A bite of toast with just the right drizzle of honey, followed by a sip of steaming French Roast. Mmmm. Now that’s what I call pleasure…
Gazing at photographs of my boys when they were still little, their grins wide and their eyes sparkling… Oh yes, I can feel the spread of warmth as tangibly as if I had just downed an 80 proof shot. So many memories are a source of pleasure.
So what do you think? Is pleasure physical? Is it an emotion?
For me, a breadth of emotions are intertwined with sensory triggers and bodily responses. I recognize that the experience will vary by the time of day, the mood I’m in, if I’m tired or hungry or distracted, and certainly, the company I’m keeping.
Ah, Pleasure… In All Its Forms
Naturally, most of us can think of many types of pleasure, and sexual pleasure is among them. We may define it as physical, or we may associate sexual pleasure with love (or at least fondness) and therefore feel its benefits co-mingle with an emotional state. And let’s not forget the other senses involved in our pleasurable encounters that surely don’t require that we run all the bases, including aspects of touch, taste, scent, sight and sound.
How about the exciting film, the book that sweeps us up into its characters’ lives, the symphony that leaves us both roused and tranquil? How about the pleasure of the puzzle we wrestle with, and eventually solve?
Pleasure, certainly in my life, comes in three categories: physical, emotional and intellectual. And yes, they blend.
I have often wondered why it is that I’m more emotional (in general) at certain times — and no, I don’t think it’s as simple as hormonal fluctuations. I’ve also wondered about the range of emotions that seem to be sensed simultaneously, for example, moments that are bittersweet, with their mix of melancholy and tenderness.
Having recently come across two articles that delve into the internal workings of our emotional experiences — although they don’t address these questions exactly — I found myself fascinated.
Keeping a Straight Face?
I’ve never been good at keeping a straight face, but over the years I’ve become more adept at not showing every single emotion I may be feeling. And like most of us, I identify those emotions with terms like happy, sad, angry, worried, frightened…
The rainbow of emotions is much more extensive and nuanced, of course. I find more depth in terms like elated, content, wistful, melancholic, miffed, livid, concerned, anxious, even terrified.
Then there is the absence of emotion, or at the very least, detachment from any degree of intensity of irritation, longing, or other feeling I might not wish to display depending upon where I am.
This first article in The Times smashed my preconceived notions of emotion as either distinct states of being, or a sort of spectrum in which one emotion may bleed into another. And I confess, both are how I always envisioned the machinery of our emotional state.
Understanding the Science of Emotions
In What Emotions Are and Aren’t, professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett notes the traditional view that neuroscience gives us, identifying the region of the brain where emotions reside as the amygdala. However, she is more interested in how emotions are “constructed” and, she indicates that our assumptions about emotions are on the wrong path.
Dr. Barrett writes:
Most people, including many scientists, believe that emotions are distinct, locatable entities inside us — but they’re not…
And for those of us who are convinced that emotions show in our expressions, even in minuscule ways that are detectable and identifiable, she continues:
Many scientists assume that the face clearly and reliably broadcasts emotion (scowling in anger, pouting in sadness, widening the eyes in fear, wrinkling the nose in disgust). But a growing body of evidence suggests that this is not the case. When we place electrodes on a human face and actually measure muscle movements during anger, for example, we find that people make a wide variety of movements, not just the stereotypical scowl.
So why does this erroneous assumption matter?
Dr. Barrett references two reasons, but most of us can probably think of many other contexts that would apply (both personal and professional) —
When medical researchers ask, “What is the link between anger and cancer?” as if there is a single thing called “anger” in the body, they are in the grip of this error. When airport security officers are trained on the assumption that facial and body movements are reliable indicators of innermost feelings, taxpayers’ money is wasted.
Hiding Our Emotions
I admit, while I’ve always thought some people are more skilled at masking their emotions, I nonetheless presumed greater uniformity to the physiological causes and effects, which isn’t to say that we don’t each experience widely divergent emotional responses to the same stimuli — at the very least, a matter of temperament, psychological makeup, age and life lessons.
Another article in The Times some months back deals with The Importance of Naming our Emotions.
Tony Schwartz notes that our emotions impact our work process and results — that’s logical, don’t you think? — whether we show them or not. And, explaining the role of emotions in our work lives — emotions that we’re supposed to hide or compartmentalize:
… Most employers don’t give emotions much attention… preferring that we park them at the door in the morning so they don’t get in the way during the workday… Unfortunately, that isn’t possible for human beings…
Think about how you feel when you’re performing at your best… At our best, we feel positive, happy, confident, calm, focused, enthusiastic, open and optimistic. That’s when we’re most productive and get along best with others.
Sadly, most of us no longer have lives in which work doesn’t bleed into our socializing, our marriages, our parenting and pursuit of other activities that we may enjoy — or vice versa. Times have changed. We’re jamming too much into too few hours. We’re struggling. We’re stressed. We’re overwhelmed.
Emotions Find Their Way Out
Anyone who thinks that emotions don’t find their way into the workplace ought to think again, and articulating what we feel, although difficult at times, can be very helpful. Mr. Schwartz tells us:
… naming our emotions tends to diffuse their charge and lessen the burden they create. The psychologist Dan Siegel refers to this practice as “name it to tame it.”
And for those who believe that denial is effective, consider this:
It’s also true that we can’t change what we don’t notice. Denying or avoiding feelings doesn’t make them go away, nor does it lessen their impact on us, even if it’s unconscious…
We all have emotional triggers, of course, and moments when a sight, sound, smell or situation may cause us to feel a certain way, and perhaps with more intensity than we fully understand at the time. We may be more susceptible to the emotion when we’re tired, hungry, worried, anxious or in some other vulnerable state.
Situations of powerlessness trigger anger in me, pleasant scenes involving children tend to trigger joy, a scent in the air is likely to remind me of a sensual encounter with someone I love…
And in the case of both positive and negative emotions, surely, expressing them at inappropriate times does not make sense. Likewise, ignoring their existence — especially if they’re affecting our ability to make it through the day in healthy and productive ways.
- Do you understand when and why you feel certain emotions more intensely?
- Are you good at masking your emotions, especially those we typically consider negative?
- Of the three types of pleasure — physical, emotional and intellectual — do you separate these or prefer them to blend?
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