Pleasure and Joy


April 4, 2017 by Jean

1st crocus 2017I am generally a happy person. I attribute this to having lucked out in the personality sweepstakes, where I was blessed with a personality that tends toward optimism and looking on the bright side. I remember a conversation with a classmate when I was in college: I had just learned that my then-fiancé would not be going straight to Vietnam from boot camp but would first be stationed stateside for the better part of a year, and this made it possible for us to marry sooner than we had been planning. “How can I not be an optimist?” I asked, “Everything always works out for me.” She gave me a quizzical look and said, “I think maybe it’s the way you look at things.”

Twenty-five years later when my niece, then in her mid-twenties, expressed the opinion that I was always happy because I had never known any hardship, I knew that she was wrong. I had known my share of hardships, but a positive attitude had given me resilience to move past them. When I was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer at age 50, the office manager in my oncologist’s office told me that “Attitude makes a difference.” I don’t know whether attitude played a role in the fact that I’m still alive and cancer-free almost twenty years later, but it certainly made my cancer experience easier.

Recently, I found myself reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W.W. Norton, 2011). The book is about the rediscovery in the 15th century of Lucretius’ ancient poem On the Nature of Things and, through that poem, the rediscovery of Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus argued that life’s highest goal was the pursuit of pleasure. But his was not the pleasure of orgies and excess. As he explained in a letter, “we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, …an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and revelry….” (quoted in Greenblatt, p. 77) Rather, Epicurus was focused on the simple pleasures of daily life and especially on the pleasure and peace of mind that comes from understanding that everything in the natural world is interconnected.

When I read this, I realized that I am an Epicurean. I have long believed in the circle of life and the interconnectedness of nature. For the most part, that belief promotes calm, and it helped reduce my anxiety about death when I was diagnosed with cancer. But my enduring happiness depends very much on my enjoyment of the simple pleasures of daily life. For me, these are most often the pleasures of the five senses: the taste of my first sip of tea each morning; the feel of soft spring breezes or warm sunshine on my skin; the smell of fresh air the first day it is warm enough to open the windows in the house, of clean laundry that has dried on the backyard clothesline or of lavender as I walk through the garden; the sight of snow on trees or a pileated woodpecker outside my study window or of crocuses blooming in spring; the sounds of birdsong as the migratory birds return. Paying attention to these simple daily pleasures, being mindful of them, and savoring them turns pleasure into joy.

There has been quite a bit of focus of late on helping people develop this kind of joy – discussions of mindfulness and of keeping gratitude journals. Because it turns out that the office manager in my oncologist’s office was right; attitude makes a difference. There is now a considerable body of research showing that those with a positive attitude are not only happier, but also healthier. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a misleading correlation; of course those who are healthier have a more upbeat view of life! But it turns out that the correlation also runs the other way; a positive attitude at an earlier point in time predicts better health at a later point in time.

Recent research shows that such an attitude doesn’t have to be part of early personality development; it can be learned in later life. This is the logic behind gratitude journals, where one develops the habit of identifying the positive aspects of life each day. As I thought about the simple sensory pleasures of my daily life and the way that being mindful of those pleasures creates joy, it occurred to me that they might present an alternative to the gratitude journal. Rather than noting three things to be grateful for each day, one could note three sensory pleasures (however small) experienced that day. The idea here is less about directly promoting a positive view of life and more about developing the capacity for joy by being mindful of life’s simple pleasures. I think this would work best if the pleasures noted included at least two senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste) each day. I imagine that, over time, the list of pleasures noticed would become longer and longer, until writing them down was no longer necessary for being mindful.

If anyone tries this, I’d be interested in hearing how it works out for you.

19 thoughts on “Pleasure and Joy

  1. Sue Tibs says:

    Sometime in my mid-40s — honestly, it’s all a blur — I took up meditation. And for my morning and evening commute for a high-powered job that didn’t feel “like me,” a mom and a best friend to my husband, I would listen to CDs by a Buddhist nun, a Buddhist monk, and then the outlier — Wayne Dyer. My point? One day I woke up and realized that enough was enough. I felt free to claim my life as my own … and so, I “retired” to read and write and bicycle and love my family. It’s good, this thing about being mindful enough to just enjoy life, with gratitude. … I typed this with one finger on an iPhone. Does it make any sense?

    • Jean says:

      Sue, Yes it makes sense (and I’m impressed with your one-finger typing skills!). It takes courage to listen to your inner voice and claim your life as your own. I’m reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, though; only those of us whose most basic physical and safety needs are met have the luxury of following that inner voice.

      • Sue Tibs says:

        Yes, I agree, absolutely. What I’ve noticed, though, is that what I really need is far less than what people tell me. But that does assume that the basics are in-place: food, shelter, health, relationships.

