The Value of Feeling Good

We don't want to feel bad and can spend time and money trying to feel better. If we start feeling pretty good, we want to feel better and better and better. Therapists, clergy, politicians, entertainers, insurance salesmen, and many others tell us and sell us methods for making ourselves feel better. Is the quest to feel good, itself a good thing, psychologically and morally? To begin this discussion I will place before us a definition of feeling.

The Connection between Sensations and Feelings

We all know what a taste is, and we all know what a good taste is and what a bad taste is. In philosophy and psychology, we speak of "taste sensations." More generally, we say there are sensations of taste, of color, of hot and cold, of sound, and so on. It is possible to focus our attention on particular, individual sensations. When we focus on a sensation, it can feel good or pleasurable or it can feel bad or uncomfortable or even painful or it may have no value to us at all, positive or negative, that is, it may feel uninteresting or neutral. 

In addition to the ability to focus on single sensations, we have the ability to focus on groups of sensations. A better way to put this is that, what seem to be individual sensations, if we "pull back" and attend to them differently, they can be experienced as a piece of a "broader" sensation. I focus on the red sensation but then, on pulling back, I achieve a wider view, a wider and bigger sensation of the whole desk of which the redness of the pen is only the smallest part.

It is possible to pull back from the visual field and achieve a broader perspective which includes the auditory field as well? It is not necessarily an easy psychological exercise, but it is possible for some to focus on the visual and auditory fields at the same time.

And it is possible to "pull back" even further and to include all the inner, bodily sensations. And so on. It is certainly not possible to focus on every piece of these global sensations, but it is possible to get an overall gloss of the full sensual field. It is experienced as one whole, not as visual plus tactile plus gustatory plus internal plus ..., but it is possible to pick out some part of it and focus on it.

If we call the whole sensual experience of a person at any one time, the Sensorium of that person at that time, then I would like to define a Feeling of a person at a particular moment as the Overall Sensorium of that person at that particular moment. A single sensation may be so absorbing that it is, for a moment, the overall Sensorium. A terrific pain can grab our attention totally, at least for a moment. In that state, we are in pain, we feel pain.

Good and Bad Sensations and Feelings

As stated, we experience individual sensations as good or bad. And there is a continuum of good and bad; there is a scale from the best to the worst. With respect to taste sensations, we prefer one taste to another, even though our preferences can change over time. There are whole professions whose sole goal is to create good and interesting taste sensations in us. Great chefs, as I understand it, go for a fuller sensory experience and place importance on the presentation of their food — its color, its arrangement on the plate, the plate and the table setting, and the atmosphere of the restaurant and the attire and attitude of the staff.

Feelings, being some sort of sum of or totality of all ones sensations at a particular time, are also evaluated by us. We can have good feelings and bad feelings and neutral (uninteresting) feelings. When we feel bad, we don't like it and want to feel good. When we feel good we may not be satisfied and want to feel better. Money can buy good sensations and good feelings, at least up to a point. If we can afford it, we can "buy" visual and auditory and gustatory and bodily sensations of all types. And we can seek ever finer and more sophisticated and more beautiful sensations. People cater to our needs. It can be a life goal to have the best sensations.

And the same goes for feelings. There are people who make us feel better and who specialize changing our bad feelings into good. And there are those whose goal in life is to feel good and then to feel better and better and then the best it is possible to feel. Mystical experiences can be seen in this light. Liquor drinking and drug taken can be seen in this light.

The goodness and badness of sensations and feelings are not static. What feels good one minute becomes boring the next. For people seeking pleasure and happy feelings, variation is necessary to keep things alive and interesting.

Often what we do and think lead to bad feelings, and this leads to an endless search for doing and thinking the right things so that we can feel better. We may realize, for example, that eating too much of certain foods for dinner can make us feel nauseous all night, and eating different foods will prevent these bad feelings. We can come to think that if we behave and think properly, we can feel good all the time.

My definition of feeling has them as being, or as stemming from, sensations, and so they are, in a way, on the same level as the taste of ice cream. A person who is endlessly seeking good feelings and experiences is no different in essence from someone who is on an endless search for new and better tastes. Seen in this way, those whose main goal in life is to feel good, are, from the point of view of the scale of values, on the more superficial side.

I should emphasize how all pervasive the fascination with feelings is. People talk about and write about their feelings. If a conversation does not focus on feelings it is thought of as superficial. "I am feeling good today" is supposed to be of interest to us as is "I'm feeling awful today."

By my definition of "feeling," the pursuit of good or pleasant or positive feelings is a form of hedonism. It is identical with the pursuit of any other sort of sensation.

