How Tiny Moments of Pleasure Can Rewire the Brain and Refill Your Well

As humans, we’re wired to stay alive. Even as evolution progresses, the sympathetic nervous system—the fight-or-flight response—still kicks in whenever we sense danger. The brain directs the body to flood the bloodstream with stress hormones and a host of other biochemicals that increase your heart rate, contract your muscles, speed up your respiratory function, release glucose for energy, and other responses that prepare you for self-defense.

This response is essential for survival—but it’s important to understand that our bodies do not know the difference between real threats and perceived threats. For instance, if you’re walking in the woods and see a stick and think it’s a snake, the same autonomic response happens. Even when we’re not at risk of physical harm, this instantaneous, primal reaction can be triggered multiple times in a day, which is why too many of us exist in an overstressed, near-continuous state of fight-or-flight, which adversely effects our mood, hormones, sleep cycles, and cardiovascular, immune, and digestive systems. This overactive drive brings inflammation into our tissues that can catalyze diseases; some 80 percent of doctor visits are due to stress-related symptoms.

But we can take back the power over our nervous system, by changing how we think about and perceive danger in all its forms. The brilliance of the body is that we also have the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system, which quiets the emergency response and restores physiological balance, helping our entire being to function more optimally. To activate that system, we cultivate tools and practices—like yoga, meditation, yoga nidra, and other relaxation techniques—that help us to pause, regroup, and even counteract our immediate, ingrained behavioral responses. 

These practices are wonderful—and we can also find ways to activate the rest-and-digest system in the midst of daily life, with no yoga mat in sight. One of those tools is what I like to call the “power of pleasure.”

Shifting the Focus Toward Pleasure

Did you know that seeking out and experiencing small pleasures in life can actually boost the immune system for as long as two days, while the negative effects of stress take their toll on our system for only one day? This of course depends upon the extent of the stressful situation, but in our daily lives, there are lingering benefits from the smallest of positive and pleasurable events. How encouraging is that?!

So, your task, if you decide to accept it, is to begin the practice of seeking out small pleasures throughout your day. The key is to savor them fully, so they have the power to impact your health and well-being.  

To inaugurate this practice, simply begin to open your eyes and heart to notice, investigate, experience, and soak in the little touches of splendor that are always available. As you walk through your days, cultivate awe, curiosity, and wonder for the little miracles all around you, even while acknowledging what may be challenging and unpleasant. Yin and yang, baby!

For example, when I walk down the New York City streets, I choose where to focus my observation. I could easily stay focused on the dirt and grime and intense pace, but instead, I lift my chin and observe how beautiful the architecture is, or marvel at how many people of different nationalities have passed by me on one block. I also naturally walk a little slower than everyone else.

I don’t put blinders on to the darkness around me. I see it, I feel it, I deal with it, and, at the same time, I also take in the surrounding beauty. My primary practice in life is to consciously look for and take in what is light and open, living alongside what is dark and dense.

Find What Nourishes You

When I teach my program Refilling Your Well at Kripalu, we do an exercise in which we bring to mind and illuminate all the little things in life that have brought us joy and pleasure—from playing in the sand as a child to yesterday’s walk in the park—and imagining what else might bring us delight in the future. We then make a list of all these “ordinary” snapshots, to support us tuning into what is available for us to draw upon.

What I have found over the 15 years of leading this program is that the clear majority of what brings us fulfillment is being purely present in what we are experiencing—and most of these activities cost not a single dime. Turning the pillow over to the cool side, feeling the warmth of a cup of tea in your hands in the morning, watching the leaves dance on a tree, holding hands with a child, and my all-time fave, the sun glistening on a body of water … I could go on and on. The key is to pause in deep presence and really drink the pleasure of this simple experience deep into your cells to nourish the body. 

What if you walked through life allowing your attention to be enraptured by these modest moments? I’m not talking about taking a hippy-dippy-smell-the-roses-everything-is-perfect attitude—I’m talking about making a conscious choice to soothe your soul while decreasing cellular inflammation and cortisol levels in your body.

Sometimes, we are so wrapped up in what is not working that our brains get programmed to focus on what is undesirable and destructive. That’s part of our primordial blueprint. But neuroplasticity allows us to rewire that tendency, and we do that by consistently choosing to recognize and bask in the little pleasures that have the power to nurture, sustain, and create vibrant health—even when nothing at all has changed in our external world.

This article is excerpted and adapted from Refilling Your Well by Priti Robyn Ross, forthcoming in fall 2020.

Priti Robyn Ross, E-RYT 500, a Kripalu Yoga teacher and an international workshop leader for more than 20 years, is passionate about supporting others to awaken to their full potential.

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