How to activate your brain’s feelgood chemicals

Pleasure state

Indulgence has become synonymous with guilt, but giving in to the good things is a powerful way to activate your brain’s feelgood chemicals. Linda Smith writes.

Place a tick beside the activities you’ve engaged in this week: Long bath with the door locked. Baking a cake just to lick the beaters. Had a massage. Cranked Cyndi Lauper and danced around the house with the cobweb broom. Lit your favourite incense. Opened the good bottle because, you only live once.

Despite the march of hedonistic forums such as food truck parks and music festivals, it seems that the pressures bestowed by an outcome-driven culture are causing what some have called a ‘pleasure deficit’. Hands up who feels a little smug about how good they are at going without. It’s not that we don’t want to indulge – just that we want the sense of moral superiority, stoicism and willpower that comes from deprivation more.

But the joke, it seems, is on modern-day pleasure martyrs. Studies suggest that a regular dose of healthy hedonism – whether you pore over the pages of a glossy fashion magazine, belt out your best power ballad, tuck into a fresh doughnut or have a steamy bedroom romp – can significantly reduce stress and boost self-esteem and overall wellbeing.

The dictionary defines hedonism as the ‘pursuit of pleasure’ or ‘sensual self-indulgence’, although a hedonist is more widely considered to be someone who wants to feel great all the time. They’re devoted to pleasure as way of life.

According to clinical psychologist Louise Adams (treatyourselfwell.com.au), eschewing things that make us feel good goes against our survival instincts. “From an evolutionary perspective, pursuing certain behaviours such as sex and eating high fat/sugar foods is necessary to ensure the survival of the species,’’ Adams says.

“Pleasure is mediated by a complex array of brain structures and chemicals.”

The reason pleasurable experiences are so rewarding is so that we keep seeking them out – and actually doing them.

“Seeking pleasure is important not just for wellbeing, but more fundamentally, it is necessary to ensure we survive,” Adams says.

The benefits of pleasure for wellbeing are beyond doubt. The magnetism of pleasurable activities such as eating baked goods, a fragrant bubble bath or sex are attributable to a cocktail of feelgood chemicals.

“Pleasure is mediated by a complex array of brain structures and chemicals,” Adams says. Chief among these is dopamine, commonly known as the reward neurotransmitter and implicated in addictive behaviours. It creates the immense anticipation of reward. “It is a powerful experience,” Adams says.

Feelgood phobia

For most people, going without is more cultural obligation than actual aversion. Few people actually fear feeling good. But at a societal level, sacrificing date night or a Snickers to stay back at the office or slide into last year’s jeans has hints of a condition known as ‘hedonophobia’ – the fear of pleasure.

“There are many reasons,” Adams says. “Some are social. For instance, we may avoid the pleasure associated with sex because we are afraid of being judged by our partner/society, while some are cultural and we may avoid the pleasure associated with eating chocolate because we fear becoming fat. Religious beliefs can also consign pleasure to a blacklist.”

Avoidance of everything that makes us feel good may go part way to explaining a documented rise in stress levels. Research by the Australian Psychological Society shows that Australians in their 20s and 30s are feeling more stressed than their older peers. The theory posits that feelings of pleasure and wellbeing are the polar opposite of stress and produce the opposite physiological response. Stressing can cause a wave of undesirable effects including weakened immunity, elevated cancer risk and infectious disease.

The tipping point

As with everything, there is a tipping point. Pleasure is best in moderation. On the flipside of hedonophobia are impulsivity disorders and impulsive behaviours such as binge-spending, binge-eating, binge-drinking – all of which can undermine wellbeing and potentially disrupt daily living. When people don’t seem to be able to resist buying a new wardrobe they can’t afford or booking a trip on a whim, dopamine is overriding common sense.

According to the stress and wellbeing survey, women are using ‘retail therapy’ and comfort eating to combat stress, which can be problematic.

“From a psychological perspective, people are happier when they enjoy a balance between ‘chores’ and ‘pleasures’,’’ Adams says.

“We all have to do boring, necessary, mundane things in our lives, but if that’s all we do we tend to get depressed. Living a life constrained by rules, avoiding pleasure, is associated with depression and anxiety. We need to feel free, break the rules, enjoy something pleasurable just for the sake of the pleasure it brings, in order to live wholly.

“That said, if we are total pleasure seekers, endlessly chasing the transient state, we risk becoming addicts – to drugs, to sex, to shopping, gambling, whatever the substance is. The key is balance.”

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