sign of moral superiority. But she questions whether it’s good to continue in that vein. "We have poor race relations, poor man-woman relations, whole segments of society that have problems with parents and institutions," she says. "Could we do better if we enjoyed our relationships more, if people knew how to encourage and inspire themselves instead of being motivated by shame, guilt, and other negative emotions?"

Resnick doesn't advocate always giving in to immediate gratification—there can be pleasure in yearning—or covering over fear and anger, which, in realistic quantities, inform and protect us. But using negative means to pursue positive ends, she says, simply doesn't work. "The secret to success in all things—business, creativity, art, relationships, family, spirituality—is to be relaxed during challenging times," she adds. "Don't hold yourself in, or brace yourself for what might go wrong." And if you don't get it at first, don't worry. Even Resnick often has to remind herself to breathe.