This little essay is about the type of happiness that feels fantastic. It’s about pleasure. The stuff that isn’t complicated and puts a smile on your face. It’s about good food, nice weather, and warm socks. It is far from the complete story on happiness, but it’s the part of happiness that most of us most readily equate with it.
Pleasure (technically speaking, hedonic happiness) is what we experience when things are going well. When we are safe and comfortable. It acts as a signal that conditions are, from a survival perspective, going right.
Children are handed joyful moments and know exactly what to do with them. They live in them. They don’t manage their happiness, putting together contingency plans, waiting for the other shoe to drop. They see pleasure for what it is. A gift to be recognized, savored, and jumped into with glee.
When the fleeting nature of a pleasure is over, children usually seek out more. That’s where our more seasoned adult perspectives come in handy. Experience teaches us that too much pleasure can lead to imbalance. In a world of relative abundance compared to what our forebears would have faced, the brain still treats what would have been luxurious back then (extra salt and fat, rest, new objects, new stories) as rare items worth pursuing, again and again. And too much pleasure can get us into trouble. Obesity, tooth decay, addiction and debt are maladies of an abundant age.
But as mothers, tasked day in day out with the care and provision of our families, are we, as a group, at risk of too much pleasure? When, for so many of us, the proverbial wolf is ever at the door?
The stresses of parenting in the modern age feel icky because they do icky things to our bodies. Prolonged elevated cortisol wears down our systems. We stop healing, digesting, and sleeping.
Pleasure helps the nervous system to repair itself. It offers us a break from the gnawing cycle of worry and “I should be..”. Neurochemically, pleasure unwinds the damage of stress. It gives our bodies the space to heal and recover from the near-constant state of flux so many of us can find ourselves in. Pleasure is a beauty nap for your mind.
It’s a little different for all of us, the experiences that make our minds light up with joy. And for so many of us, it can be boiled down to the three minutes we give ourselves in a day to appreciate the pink sunlight on the pavement, a warm shower, or our head, finally, hitting the pillow. Pleasure comes from knowing we are safe, seeing something beautiful, touching something comfortable, and being reminded we are loved. It needn’t be fancy or expensive. But it will require a moment of acknowledging that, just for now, things are, for the most part, a-ok. And for that, we are grateful.
Pleasure soothes. Pleasure restores. It is a refuge and an armor. In the mothering world, it is a strong, quick, and helpful medicine that can help us exhale. In the right doses, it can, and should be a worthy goal. It won’t solve our problems. It won’t get us moving in the sometimes painful directions we need to in order to grow as we should. But it will give us the momentary lifts we need along the road so that we can keep on keeping on. Pleasure is not the answer we seek. But it is an ally in the quest.