I’m not a happiness guy—there’s nothing new that I can tell you about how to live a fulfilling life. Instead, I am interested in the more concrete topic of pleasure. What’s the difference? Happiness is a prolonged state of being that is influenced by a variety of factors, ranging from a person’s relationships to her religion to her genetic predispositions. Pleasure, on the other hand, is a purely instinctive reaction with a brief life span: 30 seconds to an hour or two, tops. And while happiness can be elusive at times, sources of pleasure are fairly easy to come by. Read on for a host of unexpected ways to pack bliss into your life.
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Play That Song You Love So Much. Repeat
As any preschooler can tell you, repetition nurtures pleasure. When you experience something more than once, you notice more details about it each time, thereby increasing your enjoyment. That’s why you love revisiting that jazz standard, favorite roast chicken recipe, and beloved old Woody Allen movie. Of course, you can overdo it. The effect of repetition on pleasure is an inverted U: You appreciate something more and more over time until, abruptly, it becomes repellent to you. Which is why no one you know can bear to listen to that “I get knocked down, but I get up again” song anymore.
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Seek Out the Sommelier
In all areas of our lives, our sensory reactions are affected by the depth of our knowledge. Take wine, for example. If you want to enjoy it more fully, you don’t have to shell out hundreds for a bottle of Château Lynch-Bages; you simply need to learn about the vino you are already drinking. Buy a wine encyclopedia, take a class—or head to a restaurant with a sommelier who likes to educate patrons during the meal. You won’t just think about wine differently; you will taste it differently.
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Don’t Buy Boxed Sets of DVDs
Economist Tyler Cowen says that much of the joy we get from our purchases lies in the experience of seeking them out, getting them home, and opening them up. If you receive 18 DVDs in one package, you’ll use up the buzz all at once. Buy them one at a time and space out the pleasure.
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Keep Your Child’s Baby Shoes in Your Desk at Work
You know how you keep a bag of almonds in your drawer in case you need an energy boost in the afternoon? Place something emotionally resonant there as well for the times your mood needs a quick lift. Stash a few objects that are connected with treasured experiences—say, that 1997 vacation to Barcelona—and occasionally take a moment to pick up one of these items and look at it closely. Elation is sure to follow.
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Read (or Watch or Participate in) Something That Takes Your Breath Away
A recent study found that people seek out newspaper articles that inspire awe—that hard-to-define feeling we get when we’re exposed to great beauty, power, or accomplishment. This pleasurable tickle is uniquely human and can be achieved in multiple ways: praying, watching nature programs, and reading stories of personal triumph, to name a few. Whatever gives you that lump-in-your-throat feeling, pursue it any way you can.
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Our species has spent almost all of its existence on the African savanna, surrounded by trees, water, and sky. The world in which most of us spend our time nowadays is unnatural and can corrode the spirit. Even a small dose of nature elevates our mood. But accept no substitutes! Psychologist Peter Kahn Jr. put 50-inch high-definition TVs into windowless offices of faculty and staff members at the University of Washington in Seattle, then streamed in a live view of a natural scene. It turned out that these HDTVs did nothing for the participants’ physiological stress response. What worked? A window with a view of real greenery. My guess is that even a view of a humdrum landscape, like the parking lot of an office building, is more emotionally satisfying than the most beautiful travel poster.
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Pet a Dog (Any Dog)
You may have heard this before, but it bears repeating: Physical contact with animals works wonders. It increases the brain chemicals associated with pleasure and decreases those associated with stress. Even people without pets can get some of the effect by hanging out for a few minutes at a dog run.
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Grin and Bear It
Isn’t it annoying when you’re a little blue and your friends and family tell you to smile? Well, like it or not, smiling is a mood booster. Here’s why: People react better to you when you look happy, leading to a reinforcing cycle of good vibes. Plus, thanks to something called “facial feedback,” looking happy (oddly enough) fools your brain into thinking that you are happy.
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Humans are altruistic by nature: If we act generously, we feel joyful. Go ahead and try it. Go to the website of a favorite charity and make a donation. It doesn’t have to be a lot—just enough to get a small burst of pride in your chest.
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Make the Bath as Hot as You Can Stand It
Psychologist Paul Rozin has argued that people get a kick from “benign masochism”—that is, controlled exposure to low-level discomfort (think spicy chili peppers and saunas). Maybe we love the endorphin rush. Or just the delightful contrast when we ultimately escape from the pain. Regardless, it pays to pamper yourself occasionally with a bit—but just a bit—of suffering.