Another section from the Emotional Competence section of the book on the Inner Work of Leadership that I worked on a few years ago. Re-reading these pieces I’m reminded how difficult I found it to write in someone else’s voice, using source material that they had suggested. If I found these pieces somewhere other than on my hard drive I would not know that I had written them – perhaps I’m a better ghost writer than I realised!

Feeing Good

William Blake - Glad Day

William Blake - Glad Day

On the whole, psychiatry has paid more attention to dis-ease than to wellbeing; perhaps it is easier to be clear about how things have gone wrong than how they have gone right. As a consequence it can be hard to clarify what it means to feel good. We all know that we feel good when we are relieved of anxiety, freed from despair, or recover from being upset, but we also know that to feel good is much more than just the relief of not feeling bad.

The characteristics of feeling good are very broad and can include experiences of lightness, buoyancy, aliveness, optimism, peace, relaxation, hope, connection and involvement. Perhaps the easiest way to summarise the pleasurable aspect of feeling good is to say that when we feel good we experience an expanded and enhanced sense of self.

Feeling good may arise as a direct result of a success or positive experience, and yet we all have experiences of feeling good for no apparent reason. We also know that our expected sources of pleasure can be rather fickle, sometimes failing to provide the pleasure we have expected, usually when we have tried to pursue pleasure as a way of avoiding some unpleasant aspect of our experience. Nevertheless we can identify a number of different ways in which we can come to feel good.

The first and most primordial of these is the gratification of our senses. We can feel good when we touch and are touched, and when we have the opportunity to see, hear, and taste things that are enjoyable to us. Perhaps this is the most obvious area in which the misguided pursuit of feeling good can easily lead to excess.

The second thing that can create a feeling of wellbeing for us is learning and discovery. Here the experiences of the senses are combined with the intellect, as we see in the delight of a child when it discovers something new, or our pleasure can be born simply from intellectual discovery. The fortunate amongst us retain the capacity to find delight in learning new things, however ‘useless’ they may be. It is a sad indictment of our educational system that so many people come to see learning as a boring or even painful experience, rather than one of pleasure and expansion.

The pleasure of learning about is the forerunner to the pleasure of learning how. Here the sense of self is expanded through the development of a new skill, or expertise, or through problem solving, leading to a sense of accomplishment and mastery. There must be some degree of challenge and difficulty in a task for it to provide pleasure in the completion, a task easily achieved offers little gratification. In this respect the cliché that there is no gain without pain is true, showing that pleasure and pain are not simple opposites.

The fourth type of experience that can help us to feel good continues along the same line as the previous two, where the mastery of a skill moves into the expression of creativity. To know that one has brought into being something that did not previously exist, be it a painting or a corporation, can be a tremendous source of delight and satisfaction.

Not only this, but the very act of creation can be one that provides us with a fifth source of pleasure: that of immersion. When all of our energies are fully aligned and engaged in a task so that there is no conflict or distraction, this ‘flow’ of effortless concentration is deeply pleasurable.

A sixth way in which we feel good is when we experience our connection to others. We can experience this collectively through playing sports or music with others, or working together in a team. Singing in a choir provides the metaphor of harmony that encapsulates this experience. We also experience this sense of connection individually in our intimate relationships with loved ones.

In connecting with others we experience an expanded sense of self through including others in our sense of who we are. Perhaps we feel the most good when our sense of self expands to include the whole of existence. This seventh category of pleasurable feeling has been described as ‘peak experience’ or ‘oceanic feeling’ and is characterised by a comprehension of the universal order of things, great joy and delight, awe and wonder, groundedness as well as limitlessness. It is possible for each of us to experience such states, and they tend to have a profound effect on us, sometimes being interpreted as mystical or religious experiences. They can be triggered by intensely positive experiences of nature, art or love, and occasionally by acute trauma, and they can also be actively cultivated through practices such as meditation and deep reflection.

It is regularly observed by people travelling in the developing world that people who have very little often seem happier than their wealthy counterparts in the developed world. While it is also these people who experience the greatest risk from climate change and other natural disasters, it is a salutary lesson for us that we often overlook in our busy and ambitious lives. To fully feel that one is alive is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and one that we are usually too busy to appreciate.

Here are links to the other emotions that I’ve posted so far.

Feeling Bored

Guilt and Shame

Anger – and Emotional Competence

Tiredness, Grieving and Depression

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