I Feel Good: Pleasure and Fulfillment

Pleasure is a central topic in a lot of the conversations sex educators have with people. There are the questions about how to pleasure a partner; the questions about how to make masturbation more pleasurable. There's also the oft-asked question: why isn't sex pleasurable for me?

We've covered some of the answers to that question in this article, and in this one. But, in recent conversations with those using our direct services, we've noticed a sadly common pattern:

We'll ask what sources of pleasure -- besides sex -- someone experiences and seeks out in their life. Nine times out of ten the response is silence with crickets chirping awkwardly in the background. It seems some people really struggle to associate pleasure with anything non-sexual. A lot of people seem to even define pleasure as ONLY being sexual.

That struggle to broaden the concept of pleasure often extends to pleasure's more "complex" cousin, fulfillment. Just like lots of people assume sex is the only source of pleasure, lots of people expect their romantic relationships to be the main, and often the only, source of emotional and mental satisfaction in their lives. We see this phenomenon most clearly when someone is going through a break-up: someone's feeling unfulfilled and unhappy so we ask what, besides being in a romantic or sexual relationship, makes them feel good. Are there other parts of their life that bring them joy? Once again, the answer is the song of the awkward crickets. (Man, their poor little throats must be mighty sore.)

What this pattern suggests is that a lot of young people have learned to view pleasure and fulfillment in very narrow terms. That's a major bummer, because there are so many elements of life that can make you warm inside and tingly all over that don't involve sex or romantic relationships at all, or that can happen within those relationships as shared pleasure, but aren't sex. There's also a lot of awful stuff going on in the world right now. Finding things that make you feel good, be that physically, mentally, or emotionally, can make the cruddy parts of the world more survivable.

With this article, I want to tease out the ideas of pleasure and fulfillment and challenge the notion that those feelings only come from one or two sources. Is sex a great source of pleasure? Yep! Are romantic relationships fulfilling? Sure! But they are so not the whole story. Change your mindset just a little and you'll discover a world of pleasurable possibilities.

Pleasure Primer

When I was in my late teens, I remember reading a magazine where a "destressing expert" claimed that your brain reacted the same way to a picture of a cute animal as it did to having an orgasm. While I was skeptical of this claim, I repeated it at plenty of parties because it got such a satisfying mystified reaction out of people.

Looking back, I think the article referenced a real phenomenon but did so exceedingly poorly. What it was likely talking about is the fact that there's an overlap in the neurochemicals released during orgasm and the chemicals released when you watch a cat video. Studies show that all types of pleasure seem to run through the same channels in your brain, so you can hit the same pathways with eating ice cream as you can with getting a back rub as you can with getting a hand job. It's theorized that the brain has "hotspots" that create a ton of pleasure when they fire. That's the simplified version, and there's still a lot of debate amongst researchers as to the exact function and mechanics of pleasure, but for our purposes it works just fine. It tells us that sex is far from the only way to experience pleasure, and that if your sex life is lacking (or if you're not interested in sex, period) there are still tons of ways to feel good.

This is as good a place as any to mention that knowing more ways besides sex to create pleasure, either for yourself or for your partner, often benefits your sexual interactions and relationships. Sex isn't solely about genitals interacting with each other or body parts rubbing together, and if those are the only activities your sex life consists of it's going to get boring after awhile. If you're aware of other things that give you pleasure, you can introduce those into the mix. For example, if wearing or touching a certain type of fabric makes you feel the good kind of goosebumps, you or your partner could wear a piece of clothing made from that fabric during sex. Playing with different types of pleasure keeps sex interesting, and sharing those experiences with a partner helps you feel connected to each other. Think of it like adding salt, pepper or other spices to your meals: incorporating all kinds of pleasure into sex is basically a flavor enhancer.

If you've read this far and are worrying that you won't be able to come up with something both pleasurable and non-sexual, never fear. Odds are you already have some sense of what lights up your brain's pleasure pathways.

If I asked you to name a food you loved to eat, you could probably come up with something. But sometimes when you're feeling stressed, sad, or bored it's challenging to call your favorite things to mind. If that's the case, try the following: close your eyes and imagine what you'd like to be doing in that moment. What sensations are you craving?  If you had total control over the universe, what would you ideally be tasting, smelling, or touching?

Once you've got that idea in your head, think about what you could do to create those sensations. For example, maybe what you want most in the world is to be sitting on a sunny beach. But you're stuck at home on a rainy day. In Kansas. Barring the ability to teleport, your best bet is to break the experience you want into pieces and identify which piece you crave most and how you could recreate it. Maybe what you want is to be warm (try warm bath or wrapping yourself in lots of blankets). Or to smell salt and coconut sunscreen (light an "ocean breeze" or coconut scented candle). Or to hear the sound of the waves while shoving a popsicle into your face (try this background noise generator and making your own frozen treat).  It's not a perfect replica, but that process can help you stimulate the pleasure hotspots in your brain, making you feel good.