The Place and Value of Feelings

Most would agree that feelings are important and that we all (or most of us) want to feel good and spend a fair amount of time trying to do things that make us feel good.

Beside the intrinsic value of feeling good, it seems that our ability to feel good and bad has survival value. If we were to design a system to help us survive we might make it so that good tastes come when we eat food that is good for us (and only then) and bad tastes come from food that is bad for us (and only then). And this seems the way it is to some extent. Some poisons (but not all) smell and taste bad. And when we are lacking some important food, we often begin to crave it, and it will taste very good when we finally eat some. On the other hand, we know the system isn't perfect. We often love to eat things that can kill us and don't like what is good for us. In general in life, we often like what is bad for us and dislike what we need. -- This is a complex subject and beyond the scope of this essay.

What is true of sensations also seems true of feelings. Feeling is a kind of sensor. Ideally it feels out and attracts us to good situations, situations that are good for us, and repels us, pushes us away from, situations that are bad for us. It is useful to think of the system of feelings in this way even if it is not perfect in itself or even if it conflicts with other systems in us.

Three Apparent Paradoxes

I will mention a seeming paradox that has often been pointed out. It seems that, as a general rule, the way to feel good is to forget about oneself and to work on some project. It is often said that the way to feel good is to help others, that going after our own happiness doesn't work. But this leads to another apparent paradox: This suggestion implies that we can make ourselves feel good after all, and it tells us how.

Perhaps the underlying meaning of the suggestion is that we can come to feel good by helping others, but only if we are not doing it to make ourselves feel good. But this leads to the third apparent paradox: It seems strange if it turns out we can make others feel good but not ourselves. This implies that feeling good is important but only for others, that we should value and have as a goal to make others feel good but should not value and should not seek our own well-being. If this is the way it is, it seems strange, if not paradoxical.

Even if you Feel Bad you can Act

If the whole goal of life is to feel better, it is tempting to do nothing if you are feeling bad. People lie in bed and don't do anything, because they feel bad. They may try this and that to pull themselves out of their bad feeling, so they can get up and get on with their day. They may see themselves as working (even if it is to try to relax and be happy), and, in a sense, they are. It's just that feel their other obligations are not as important and ought to be on hold until they can get themselves into a "good place." Others begin to see them as lazy and/or as shirkers, but they don't see themselves this way. They are working hard to get to a place where they feel like being social enough to live up to their responsibilities.

There are times feeling bad is a good reason for not getting up and getting out and about. We each of some limit, some invisible line over which we can't or won't push ourselves. There are times when medically and psychologically it would hurt ourselves to "push on through the pain." It is a grandiose delusion, a cult of macho, that we can do anything, that all limits are illusions.

We must remember though that, when we do decide to give up on our external obligations, there is a danger to ourselves as well as to others. There are things we have to do in the outer world to help ourselves, and if we don't do them, there may not be anyone there to do them for us.

Without minimizing the importance of feeling good, and without denying that there are often times we won't and can't and shouldn't exert ourselves, it is important to realize that we can act and go about our business to a great extent even if we are not feeling up to par. We can even feel as if we're dying and still do meaningful work. We can actually be dying and still do meaningful work. If you do not meet your obligations because you feel bad, this helps define who you are, what you are, and what your value is.

It is an extremely fine line, and often a subjective one, just when we should and when we shouldn't push on inspite of feeling bad. There are bad consequences if you push harder than you, and there can be bad consequences if you don't push yourself when you back off too soon. Sometimes it is only when we look back that we realize we or someone else went too far or didn't go far enough. In any individual case, the decision can be life and death, and, I want to stress again, there is not necessarily an easy way to choose correctly.

There are Other Goals besides Feeling Good

Many people do not set feeling good as their primary goal in life. They see it as more important to help others and to get involved in joint projects. They may think their loved ones and friends are more important than them. Or they may feel the center of value is their society or work or church or country or a deity. Some work (especially now, in the times we live) selflessly as it were, towards world peace or towards helping plants or animals or the world itself.

This may be a matter be simply a matter of valuing others or something else more than oneself (which, from one angle, can be seen as a psychological problem). Or it may be because of an awareness that each of us are part of an environment and that what happens in the environment effects us ("no man is an island"). Or it may be out of some moral sense.

Even if we decide to place our obligations above our personal feelings it is important to be aware of what we are feeling. If we are feeling depressed or angry or anxious this will affect how we act. We may undermine our own goals because of our negative feelings. It is important to weigh our own feelings against our obligations and to evaluate the situation as a whole. Also our feelings can show us things about situations that we didn't see. For example, our anger may be justified and continuing to help someone with whom we are angry may not help either of us. In addition, we have to know our limits: We are no good to anyone or anything if we can't keep ourselves at a minimum level of felt well-being.

