Yesterday I gave a webinar called Rethinking Sugar – And What It Takes to Quit. [I offer those webinars with some regularity, so if you’d like to be notified when the next one is, please join my mailing list.]
In it, among many other things, I described the importance of increasing your other sources of pleasure when you give up sweets, so that you don’t end up feeling deprived. It’s one of the primary elements of my sugar freedom method.
In the time since that webinar, I’ve been thinking more and more about it, and have come to the conclusion that most of us have been placing conditions on pleasure, holding it hostage. Here’s what I mean.
We’re all pleasure junkies
The human brain is wired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. The pleasure side is fueled by the release of dopamine; every time we do – or even think about – something pleasurable, we get a hit of dopamine. And since the brain wants us to repeat that what brings us pleasure, it creates and reinforces memories of times we experienced pleasure, recalling them to motivate us to get more. Driving near a place you got a treat in the past? Your brain will remember that and give you a little nudge to go do it again.
In fact, the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are key drivers of most human activity. The survival of the species is driven by pleasurable experiences, namely through eating, sleeping and sex. Those who excel in their fields do so because the work getting there was a source of pleasure. [Therein lies the secret to doing something you don’t want to do but know you must: find the pleasure in it.]
Chocolate, ice cream, and other treats, then, are “perfect” foods as they are both sources of pleasure, and also numb us out from our pain. They are reliable and easily accessible. But many of us rely on treats for motivation, reward and the avoidance of pain, creating a dependency on treats (which are bad for you) and making us ultimately less resilient.
I think it’s fair to say that most people look to experience pleasure through external means. I’ll go on vacation and experience pleasure. I’ll go for a walk and experience pleasure. I’ll have a nice meal and experience pleasure. These are all beautiful, healthy things to do to access pleasure.
The problem is that we have such easy access to sweet treats and flour products (flour products give us the same hit of dopamine as sweet treats because they so quickly raise our blood sugar levels), many of us have come to rely on these external sources of pleasure to get us through the day.
Yes, chocolate is convenient (and delicious), so why deny ourselves the pleasure of having it? Well, if you are beholden to chocolate to feel pleasure, then your sense of pleasure is held hostage by this external source.
If we are relying on an easy, cheap way to gain pleasure – namely through sweet treats and flour products – then we are weakening our ability to initiate and sustain pleasure on our own.
After years of this outsourcing of easy pleasure, our brains get lazy. Since it is a primary energy-saving strategy for the brain to create habits, it has little need to go out and discover other sources of pleasure if a piece of chocolate is always close at hand. Chocolate or other treats become habituated as the go-to source of pleasure. So, we become dependent.
But what if we reclaimed our ability to give ourselves pleasure in other ways, all day long? What if we sought out and reflected on the simple pleasure of being in our bodies, walking in this world, we could then allow ourselves to experience pleasure throughout our daily pursuits.
Similar to cultivating a practice of gratitude, if we cultivate a practice of intentional pleasure, we can become our own dopamine machines!
You are a source of unlimited pleasure
Try this: Take a deep inhale, and a long exhale.
Didn’t that feel good?
Turns out that you breathe approximately 20,000 times per day/night. That’s 20,000 opportunities to feel pleasure.
No guilt or shame.
And you can give yourself a conscious breath whenever you feel like it. You are completely in control of how much pleasure you can give yourself every single day.
Feeling stressed? Take a deep breath.
Feeling bored? Notice your breath.
Feeling celebratory? Breathe it in.
Feeling lonely? Feel through it with breath.
The breath is not a substitute for feelings, it is a way of living through them. Even the difficult ones.
If we don’t reach for the chocolate, or ice cream, or wine to subdue our emotions, we can breathe through the emotions and experience them, allowing them to be felt, expressed and released, building self-understanding and resiliency. [What happens to avoided emotions anyway? Do they get stuck in the body, and come out sideways as disease later on?]
Breathing is a joy, and available to everyone at all times (unless you have covid of course).
Breathing is a source of pleasure, and you give it to yourself. Therefor you can rule over your own pleasure without relying on external sources that end up damaging your health.
The next time feel a strong emotion coming on, or an impulse for pleasure or reward, stop and take a deep, pleasurable breath. You can still choose to have the treat, but experiencing a dose of pleasure beforehand will change it from an escape or need to, to a choice or want to.