  2. MaryAnn Johnson Foster says:

    Jean, I so enjoy your blogs and look forward to reading each one. Yoga and mindfulness have been a big part of my life for the last few years and I find the practice very helpful while copeing with my husband illness. Your last blog reinforced the importance of looking for the little thing in my surroundings to bring joy and happiness into life. Thank you for sharing your life experiences. MaryAnn Johnson Foster. Feehan Class of 1965

    • Jean says:

      MaryAnn, I had no idea you were quietly reading out there. Thanks so much for leaving this comment; it means a lot to me. I think it’s much more stressful to deal with the serious illness of a loved one than your own illness — in part because we have no control over others’ attitudes. In dealing with the illness of a friend this winter, I had to remind myself (and her) that we can only take care of others if we take care of ourselves. I imagine that your yoga and mindfulness have been sanity-saving.

  3. Jean R says:

    That’s an interesting twist to a gratitude journal…recording a sight, smell, sound, touch or taste that gives pleasure. Those are the same things would-be writers are told to pay attention to when writing. My dad had many hardships through his early life but he was still the most positive person I’ve ever known. Only once had I ever heard him raise his voice in anger. I take after him to some degree but I also take after my mom who also had a lot of early hardships. She was proactive in planning to minimize any trouble that came along in the future.

    I started a gratitude journal after my husband’s stroke and I credit it for helping me get me out of a deep depression. Attitude is everything. I hate being around the-glass-is-half-empty kind of people. They are so much work because I feel compelled to point out to them the full half of the glass. LOL

    • Jean says:

      LOL, And pointing out to others that the glass is half full (but see Susan’s comment below!) doesn’t make them see it that way.
      I didn’t realize that writers are advised to pay attention to the five senses. It makes sense as a way of bringing a scene to life.

  4. Donna Donabella says:

    I too have embraced the Epicurean way….simple pleasures and joy….and after years of negative, stress and worry I have found that my health is tied to happiness. It is found internally and is available all the time…we just have to be able to access it and get past our ego minds….acknowledging the simple pleasures is one way….I keep connected to nature and those simple pleasures for that reason and nature is my muse. I have not written down those pleasures, but bring them to the present as I experience them….might be interesting to write them daily…

    • Jean says:

      Donna, Thanks for expressing this so clearly — happiness is found internally and always available. I’m reminded once again of May Sarton’s distinction between solitude (which is a kind of happiness) and loneliness (which is a kind of unhappiness): Solitude is richness of self; loneliness is poverty of self.

  5. sfrussell49 says:

    When I get the chance to read your blogs, I always enjoy them so much! You came up in lunch conversation today while Isabel Valiela and I were eating: we were talking about people who retired, people who’ve contributed SO MUCH to the college–in WGS, in governance, in general–who were then able to retire and build such a joyful, constructive and BUSY life. You are truly an inspiration–have been and continue to be! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Oh–by the way–for the friend who commented on “half empty” and “half full”—I really loved when I read someone who said that the glass is ALL THE WAY Full: half full of water and half of air. And when we can begin to appreciate the whole glass, then I think we are well on our way towards true contentment and peace.

    • Jean says:

      Susan, I love this vision of the glass. And thanks for letting me know that I haven’t been forgotten in Gettysburg. Sometimes when you leave a place, you have a sense that the waters have just closed in over the place you occupied. It’s gratifying to know I’ve had a more lasting impact.

  6. Diana Studer says:

    For you – yesterday my birding niece was here for lunch. Just after she left I saw a bokmakierie perched on the pillar outside the bay window.
    Beautiful biggish birds, usually only heard, singing out clearly like a bell. He sings and she answers.

  7. Dawn says:

    Kindred spirits, Jean! Practicing mindfulness has been an important part of my life in recent years. I’m fascinated by your idea of listing mindful moments in a journal. I’m going to add some mindful moments to my daily Gratitude Journal. I’m certain that it will be a powerful tool ~ one that helps me to be present and mindful, using all of my senses. It will be a great reminder to slow down, and experience the simple pleasures of each day. I learn something new every time I visit both of your wonderful blogs, Jean! ♡

  8. Wendy Fisch says:

    I loved your comments. My ovarian cancer diagnosis came at age 33, when our son was only 5. I worried greatly about who would be responsible for him besides his dad. Well, obviously I am still alive, so it didn’t come to that. If other cancer patients ask me how to carry on I always say, “you will know joy again.”

    • Jean says:

      Wendy, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. When I was diagnosed, my oncologist told me that having cancer could be an opportunity to set my own priorities and figure out what was most important in my life. He was right; I found that it made me slow down and enjoy the small pleasures of life, since I could no longer assume that I would do that at some point off in the future when I wasn’t so busy. Coming face to face with your own mortality makes you appreciate what you have. When my friends grouse about the vicissitudes of aging, I tell them “You haven’t seriously considered the alternative.”

  9. smallstepstochangingyourlife says:

    What a lovely idea, and what a lovely blog. I look forward to reading more!

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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