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How To Recognize Toxic Pleasure and Turn It Healthy

 Moments of pleasure often feel ethereal and hard to define. Maybe because the essence of pleasure is to be fully present in a certain moment, like when you’re at a concert and listen to every second of a performance that you love so much. You lend every bit of your senses to the experience; time and any other thoughts vanish from your mind. This immersion results in pleasure. But not all pleasurable experiences are equal. There is a notion of toxic pleasure. How do we differentiate healthy from the unhealthy types of pleasure and how so we obtain the former?
Nourishing vs Toxic Pleasure: What is the Difference? elderly couple laughing

According to Marriam-Webster, pleasure is ‘a state of sensual gratification, frivolous amusement, or a state of delight or joy.’ Naturally for each individual, there are different experiences which lead to pleasure. In 1975, Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’, meaning a highly focused mental state when one is fully engaged in an activity. So to realize what gives you pleasure you must ask yourself the following questions:

1. What makes you feel a range of positive emotions? What brings you joy?
2. What makes you feel in the flow?
3. What gives you goosebumps or makes you feel tingly?

Sources of pleasure could range from sports, looking up at the sky and seeing a full moon, a beautiful landscape, the taste of a fruit smoothie, or the company of someone that you love. Anything that brings you to life by simply putting your focus on it. The secret is to pause and relish in it, being present is an essential part of nourishing a pleasurable experience. If being in the moment is something you find challenging, a good way to start would be to learn about practicing mindfulness. 

What is toxic pleasure?

Nourishing vs Toxic Pleasure: What is the Difference? woman enjoying chocolate bar

It’s important that we learn to distinguish between healthy nourishing pleasure to an excess of unhealthy pleasure. It can be tricky as toxic pleasure is very present in our daily lives; it stems from overstimulation from screens, overeating, binge drinking, or doing too many things in one day. If you need to ‘recover’ from an experience, it is likely not nourishing. 

While engaging in the aforementioned activities may be fun from time to time, this isn’t the kind of pleasure we aim to describe in this article. These kinds of experiences cause us to lose energy, and actually numb our senses, and make us less sensitive to healthy pleasure.

Why is it important to invest in nourishing pleasure?

Experiencing pleasure doesn’t only have mental health benefits, but physical ones as well.

Less stress - When you place you focus on the things and people that excite and stimulate you in a positive way, you increase your sense of joy and happiness. This increases the levels of the hormone oxytocin, the same hormone that’s released in your brain when you cuddle with someone, and it reduces the impact of the stress hormone cortisol. 

Stronger immune system - Joy and hormonal balance can also increase immunity and boost your circulatory system, which consists of your heart, veins, blood vessels, blood, and lymph. “Butterflies in your stomach, your facial expressions, even changes in your finger temperature… all of these can depend on your emotions. The effects on the circulatory system can present themselves in different ways physically,” explained Dr. Diana Samuel, MD, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.

Nourishing vs Toxic Pleasure: What is the Difference? friends hugging

Ease pain - Another effect of oxytocin is minimizing pain, according to a recent study. The researchers note that the hormone can be released through sensory stimulation like the touch of a loved one, certain types of light and sound, and even a favorite meal. “Triggering our body to release this hormone could be a potential method for pain treatment,” the researchers concluded.

Increased energy levels - The time and energy negative experiences, or even toxic pleasure, take from us in order to recover the body and mind can leave us drained. This, in turn, can lead to other health issues, and a lack of motivation to indulge in the smaller nourishing pleasures. Simple nourishing pleasures do the opposite, they don’t deplete us but rather boost us with energy. 

Related: 10 Useful Tips to Derive Pleasure from Everyday Things

How to practice pleasure?

Nourishing vs Toxic Pleasure: What is the Difference? jumping in puddles

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, different people experience pleasure through different means. It is also important to remember that different senses need more attention at different times. For a simple exploration of that, you may try:

  • Lighting a scented candle for the sense of smell.
  • Playing a song or a soothing instrumental piece for the sense of hearing.
  • Gazing at a piece of art you love or a natural landscape to feed the sense of sight.
  • Feel the caress of a silk scarf or other smooth material against your neck for the sense of touch.
  • Slowly savor a piece of dark chocolate for the sense of taste.

Once you make that choice, the method is fairly simple:

  • Pause
  • Connect 
  • Immerse your senses in the experience.

The beauty of these simple kinds of pleasure is that they come from within and are accessible to anyone. The next time you stumble upon something that awakes this state in you, like a cute dog on the street, for example, remember that it's okay to stop and give space for this sense of pleasure. It’s essential nourishment. 

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