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How Do You Want To Feel, Instead Of Stressed? Part 1: Varieties Of Feeling Good

We all want to feel good, and avoid feeling bad – that's fundamental to being alive. Stress is a problem because it feels bad. But it's not enough just to aim to get rid of stress, firstly because trying to get rid of it is quite likely to amplify it, and secondly because if you don't have a clear idea of what you want instead, and how to get there, you're not likely to be successful.

In this article I want to shed some light on the question of what is your real goal, by considering an important aspect of goal setting (not the only aspect) which is how would you like to feel? Now I recognise that this is a broad and even vague question that carries its own pitfalls, but hopefully I'll be able to offer some value in the process.

The thing is, there are different ways of feeling good, or different types of good feeling. I want to highlight two broad categories, which I'll call (1) anticipatory enthusiasm and (2) peace and contentment.

These two have quite different physiological underpinnings. For a balanced overall well-being, we need to be regularly accessing both (at different times).

I'll say more about what I mean by each, before making some suggestions about how and when to access them.

Your Ideal Day

Imagine your ideal day – not a special day but just an ordinary day. Mine might go something like this: I'd wake up naturally with a sense of energy and anticipation. My planned activities would create some enthusiasm, a kind of buzz: just a feeling of wanting to get on with it. As I work through the day this enthusiasm would continue, keeping me focused and engaged, until at the end of the working day my energy would be somewhat spent, but I'd be left with a satisfied feeling of a job well done, or having done something worthwhile. I'd spend the evening basking in the contented afterglow of my efforts, enjoying my leisure and relaxing.

Anticipatory enthusiasm

Anticipatory enthusiasm is the buzz of knowing that something good is coming your way, you're about to get what you want. You might feel like this before a night out with friends, before eating a cake or a bar of chocolate, before seeing the latest episode of box set X you've been looking forward to. It's energising.

In the brain there's likely to be a flush of the neurotransmitter dopamine (which is associated with getting a reward, or anticipating a reward) and in the body there's likely to be a wave of sympathetic nervous system activity, creating arousal.

You can get much milder forms of this experience – for example you're flicking through a magazine and you come across an article that piques your interest, or you find a YouTube video that seems interesting.

Emotion words that go with this category include interest, hope, inspiration, excitement, curiosity, determination.

But anticipatory enthusiasm has a dark side too: addictions are usually built on it. We engage in addictive behaviours because we expect them to deliver something good – we feel the anticipation but the problem is the behaviours don't necessarily deliver on that good feeling we think is coming – at least not in the way that they did once, or not for very long before craving reasserts itself.

Peace & contentment

Contentment is how we feel (hopefully) after we've got what we want. It's a freedom from craving and from painful feelings, but it's not just an absence but a positive experience in its own right. It's a feeling of satisfaction, or of being soothed. It's what we need in the face of pain and suffering.

When we feel at peace, we let go of effort and striving, and in the body we let go of tension and arousal, so we relax physiologically. In the brain, perhaps there's a flush of endorphins, creating a sense of pleasure. The day's work is done, there's nothing more we need to do (for now).

You might get something of this feeling just by sitting down at the end of a day with a glass of wine, or even just a cup of tea.

Emotion words that go with this category include serenity, gratitude, bliss, awe, appreciation.

Accessing Good Feelings

Consider what would happen if you sat down and did nothing except maybe drink a cup of tea or a glass of water. No-one to talk to, no TV or radio, nothing to read, just quiet. How would you feel? Would you enjoy a moment's peace, the contentment of not having anything to do? Or would you quickly start to feel a sense of inner emptiness and boredom, or just start to think about all the things you could be doing next, or even should be doing?

A related question: if you started to feel mildly bad – perhaps you're bored with nothing to do or perhaps your mind turns to worries and anxieties – what would your mind turn to, as a way of replacing bad feeling with good?

I suspect for a lot of people, accessing contentment is a lot harder than accessing anticipatory excitement. I know my own mind tends to start planning what I'm going to do later, which gives me a mild sense of anticipation.

In the extreme, you can go through life waiting for some promised happiness that never actually arrives. It's easy to think, I'll be happy when … X. But instead of waiting for peace and contentment to spontaneously materialise, we need to learn how to feel it, and practise accessing it, in the here and now.

How To Feel Content

This question is obviously a big one, with no easy answer. I'm just going to suggest a few general principles.

  • First, contentment is easier when it's a “well-earned rest” - you enjoy the pleasure of doing nothing when you experience the contrast to work.
  • Contentment is related to pleasure, but not the same as pleasure. Contentment is an emotional response, perhaps to pleasure, but you can still experience contentment while experiencing some pain. I think of pleasure and comfort as like the seed of contentment.
  • Pleasure can't be forced, we can only be open to it, and appreciate it and savour it when it happens to come along, without trying to grasp and hold on to it.
  • We need to let go of expectations of how we should feel, ought to feel, and perhaps even want to feel.
  • That said, there is very often some experience available that is at least relatively pleasurable, even if only very mildly pleasurable, that we hadn't noticed. For example, look around for a colour you like, or a sound that's easy on the ear.
  • Learn to let go of muscle tension. Tension is associated with wanting some experience that we don't have, or wanting to reject some experience we do have and don't like. Fully releasing tension opens up the way for contentment to arise.
  • Learn to access optimal breathing and other aspects of relaxed physiology. This is just a continuation of the last point: some body states are more favourable to the arising of peace and contentment than other. I've talked about what optimal breathing is in other articles.
  • Practise mindfulness: be in the present moment. That's the only place you'll find contentment.
  • Broaden out your focus. Try to take in as much of your sensory experience as you can, or rather just let it be there in the background, without your mind trying to grasp hold of it.

Conclusion

I've talked about two forms of feeling good, which are one active, the other receptive. We need both, at different times. When you find yourself feeling bad in some way, perhaps the first thing is to consider which kind of feeling would be most useful or most appropriate to your present circumstances. For example if craving for cake while on a diet, perhaps some contentment with simple pleasures is what you need. If you're anxious about something, perhaps you can somehow recast the feeling as excitement or enthusiasm or being “pumped up”.

Peace and contentment is something that needs practice – don't fall for the trap of always thinking you'll be content when you get X.

My stress resilience programme using biofeedback aims to train and develop some of the core skills that facilitate the feeling of contentment.

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