You feel sensory pleasure when you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something that is pleasant, delicious, beautiful or delightful1. For instance, when you see a beautiful layered cake, when you get a full-body massage, or when you smell a rose that has just come in flower. In each case, one or more of your senses sends the message that the thing you are observing is somehow good for you, and that you should sustain or increase your exposure to it.
Like its negative counterpart disgust, sensory pleasure can be considered a primordial emotion. The things that give us sensory pleasure are generally things that help us (or used to help us) survive and thrive: identifying nutritious foods (e.g., fruits with bright colors), being in protective company (e.g., sitting on a parent’s lap), or being in a safe environment (e.g., locations with a wide view of the surroundings).
Because the experience is so directly linked to something as basic as our sensory input, it seems that sensory pleasure is innate and universal. Indeed, there are many stimuli that (almost) all humans find pleasant from birth and continue to find pleasant their entire lives, like gentle sounds, soft touches, curvy shapes, or calm movements. One-day-old babies already look longer at attractive faces than at less-attractive faces2.
In our modern world, things have gotten a bit more complicated. People find pleasure in stimuli that seem opposite to the original survival criteria. People enjoy complex abstract paintings, death metal music, rollercoasters, and funky-smelling cheeses on a direct, visceral level. Research fields such as aesthetics, philosophy of mind, and evolutionary psychology try to explain how and why people derive pleasure from these things.
The behavioral effect of sensory pleasure is to savor the stimulus and take it in: to keep looking at the sunset, to keep listening to the sound of the ocean, or to keep petting your soft-coated dog. At the same time, having the time to do this seems an important precondition for having the emotion in the first place. When you are rushing home, you may not appreciate the sunset as much as when you are taking an evening stroll. Perhaps it is for that reason that many people plan specific moments and situations to experience sensory pleasure: free evenings to appreciate good food at a restaurant, Sunday afternoons to admire works of art at a museum, and holidays to admire landscapes and sunsets.