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Recently, at a healthy-living conference, I had one of those quickie-checkups. In five minutes, you get a blood-pressure reading; plus a finger-stick blood draw; a computerized printout of your triglyceride, cholesterol and blood sugar levels; and a mini-analysis of your results from the attending health pro. Amazing!

If you can access these kinds of tests at your fitness club or a local health fair, do — it’s a great snapshot of your overall health, and a solid motivator to make positive lifestyle adjustments if you don’t like what you see.

In my case, the numbers were all good. So I’m going to keep on doing what seems to be working for me —namely, eating mostly whole foods, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and managing my stress. And, being an inveterate self-improver, I’m going to continue experimenting and fine-tuning my approach.

One adjustment I’ve been working on over the past few years involves upping my daily intake of what nutritional psychologist Marc David, MA, has dubbed “vitamin P,” which stands for Pleasure.

To date, there’s no blood test that can directly assess your baseline level of this nutrient, and no official Recommended Daily Intake. But as a key factor in both our physical and mental vitality, pleasure counts for far more than most of us realize.

That’s why, ever since we did a feature on the relationship between pleasure, satisfaction and optimal health (“A Real Pleasure,” December 2008), I’ve had a clipped-out pull quote from the story posted on my kitchen bulletin board. It reads:

“What’s clear is that our levels of pleasure and satisfaction are directly related to our biochemical balance.”

Seeing this little clipping reminds me that, just like our nutrition and fitness regimens, a steady supply of feel-good satisfaction is important to our physiological well-being.

Posted right next to our household calendar, the snippet nudges me to look ahead at my upcoming schedule with a view to what’s fun, exciting, novel or relaxing. If drab deadlines are ruling my weeks, I know it’s time to get something a little less obligatory (and a little more joyful) on the books.

On many days, the clipping also entices me to stop and appreciate what’s going on right in the moment: Look, there’s our dog curled up on the dining room rug, snoring in that grunty little way that makes my heart melt. Oh, there’s a vine in bloom just outside the window, with a big ol’ bee buzzing around it. And my, what a delightful caramelizing-cauliflower aroma that is, coming from the oven. Simple stuff like that.

Science suggests that training ourselves to be aware of such blips of pleasure, happiness and appreciation is the best way to begin experiencing more of them. And such small “noticings” of what’s right and good can have a surprisingly large impact on our overall mindset — and, by extension, on our biochemistry.

Even small doses of pleasure can raise immune-boosting chemicals like proenkephalin, for example, as well as feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Pleasure- and satisfaction-triggering experiences also help reduce and offset the pro-inflammatory effects of stress hormones like cortisol, which plays a significant role in many chronic health conditions like heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Of course, unchecked hedonism can also have its downsides. Overindulging in any pleasure — or becoming dependent on certain “fixes” as a way of coping with an otherwise joy-deficient existence — is a sure recipe for eventual misery.

The key, I think, is expanding our sense of what brings us pleasure, and taking stock of the full range of healthy satisfactions that are available to us.

For me, there is always pleasure available in slowing down, for example. I also love getting regular bodywork (for fascinating specifics on the healing power of massage, see “Mmm… Massage“). And I have learned to appreciate the visceral satisfactions that come from simply treating my body with care and sensory respect.

Many of my daily practices — stepping outside every morning, doing a little yoga, drinking really great herbal tea, using plant-based stuff on my skin — these are healthy little individual choices that, taken together, vastly amplify my pleasure in living. But that’s just me. What nourishes you may be entirely different.

We dedicated this issue of Experience Life to helping you discover more feel-good experiences in your own daily existence. Because, regardless of what our lab results say, I suspect we could all use a daily infusion of vitamin P.

Thoughts to share?

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