The interplay between our feelings and the feelings of others and our obligations to ourselves and others is not straightforward.

Two Types of People? Two Poles within each of us?

It is possible that, genetically, there are two types of people: those whose primary goal is to feel good and those who have other goals. And it seems probable to me that we each have two poles inside us. On the one hand, we monitor our feelings and want them to be and try to get them to be good. On the other hand, we are capable of forgetting ourselves and of getting lost in some project that, on the face of it, has nothing to do with ourselves. We might say that mental balance here is the ability to flow back and forth between these to poles and to be effective in reaching both sets of goals.

For one type of person, to develop they have to forget about themselves and focus on something external. For the other type, their development requires them to turn from others and begin to focus on and cater to themselves. The answer for one is the problem of the other.

Ironically, there is a certain type of pleasure that comes from focusing on things other than your own pleasure. There is also a consistency about having ongoing projects that can be comforting. Developing new interests, especially if they feel valuable, can be good for people in different stages of their lives, for example, during retirement.

At the same time it is ironic that many who pull away from society and "fall into themselves" as it were, find that they have become better people and better at helping others. Even though they were active helping before, they now see how many of their motives were selfish and so missed the mark. Bill Clinton seems to have felt that he started helping people only after he had his heart attack. This makes us wonder what he was doing when he was president.

The Feeling Cycle

It seems to me that there is another factor that complicates our picture. It seems to me that there is a natural cycle of feelings that is governed by what amounts to a law of psychology, a law of nature. Observation shows that there feelings are not static and that there is a natural progression. Good feelings can only last so long, and they will be replaced by bad ones, and then, inevitably, the bad feelings will be followed by good ones. This amounts to a cycle that can be pictured in the form of a circle.

This idea is not new to me. Jung discussed the Egyptian myth of the death of Osiris. Though, outwardly, it is an anthropomorphic picture of the rising and setting of the sun, it mirrors the inner rise and fall of the emotions. The sun at noon mirrors the feeling of being "on top of the world," at the peak of our power. The destruction of the sun in the underworld mirrors our feeling of hopelessness and that all is lost. Between these two poles, there are many positions of the sun and many positions of our state of feeling.

It should be mentioned that the feeling cycle, if there is such a thing, may or may not be in sync with what is happening to us in reality. We may be quite depressed without good reason or quite happy when things are objectively quite bad. It is as if the feeling life has a rhythm of its own and is a system unto itself. At the same time it does seem to some connection with what is objectively good or bad for us.

The existence of a feeling cycle or circle means that the search for happiness is doomed to failure, at least if we take it in the simple sense. Even as we reach happiness and our most ecstatic feelings of joy, the opposite has already, inevitably, begun to form. We know that, inwardly, we have to fall when we have reached the heights of our happiness. At the same time, we can be comforted to know that, at the lowest points in our lives, we will begin to feel better. Things change, even our worst feelings.

This polar oscillation also suggests another kind of good feeling based on the knowledge of the inevitability of the flux of our state of feelings. If we know of the existence of the circle and if we can somehow see where we are in it, there might be the possibility of a kind of second level of feeling that is outside the drama of the lower level. This may be a form of acceptance which means, in this case, a certain calm and equanimity. Why? Because the energy we usually expend to maintain good feelings and ward off bad ones is considerable and creates anxiety and aggravation in addition to whatever else we are going through. It is possible that accepting the inevitable can bring some peace, at least relative to the way we were before.

Summary and a Last Thought

We have treated feelings as global sensations. Like all sensations, we experience and evaluate them as good or bad (or neutral). We want good feelings and expend effort trying to get them. For some, this is the goal of life. Others put their own feelings aside and seek other things. This is a complex and often discussed topic. It seems each of us has a need to feel good but also needs to focus on other things besides their feelings. There is reason to think pursuing good feelings as an overall life goal, is bound to fail. At the same time, it seems that trying to deny or run from our need to feel good is also bound to fail. The struggle to work out this conflict creates bad feelings. It seems that feelings have a life of their own, as it were, and are locked into an endless cycle between good and bad. It is possible that being aware of this cycle can release a person from some of the stress of the conflict of how to deal with ones feelings. It is also possible that there is another way to look at the whole situation that gives a still more unified view. It may be that, when looking at our lives as wholes, the ebb and flow of our feelings and the ebb and flow of our involvement in externals may not be such a big issue. This view may lead to feelings and thoughts of the resolution of a conflict. Some report that the peace from this release can become permanent. This is beyond my own experience.