The New Pleasure Principle

This just in: Pain is not the route to happiness


| November-December 1997



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."