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What's so bad about feeling good?

Some experts say the absence of pleasure may be hazardous to your health

August 6, 1998

'You won't forget about those cigars will you? And have them wrap them up to look like toothpaste or something or they'll stop them at the desk. You know that young doctor I was telling you about? He's got an idea he wants to keep me alive."

-- Joseph Cotton as Jed Leland in "Citizen Kane," 1941

BY WILLIAM R. MACKLIN
Knight Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA -- Meg O'Neill rears back in an overstuffed chair at a martini bar and, as a waitress pours her another drink, lets a deep, satisfied sigh slip through her lips.

Chocolate martinis on a summer evening. It doesn't get any better than this. Not even at nine bucks a pop. Not even at 350 calories a glass.

"I'm enjoying it, so it's OK," O'Neill says with a smile.

She's 27, flush with good health and majoring in athletic training at Temple University. But O'Neill, who also works as a bartender, will tell you that if she wants to toss back chocolate martinis until Hershey Kisses drip from her nose, that's her business, her responsibility, her good time.

She's had it with people mucking with her pleasures.

"They want to weigh you, they want to see what you look like, they want to tell you what to do," she says.

"They," says O'Neill, are the forces of good health, the killjoys who publish endless studies telling you that you eat too much, drink too much, exercise too little. They appeal to your rational side, they point up your excesses, they warn that everything you love, from red meat to kinky sex, will catch up with you and that a free and responsible adult is responsible first and free second, and oh, about that Ben & Jerry's you keep hidden in the freezer behind the free range chicken -- each time you take a bite, you're digging your grave with your teeth.

O'Neill and, apparently, millions of other Americans are starting to ask: What good is living longer if all you're doing is staying alive? Or, to put it another way, what role should pleasure, however you choose to define it, play in a healthy and balanced life?

A joyless existence

"What we call health is actually tinged with moralism," says writer Thomas Moore, whose latest book, "The Soul of Sex" (HarperCollins, $25), argues that many Americans live pleasureless lives that would benefit from an infusion of the kind of joy usually associated with physical intimacy.

"Everything is aimed at living longer, not living better," insists Moore, a pyschotherapist. "But if your basic principal of life is to defend against death, you're not doing much."

Public health officials and members of the medical community say they've got nothing against pleasure; many believe that good health isn't just the absence of disease or injury, it's the marriage of physical and emotional well-being. They merely want people to have the information they need to make responsible decisions about their lives and health.

"The longer you live, the more opportunities you have for enjoyment," says Michael Daube, an Australian public health official who was in the United States recently for an international conference on pleasure.

Besides, who says that everything pleasing has to be bad for you, wonders Dorine I. Lauricella.

Each morning Lauricella, 47, spends two hours at a gym in Washington Township, N.J., hoisting weights and working her way through aerobic exercises. It's not exactly her idea of a good time, but she takes so much pleasure in the results that she's loath to complain.

"It's a great stress reliever and it's keeping me young-looking," she says. "Most people think I am in my 30s."

Lauricella, who works at the desk at a South Jersey gym, is 5-foot-4, wears a size 4 dress, can press 80 pounds and calls exercise her "leading personal pleasure."

Twinkies are not on her menu.

Mary Lynn Strain, 37, understands why.

Rush to judgment

Strain, a health care account executive from North Wales, Pa., outside Philadelphia, is 5-foot-5, weighs just over 200 pounds and feels waves of guilt every time she desires a rich dessert.

"You think somebody will look at you and say, 'Oh, look at all that sugar, look at all that fat.' If you eat it, it's like you're sending a message, 'I don't care how I look, I am not going to do anything about it.' "

All around her, Strain sees evidence that her pleasures are judged more harshly because she is a woman. Strain recalls a date with an overweight man who didn't hesitate to "order three appetizers. I was shocked, but he felt free."

And so Strain sets aside the pleasure of food, fearing social disapproval.

And in the process, says David M. Warburton, a researcher who has been studying the effects of pleasure on human health, she may undercut any health benefits gained from not having those desserts.

Warburton argues that pleasure and pleasurable experiences are so crucial that without them a person's immune system may be severely compromised, leading to a general decline in health. He noted studies showing that patients suffering from life-threatening illnesses, including AIDS and cancer, sometimes improved their conditions when they emphasized personal pleasure and emotional satisfaction and avoided obsessive thoughts about mortality.

"I believe that the loss of pleasure is actually a health risk," says Warburton, director of the Human Psychopharmacology Group at the University of Reading in England.

