A new plague has struck the United States. It's the cause of one of every four health complaints, among the top five reasons people call their doctors, and contributes to early death--directly or indirectly--more than any other factor. This modern epidemic is not the result of a virus or bacteria, poor diet, lack of exercise, or stress. It is a lack of joy, the lack of sufficient daily bliss for psychological and physical health.
The Western world has devised myriad approaches for dealing with "toxic" success, the illnesses that go hand in hand with too much work and too little play. Most involve stress management techniques that fail to confront the sources of stress and simply turn stress reduction into another stressful life obligation.
A much more sane antidote is what I call the pleasure prescription for "enlightened hedonism." Joy is not just elation, but a kind of spiritual toughness that allows us to derive pleasure from every aspect of daily living. And, as new research is proving, it is key to good health.
New findings about health and happiness come from psychoneuroimmunology (PNI)--the study of the relationship between human behavior, psychosocial factors, and immunity against disease. In ongoing research, psychoneuroimmunologist Arthur Stone at the State University of New York has discovered that positive events have a stronger beneficial impact on immune function than upsetting events have a negative effect. Simple, enjoyable activities, such as having a few friends over for dinner, can immediately strengthen the immune system and temporarily reduce blood pressure.
Although I have been a clinical psychologist for thirty years--and specialized in PNI--it wasn't until I was diagnosed with cancer that I understood the importance of joyful living. For months I lived as a patient in a bone marrow transplant ward where each patient was near death. Never have I seen so many happy people in one place. Cancer patients have a survivor's pleasure; every bit of joy makes them feel alive because they have developed their seventh sense.
The problem for many well people, however, is that they have lost touch with their seventh sense; their innate sense for bliss and enchantment with living. If we follow it, it will direct us away from what hurts us and lead us directly to what brings us the greatest joy and health.
Five Ways to Joy
It is possible to develop your seventh sense and to discover the subtle joys that create good health, happiness, and longevity. Here I have outlined the five most important components--and exercises--that will help you slow down and rediscover the joy in daily living.
PATIENCE. Do you drive aggressively, honk your horn out of frustration, and curse at other drivers? Do you push buttons on elevators that are already lit? Do you feel guilty when you sit and do nothing? Impatience is considered a virtue in our culture--as we chase an illusion of perfection. But rather than living to be "better," perfectionists need to be patient during times of trouble--and also during times of joy. This does not mean leading a passive life, but rather being calm enough to be fully part of whatever happens.
If you need to learn patience, try this exercise for one week. On Monday, place three quarters in your pocket. Every time you become impatient or irritated, reach into the pocket, gently turn one of the quarters between your forefinger and thumb, and count ten breaths. Then, take the quarter out of your pocket and give it to someone (a homeless person, a friend). At the end of each day, if you still have quarters, save them and add them to three new ones the next day.
If, as the week draws to a close, you begin to jingle as you walk, congratulate yourself on developing equanimity and celebrate by putting your pile of quarters in a charity container.
UNITY. In our Western culture, the earth and everything on it are here for our "use," or exploitation. Just as we fail to notice the cries of the earth, so we frequently ignore messages from our body or block them with antacids, aspirin, and laxatives. Psychologist Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona has spent ten years studying feedback from our bodies. He describes television commercials as ways of telling you how to turn off your body's language: "The message was: `Eat all you want. If you get a stomachache, don't change your behavior and listen to your body. Instead take Alka-Seltzer.'" He has shown that those who cut themselves off from the body's sensations--be they good or painful--are much more likely to have weak hearts and lowered immunity.
To transcend is not to excel, succeed outshine, surmount, or go beyond. It is to surrender, share, sacrifice, and go within to give of oneself for the good of the whole and to feel the pleasure that comes from such unity. It is not hierarchical but harmonious.
Modern psychologists believe in the harmony-over-hierarchy view. They have documented that at the most important times in our life we are governed by the need for unity. There are countless examples of transcendent selflessness. Parents run into burning homes to save their children. Martyrs like Mahatma Gandhi fast for the sake of others. Despite evolutionists who suggest that altruistic behavior is only selfish gene-protection, I believe that we need to transcend the self, to see ourselves in others, and to live by and for the principle of unity.
