When it comes to health and fitness, it’s easy to get trapped in the mindset that it’s all about preventing or delaying simple pleasures in return for a longer, healthier life. We start depriving ourselves of certain foods because “food is fuel.” We push ourselves in the gym believing “no pain, no gain” is the best way to obtain results. We punish ourselves for not being as diligent as we could be to reach our goals. And we focus solely on duties, healthy routines, and tracking numbers (like our weight, blood markers, fiber, salt, protein, etc., etc.), which can quickly start to feel rigid and unrelenting.
Doesn’t sound like all that much fun, does it?
Especially when you consider that, as humans, we’re wired for simple pleasure for a reason—to survive. Indeed, it appears that the keys to living a long, healthy life include finding what feels good.
Wait! Pleasure is essential for health? Yes! According to Dr. Robert Ornstein, Ph.D., and Dr. David Sobel, M.D., authors of Healthy Pleasures, “Pleasure rewards us twice: first in immediate enjoyment and second in improved health.”
In fact, research has shown that people who enjoy more pleasurable experiences are not only happier, they tend to be healthier too. They are more caring for other people, their pets, and their lives. And they’re more passionate about actually living and enjoying life than about carefully keeping an eye on their health numbers. On days when we’re in a better mood, our immune system functions better than when we’re feeling bummed, so we might better fight off a cold or infection.
Yet, simple pleasures are often clouded by feelings of guilt; so many of us think of pleasure as uninhibited behaviors that will lead us to ruin via debauchery, addiction, obesity, STDs, etc. Clearly, we can overdo so-called “pleasure activities” with unhealthy, addictive drugs, cigarettes, excessive alcohol consumption, sugar, and reckless behavior, which can all injure our health and destroy lives – not to mention be completely void of the pleasure we’re seeking in the first place.
Yet, the pleasures of life (such as enjoying family, food, friends, work, and relationships) not only make life worth living but may help us enjoy greater health and vitality.
Let’s talk about 5 of those pleasures and why we encourage you to start indulging in them as soon as you possibly can as part of your overall healthy lifestyle!
5 Simple Pleasures That Have Massive Health Benefits
1. Savor the Simple
When was the last time you stopped and just enjoyed a morning sunrise? Or, stood with a loved one and gazed together at the evening sunset? How about the last time you really enjoyed a light-hearted conversation or a good belly laugh with a friend or neighbor? Or, the last time you allowed yourself to get engrossed in your favorite hobby? Or, took the time to sit in the sun (or a sunbeam) and get lost in the timeless distraction of a good book?
I know you’re busy, and there’s soooo much to do. Yet these simple pleasures are easy, inexpensive (often free), and so good for your health and well-being.
Studies, for example, have shown that reading for pleasure can not only improve well-being but increase empathy, improve relationships, reduce depressive symptoms, and even reduce the risk of dementia. Enjoying natural beauty has been shown to increase feelings of friendliness and reduce feelings of fear and sadness. And gazing into an aquarium filled with beautiful, colorful tropical fish and sea plants may lead to lowered blood pressure and relaxation, which can be maintained even when stressors were added.
It’s worth it to take the time to enjoy and extend those moments of simple pleasures.
2. Get “In Touch”
It is well researched that for a child to grow and thrive and even survive, s/he needs to be touched, picked up, cuddled, and gently cared for. Touch is a vital “nutrient” in the human diet. And the need for therapeutic touch doesn’t just go away once we’re adults.
Yet, in modern-day society, touch (especially in public, where it’s known as “public display of affection”, or PDA) is often considered taboo – even chastised. Of course, it is vital to consider how others feel about being touched and to be respectful of each other’s comfort levels. The healthy (or unhealthy) benefits of touch depend on how we’re touched and how it feels to us.
Sadly, this fear of touching at all has led to numerous negative consequences. For example, a lack of touch leads to loneliness, lack of empathy, increased fears of unpopularity and unlikability, unusual reactions when touched, and communication breakdowns.
Consider how often you touch or are touched by your loved ones and close friends. Touching—such as a hug, a hand squeeze, a gentle shoulder rub, etc.—can help us feel closer and more connected. Our skin is designed to communicate pleasurable sensations to our brains—and that comes from touch.
