Comfortably settling into my spot on the back porch for Sunday morning coffee, I notice it.
It doesn’t feel quite right. Something is missing. What is it?
The cushions and pillows cradle and support me as always; the velvety plum-colored pillow fits perfectly on my lap, softly snuggling my hands as they curl around my coffee mug. The coffee is its usual perfect color, aroma and taste as I savor a sip.
I look up. The garden sports more than its usual splendor of blooms. The squirrel, in its ritual leap from the tree to the squirrel-proof bird feeder, cleverly clings to the wire mesh and bounces to get the seeds to fall out. Birds glory in their announcement of another beautiful day. The sprinklers, as timed, emerge for my enjoyment of their rhythmical dance across the lawn.
Yet my usual Sunday-morning-on-the-back-porch-peaceful feeling eludes me. What is it?
I close my eyes. I hear the sprinklers: “Tssshhhhhhhhhhh.”
The sprinklers. It’s the sprinklers!
For eleven years of Sunday mornings on this back porch, I’ve relaxed to the “chish, chish, chish” sound of the sprinklers, as they dispurse their fervid streams of water in pulsating, vigorous semicircular motion, followed by the long “chshhhhhhhhhh” as they reset for the next round of bursts.
But now the sprinklers are different. We’ve had them replaced.
The new ones don’t “chish, chish, chish.” Instead, they “tsssshhhhhhhhhhhh.”
They don’t pulse in streams of lively bursts. Instead, they gently whirl, wistfully falling in spokes.
They water the garden just fine. But they don’t activate the pleasure center in my brain.
Our brains are wondrous things. We are wired for associations between sensations and emotions in our subconscious. Sensations travel like little messengers along the afferent nervous system and make their way to the amygdala. The amygdala is a deep, central part of the human brain that helps determine if we should fear or enjoy what’s going on, based on incoming sensations. It receives messages from the sensory system and makes instantaneous connections. It triggers behaviors for rewards and stores memories associated with strong emotions like fear and pleasure. It helps a baby know that mama’s voice from the other room means help is on the way. It lets us know if a face we see is dangerous or trustworthy. We learn, through the action of the amygdala (and associated brain structures and chemistry), that if we need to feel pleasure, we can turn to things that created them before, like the back porch on Sunday morning.
If something changes the sensation–even something as simple as the sound of the sprinklers–the peaceful, pleasurable response doesn’t trigger.
So what’s to be done? Will I never find pleasure drinking coffee on my back porch on Sunday morning again? Must I head to the hardware store and buy the old-style sprinkler heads?
Maybe you’ve noticed something is amiss in your favorite pleasurable activities. Maybe something changed that’s more important than a sprinkler. Maybe you’ve acquired an injury or disability and can’t walk or move your body the way you used to. Maybe you’re missing the feel of the sand between your toes or the sound and sights of the dance floor. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one. Maybe you’re missing the smell of your loved one’s clothes, or the sound of their voice, or the gentle, comforting pressure of their arms around you. Maybe you’re not sure what’s wrong, but you just can’t feel the way you used to feel. Maybe you wonder if you’ll ever feel peaceful pleasure again.
Stay tuned, then. This is the first in a series of five posts entitled, “Elusive Pleasures.” We’ll be exploring these losses, their associated neural connections and ways to work with our brains to help them adapt to changes and renew pleasure.
Come back soon. Bring your favorite coffee mug, pillow and journal. Be sure to share your comments too, so we can all share the journey.
“You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy, at Your right hand there are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16:11, AMPC