There are three ways to experience more harmonious unity in your daily life: Take a few minutes to try the following exercises and write down your responses. Check back on your record to see your progress.
Personal Connection: Lie down and scan your entire body from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. Listen for messages from your body. Don't censor your body's reports; just attend to each and every signal, both pleasurable and negative. Then, take action based on these "body bulletins." For example, if you are eating antacids like candy, ask your stomach what, how, and with whom you should be eating to make it less disruptive.
Interpersonal Connection: Spend at least five minutes a day sitting quietly with someone. Don't try to force a connection, just let it happen. Don't discuss problems, just be quiet together. After your quiet time together, talk about the experience, and you will see just how powerful the seventh sense can be in creating a connection beyond your physical and psychic senses.
Transpersonal Connection: Select one ritual to practice every day, without fail A prayer, a dance, singing a song with your family, saying grace before a meal, and sitting in the same chairs around the table are rituals that others have chosen and enjoyed.
AGREEMENT. Your phone awakens you late at night with a wrong number. A driver cuts you off in traffic and flashes a vulgar gesture. Someone cuts in front of you in line at the movie theater. If these situations just roll off you, your natural pleasure system is healthy. If they elicit the urgency--or fight or flight--response, your health is being burned away by the heat of hostility.
At least one in five of us has levels of anger and hostility high enough to constitute a serious risk to our health. Most of this anger comes from feeling trespassed against. When either time or territory is threatened, blood pressure skyrockets and the immune system shuts down.
When your brain alerts you to a trespass, try this exercise. Feel the side of your neck for your pulse. If your pulse starts to increase, your heart is being stressed and your immune system is at risk First, try to relax and take a few deep breaths. Don't deal with the perceived trespass until your pulse has slowed.
Because we not only behave as we feel, but can also learn to feel as we behave, you should not deal with anger when your body is in attack mode. Instead, write down what you think is your anger's source and then take a break Address the anger when your body is calmer and your brain is less defensive. Sleep on the problem and then discuss it. If you don't have time to sleep on it, go for a walk before you get back to the problem.
HUMILITY. Our greed is making us rich, but not happy. For example, fewer than one in five Americans report they are leading lives of joy. And while we are four times richer than our great-grandparents, data show that we are also at least four times as depressed. And surveys by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago reveal that no more Americana report being happy now than in 1957.
Humility means having the "emotional intelligence" to acknowledge our weaknesses and not try to be better than others. More than a century ago, author Edward Bellamy wrote, "Competition, which is the instinct of selfishness, [leads to a] dissipation of energy, while cooperation is the secret of efficient production."
To help you to monitor and avoid selfishness and to practice humbleness, try this exercise. Spend an entire day (probably a weekend day) without using the pronouns "I," "me, or "mine." Either substitute another pronoun or just don't say anything. You will probably stumble in conversations, but after a few hours, you'll discover new ways of speaking--and thinking. You will start asking others more about themselves. You will notice that people feel more relaxed around you. Also listen for others' "self" vocabulary. You will likely notice that as you decrease your "self" pronouns they will too.
KINDNESS. Research shows that one of the most pleasurable of all human acts is also one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself: acting kindly toward others. Time spent caring for others has the same positive effect on health as that same amount of time spent exercising. It translates into immense immune and health benefits.
Try this daily kindness exercise. Commit yourself to helping one complete stranger every day. It may be as simple as giving up your seat on a crowded bus, letting someone move ahead of you in line, or paying someone else's highway toll.
Paul Pearsall, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist specializing in the interactions between the brain, body, and immune system. He gives lectures based on The Pleasure Prescription around the world.
Reprinted from The Pleasure Prescription: To Love, to Work, to Play--Life in the Balance by Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. (Copyright 1996), with permission of Hunter House Publishers (Alameda, CA 800-266-5592).
Source Citation:Pearsall, Paul. "Prescription for pleasure: even more important than diet or exercise, research confirms that taking delight in your daily life will keep you healthy." Natural Health 27.n1 (Jan-Feb 1997): 42(3). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 17 Oct. 2009
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