Maybe, like me, you're just barely old enough to remember this expression. To my father, a minister, this dictum summed up everything that was wrong with the emerging values of the 1960s and 1970s. Can you imagine? If everyone just did what felt good? Anarchy! Ribaldry!

I'm interested in rehabilitating this corny phrase and, in fact, have come to see it as perhaps the most challenging precept of all.

Like any if/then statement, there are two parts to this mandate, and because we're taking this seriously, both parts require their own bit of examination.

If It Feels Good

The first piece of work here -- and this is impossibly harder than it would appear at first blush -- is to determine what feels good. That is, what really feels good?

Back in graduate school, a group of us had gathered for an all you can eat buffet. Like any broke graduate students we were taking full advantage of this offer. We had eaten to the point of discomfort. And now it was time for dessert!

With a mouth full of my second helping of something that looked like peach cobbler, I asked one of my dinner companions why she wasn't eating dessert. "It's free," I encouraged her. This was not one of my fellow clinical psychology students, but someone from one of the other programs on campus. Film History, or American Studies, or Urban Planning and Resource Allocation, something like that.

I don't remember her name now, but I recall that she dressed in gauzy clothing, a la Stevie Nicks.  And that she'd grown up in a family of Carnival entertainers, traveling around the country.  She was offbeat and interesting, and had perspectives that were different from those of the more practical psychology students.

And what she said to me at dinner that evening was something I carry with me even now. In the sing-song cadence of the Valley Girl speech still fairly common on campus at the time, she chirped "Oh, I decided a couple of years ago not to eat food that makes me feel bad."

I stopped, spoon in my hand gripped tight like a microphone, with a warm gooey mouthful of peach flavored crust. I just stared at her.

She'd decided not to eat food that makes her feel bad! What an incredibly sensible and basic (here I took another bite of cobbler) way to approach (another bite) life! I should totally live my life (and another bite) like that!

So that's how I like to think about the "if it feels good" half of this very difficult maxim. Determining what really feels good is some of the important and serious work of any adult.

Notice, the issue here is not to determine what's cheap or easy.  Nor is the work here to figure out what other people in your zip code like to do. Nor is the challenge to determine what your siblings enjoy. Rather, what is it that my body, my neurology, calls "good"?

In a sense, smoking cigarettes feels good. But in a deeper and more pervasive sense, smoking limits my options, makes it harder for me to hike mountains or even stairs, and shrouds me with an odor that many people simply don't like. Moreover, I can't avoid persistent reminders that I'm shortening my own life with this behavior. So in a deeper sense, smoking, really, doesn't feel good.

It feels so good to eat a piece of cheesecake, that it must feel really good to eat three pieces. But in a deeper, and more real, sense, that feels nauseatingly bad.

And if I'm really asking deep, honest questions about what feels good I will treat people and animals kindly, I will be more honest with the important people in my life, I will stick with the commitments I've made  in my primary relationship, or try to renegotiate the rules of that relationship. I will not, if I'm really doing what "feels good" in a deep and true way, hit other people, cheat other people, or eat food that makes me feel bad.

Do It

Okay, so the second half of our adage is a quick and punchy action phrase: "do it." Quick, without thinking too much about this, what is the one thing -- and you know I'm talking about here -- that you need to do now?

I'm talking here about the one thing that will make the biggest improvement in your life, and in the lives of those around you - the thing you've been putting off. For lack of social support, or lack of resources, or lack of courage, for whatever reason that action step you have not -- yet -- done.

If we got up a little bit earlier in the morning and spent some time inquiring honestly and deeply into what feels -- really -- good, we could likely generate a quick to-do list of the most important actions we could take each day.

Treating my roommate better, for example, might be something that would feel really good. Or learning French. Or developing my body into something that feels svelte, lean, and masculine. That sounds like something that would feel, deep down, good.

And at the end of the day, with those precious chunks of unstructured time, do I honor what I know will "feel good" or do I settle for something slightly less?

Something like another hour of reality television. Or another long conversation with a friend who, honestly, drains me. Or half a can of potato chips that, remarkably, all look alike and stack one on top of the other.

Many of us know full well what feels good, and it's the "doing it" that is the real challenge of this axiom.

Isn't This All a Bit Selfish?

A while back, I blogged at this site about the value of asking ourselves two questions on an ongoing basis. One of these questions had to do with whether I am deriving fun or pleasure from a given commitment or activity or obligation. This posting was picked up by the folks over at Lifehacker, where several readers commented on the dreadful superficiality of asking questions about pleasure and fun.

And I get similar feedback when I discuss this in my workshops on ADHD and related conditions that make it difficult for students and adults to focus their energies and manage their time. Culturally, we seem to have strong and mixed feelings about pleasure. On the one hand, there is the 24 hour Internet and cable television sex-and-chocolate show.  On the other hand, we distrust pleasure and suspect that anything really worth doing has a bit of drudgery or suffering mixed in there.

But if I'm listening attentively to feedback from my body, and asking deep questions about what is really "good," then everyone around me will benefit.  I may try doing this for myself alone, but cannot help improving the lives of those around me.

When I'm enjoying better health, when I'm sleeping better, and when I'm enjoying more honest and true relationships, and when I'm engaging in exactly the right work/life balance, then I'm a better brother, student, clinician, and teammate.

So Let's Try This Again

As you think about your next meal, your next conversation with your partner, your next bit of unstructured free time, what choices will you make? What would feel good?

Now, pause for a beat and a half, and asked the question again, what would feel really good?

And what's keeping you from "doing it" right now?

photo:  Big Bite

About the Author

David D. Nowell, Ph.D.

David D. Nowell, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist interested in motivation, focus, and fully-engaged living.

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