Another healing touch can be found in massage. Yes, massages are pleasurable and healthy! One study, for example, examined people who had chronic anxiety and received ten 30- to 45-minute massages. After a massage, the folks enjoyed improvements in at least one of these areas: reduced heart rate, lower tension in the muscles, or decreased anxiety. Most said they felt a marked decrease in feelings of stress.
So, go ahead and hug your spouse, child, friend, neighbor, or the guy holding the sign for free hugs (as long as you feel comfortable). Or, sign up for that long overdue massage and enjoy the wonderful, healing, and powerful pleasure of touch.
3. Add Heat
Some of you may be fortunate enough to live in warm climates; others enjoy lots of sunny days. Most of us enjoy feeling warm, so it’s not surprising that sunrooms, saunas, hot tubs, and steam baths are so popular — not to mention those warm towels found in spas or the hydrating mist used during a facial… The heat feels oh-so-good.
Of course, there are health benefits with these brief and pleasurable exposures to high temps. For example, sauna bathing not only feels good, it can help relax tight, tense muscles, decrease the pain in joints and muscles, and boost mood. In fact, one study found a 30-minute sauna sweat doubled beta-endorphin levels in the blood (these internal endorphins are our body’s way of relieving pain, increasing well-being, and even producing euphoria).
Using saunas has also been found to increase levels of serotonin, which helps with relaxation, deeper sleep, and even appetite management. Other research has shown that saunas may help our bodies fight colds and infections. One study showed half the number of sick days for school kids who enjoyed weekly saunas compared to those who abstained.
Finally, enjoying the simple pleasures of a sauna after a workout doesn’t just feel good and help your muscles recover; it can also increase calorie burn for enhanced weight loss and may also improve cardiovascular conditioning due to its effects on heartrate and blood volume. So, go ahead and turn up the heat (at least for brief stints) if it feels good.
4. Tune In
Do you remember when you used to have the time to sit and listen to music for hours at a time? Perhaps you knew every word to the songs, the notes sent shivers down your spine, the rhythm took you on a journey to a different time and place, or the music just got you moving?
When was the last time you really listened to music and enjoyed it just for pure pleasure?
Listening to muscle can also release those feel-good endorphins mentioned above. And one survey found that many people find music “more thrilling than anything else—including sex.” Music — especially the right music at the right time — can soothe, energize, bring out our emotions, or get us in the mood for exercise, relaxation, sex, etc. It can also have a positive impact on respiration, blood pressure, stress hormones, and even stomach contractions.
Music can also help you get in better shape because it makes exercise more pleasurable by increasing our energy levels as well as distracting us. Basically, music makes for a heckuva workout partner – helping us complete workouts with less pain and more gain. Some music may enhance endurance and even strength.
And if you’re feeling anxious or scared — say before a surgery — music has been shown to reduce anxiety and pain as well as speed up the recovery process. Another study indicated that music may lessen the pain and duration of birth labor by as much as two hours. And yet another study showed reduced heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety, and depression and increased pain tolerance when quiet music was played in intensive coronary care units at hospitals.
As the poem goes, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” So, enjoy the simple pleasures of your favorite tunes.
5. Laugh Out Loud
“Diet Day 1: I have removed all the bad food from the house. It was delicious!”
How often do you enjoy a good belly laugh, guffaw, or even just the giggles? If you want to enjoy greater health and stress relief, I hope you find something that tickles you not just every day but throughout the day every day.
Laughter is good for us because it increases oxygen-rich air intake, which stimulates the heart, lungs, and muscles. And it increases the release of those feel-good endorphins. It also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the “cooling” branch that works in opposition of the body’s stress response (sympathetic nervous system), so you enjoy feeling relaxed. Like music, touch, and heat, it may improve your immune functioning. And get this, a little laughter also helps relieve pain as it improves your mood and increases feelings of well-being and satisfaction.
If you feel like your sense of humor has gone a bit dry from disuse, don’t worry. Humor can be learned or re-learned. Invest your time with funny movies, comic strips, or books (anything by Christopher Moore or Patrick F. McManus, for example). Also, spend more time with your funniest friends and share the laughter for even greater pleasure. Social connection is also an extremely important – yet often overlooked – aspect of overall health.
The Simple Pleasures in Life
Eating nutrient-rich foods, regular exercise, and smart supplementation are all part of living healthfully, but don’t neglect the simple pleasures principle. You were designed for pleasure—what feels good can lead you to more healthful behaviors and actions. Be passionate and ardent about life itself and all the little (and big) things that make it wonderful.