Feeling Stumped? Here are 20 of the 46 zillion ways to create pleasure in your life

  • Wrap yourself in a soft blanket
  • Take a warm bath
  • Cuddle something small and furry, or large and furry, or medium-sized and feathery or, well, you get the idea
  • Find something smooth and cool, like a marble or a stone, and rub it.
  • Lie down somewhere and listen to your favorite music
  • Watch videos of baby animals
  • Hug someone you love
  • Cook/bake/grill something that smells and tastes delicious
  • Eat something sweet
  • Masturbate
  • Watch or read something that makes you laugh
  • Get a massage
  • Make S'mores
  • Find a garden or park and smell the flowers
  • Put on a piece of clothing that feels great on your skin
  • Trigger a happy scent memory, like your partner's deodorant or your parent's cookies
  • Drink a warm beverage like tea, coffee, or cocoa
  • Do something active that is more pleasant than painful; swimming, hiking, riding a bike, yoga or just a bunch of slow stretching
  • Do something nice for your skin, like washing your face, using a face mask, or giving yourself a rub down with a sugar scrub.
  • Order your favorite take-out and watch movies or TV shows that make you happy.

If you're finding that none of the usual things you like bring you pleasure and that any attempts to try new pleasurable things leave you feeling blank, it might be time to check in with a therapist or counselor. Anhedonia, the fancy word for "nothing I like feels good anymore" can be a symptom of mental health issues, particularly depression. We all have low days where nothing seems to make us feel better, but if your low day has turned into a low month, or multiple months, it's good to check in with a mental healthcare provider to see if there's an underlying cause that needs treating.

That list goes on and on. There are lots of ways to feel pleasure,  none of them universally "better" than the others. We each have our own set of items and sensations that lighting up our brain's pleasure pathways. We're not done exploring those pathways yet, because now we get to talk about another feel-good emotion: fulfillment.

Getting your fill of fulfillment

Remember I said that fulfillment is a cousin of pleasure? There's a specific reason for calling it that. When researchers talk about pleasure, they divide it into two levels: "fundamental" pleasure from activities like sex or eating and "higher-order" pleasure from things like altruism or connection. Those levels can overlap, but the existence of "higher order" pleasure tells us that you feel good when you have a variety of activities in your life that connect you to people and give you a purpose.

In other words, you get pleasure from feeling fulfilled. That's why it's troubling that so many people name their romantic relationship as their only source of fulfillment. It means they see a limited number of ways to enjoy their life. This also creates a dynamic where they're terrified of losing their romantic relationships because they feel like their lives are empty without it. This makes them reluctant to leave partners who are toxic or who they're simply not into because they're afraid of having that gap in their lives. If your reason for staying in a relationship is that your life feels like a meaningless void without it, that's not actually a good thing. You want your relationship to be one part of a rich, varied life, not the whole of it.

A major source of fulfillment that's often overshadowed by a focus on romantic relationships is friendship. Our friendships are a source of deep connection and enjoyment, and they can last a lot longer than many of our romantic pursuits. Not convinced? Think about the last time you were out with friends. Odds are you got the warm fuzzies sitting with them, and your brain kept going, "wow, I'm so glad these people are in my life, I feel so happy right now." That's why it's important to set aside time for your friends whether you're dating someone or not.  You don't want to cut yourself off from those important connections.

How do you go about finding other sources of fulfillment?  Generally you come upon them through one or more of these channels: what you value, what you enjoy, or what you're curious about. If you're passionate about the environment, helping animals, or knitting (or something else entirely!), check out if there are volunteer opportunities that let you use that passion to help others. Or you could set aside some time each week for activities you enjoy, be that reading, weightlifting, or underwater basket weaving. Curiosity is valuable because sometimes you don't have a strong idea of what you like, or maybe your circumstances (like moving to a new place) mean that you're old pastimes are no longer accessible. If that happens, you can shift gears using your curiosity as a guide. Is there something you've wanted to try that you've never had the chance to? See if there are any meet-ups or groups in your area that are built around that activity or subject that you can join. That approach pulls double-duty, because it brings you into the orbit of potential friends, giving you a source of connection. You can also check out a book from the library on the subject to help you get started on your new pursuit.

This approach can be challenging if you're trying to balance school, social connections, and your wellbeing (like getting enough sleep). In that situation, you can try building in little pockets of time to do things that make you happy and fulfilled. That could be ten minutes of exercise, your favorite snack, or taking fifteen minutes to work on a creative project. Some people find it's easiest to schedule a specific time for these pleasure pockets, like before bed or during their lunch hour.  Others take the Special Agent Dale Cooper approach, deciding to do at least one pleasurable thing a day, with no pre-set idea about when that thing will occur or what it will be.

Ultimately, it's up to you to decide which ways of bringing pleasure and fulfillment into your life work best for your circumstances. What we hope you take away from this article is that pleasure is everywhere. And the more you cultivate it in your life, the easier it will be to get through those moments where your love life, your sex life, or life in general is getting you down.

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