"Renunciation of pleasurable experiences is terrible, from a health standpoint," he adds. "What's worse is guilt."

But guilt is so American

But guilt and renunciation are fundamental to the American way of pleasure, says David F. Musto.

At best, most Americans are ambivalent about feeling good and, at worst, are downright hostile toward it, says Musto, a medical historian and child psychiatrist at Yale.

American notions of pleasure "move from one part of the spectrum to another," Musto says. "There was the '60s when if you did something, you didn't have to justify it. Now, if you want to do something, you have to justify it. If there's no good reason for it, it's not legitimate."

Musto estimates that every 70 years or so, there is a 30-year temperance period that leads many Americans to abandon traditional pleasures like rich foods and alcohol.

In the past, those periods have had a strong religious component, Musto says. The crusades led by the Anti-Saloon and Pure Prairie Leagues in the late 19th Century forced many states to prohibit liquor on the grounds that drinking was morally offensive or led to immoral conduct. Those efforts laid the groundwork for the nation's most exhaustive experiment in temperance, the 13-year Prohibition that followed the passage of the 18th Amendment, banning the sale of beverage alcohol anywhere in the United States.

Prohibition failed, says Musto, because even though Americans feel guilty about indulging their thirst for certain pleasures, they also view those pleasures as an innately American right that supersedes religious or moral prerogatives.

"The public starts to notice the things they aren't allowed to do," Musto says. "The people who lead the crusades always go too far and that leads to a backlash."

But crusades aren't what they used to be.

In the 19th Century, evangelist and anti-booze crusader Carry Nation would stand outside barrooms praying that the drinkers inside would turn from devil rum. Then she'd hack the place to pieces with an ax.

Official condemnation

These days the warnings about the downsides of pleasure are usually contained in reports issued by public health officials.

Since January, a wide-ranging array of agencies and organizations have made headlines by lambasting the public for its dietary, alcohol or smoking habits:

  • The National Institutes for Health published new guidelines last month that would add millions of Americans to the list of those who can be considered overweight.

  • The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, published a book by Michael Fumento, asserting that Americans eat too much and do too little to trim down.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest all have released studies this year calling on Americans to live healthier lives, even if it means yielding some of their pleasures.

    George A. Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy organization known for its attacks on products lacking nutritional value, says that critics have unfairly characterized his agency as virulently anti-pleasure.

    "No one here would bemoan somebody having a small portion of Ben & Jerry's now and then instead of a glut of low-fat ice cream every day," says Hacker, CSPI's director of alcohol policies.

    Hacker agrees that there is a backlash under way and that an increasing number of people are unwilling to be denied the pleasure of prime rib or cheesecake, highballs or cigars. But it's a two-faced backlash filled with inconsistencies, he says.

    While he admits that even his own home is not immune to the backlash (he felt obliged to say "OK," when a friend of a friend lit up a stogie at a family barbecue), Hacker says subscriptions to CSPI's Nutrition Action Newsletter are at their highest, hovering somewhere around 1 million.

    And even though a 1996 study by the National Center for Health Statistics found that for the first time, overweight Americans outnumbered their leaner counterparts, the survey also found that some obesity-related illnesses were not rising in relation to the fat. Cholesterol levels had actually declined and blood pressure rates had remained stable.

    One possible reason? People are eating more, but they are eating better, growing fat on gallons of low-fat ice milk and cases of light beer, some experts speculate.

    Finding a balance

    Despite the rumbles of a backlash, the rate of sales for beef and alcohol have barely budged for two decades, according to industry statistics.

    Michelle Kindt understands that kind of desire: It's about having what you want, when you want it and not being told you can't have it.

    Make no mistake, Kindt, a psychotherapist, is all for living a long and healthy life. She works out almost every day and keeps an eye on the fat content of her diet. Still, several nights a week when her work is done and she's ready to relax, Kindt, 50, takes her own pleasure by firing up a cigar. Not one of those delicate cigarillos, either. We're talking about long, dark, eat-your-heart-out-Fidel, Coronas and Macanudos.

    Kindt, who never smokes in her home (out of respect and concern for her two teenage sons), admits that she has "a lot of oral cancer concerns," and feels "a little guilt," about her indulgence.

    But she can't deny that "the pleasure, the peacefulness" she derives from smoking "certainly provides balance to life."

    "If you are not having any pleasure in life, you are certainly going to be a stressed-out puppy," she says. "And the body reacts to that stress, whether it's physical or emotional."