“Where’s the fun in that?”, many people asked after I had published my daily routine. Often, the question seemed borne not purely out of curiosity or interest, but rather inspired by pity, or even concern about my wellbeing. Doesn’t so much rigidity and discipline grind one down? Am I renouncing all of life’s pleasures? Doesn’t all work and no play make Jack a dull boy?
Let me preface the following by saying: I’m neither an ascetic nor a masochist. But the more closely you examine the inner workings of your mind, the more you realize that pleasure is a complex, multi-faceted issue. Even the simplest taxonomies psychologists use to quantify the texture of our moment-to-moment experience require at least two dimensions: valence (pleasant to unpleasant) and arousal (calm to thrilled).
What people commonly refer to when they say they’re “happy” is a state of both high valence and high arousal, one which many consumer-focused services today are engineered to induce in order to increase how much time we spend on the provider’s website or in their app. But our emotional landscape contains many other interesting peaks: States such as the intense concentration achieved through prolonged meditation, or the relaxed euphoria of “runner’s high” are characterized by lower valence and arousal for example, but can be sustained over much longer periods of time. Not necessarily are those better experiences though, but they’re fundamentally different and worth exploring.
When examining what makes them feel happy, people furthermore overlook the disparity between their perceived level of pleasure in the moment and how they will remember it later on. Simple tricks, such as making the end of a painful experience a little bit less hurtful, can drastically change whether we cast the memory of an episode in a positive or a negative light for example, as Daniel Kahneman and others have repeatedly shown.
That of course begs a fundamental question: Should we try to optimize for the highest level of perceived pleasure every single moment, or should we rather aim to construct joyful memories? Think about that for a second. Of course, you experience only what you experience, and ultimately, life is nothing more than an array of tiny moments strung together. So why shouldn’t you make each of them as pleasurable as you possibly can? Well, you live through every moment exactly once, but you might later recall it hundreds or thousands of times. In fact, studies have shown that we spend a lot of our time remembering past experiences, whether we want to or not. That knowledge can be put to good, practical use though: When I feel bad at any point during a particular run for instance, I can remind myself that that negative experience will vanish eventually, and I can shift my attention elsewhere. By not feeding the negative emotion in the moment, I can thus engineer a more pleasant memory of the entire episode. Of course, my foot really did hurt for a few minutes while storming that hill that one morning. That happened. But whether the remembrance of the pain will occupy 10% or 90% of my mental image of that run is largely up to me.
Finally, and I know may sound harsh, I largely agree with Shane Parish, Jocko Willink, and many others who argue that without significantly discounting present-moment happiness in favor of a more wholesome future, such as by delaying gratification, long-term life satisfaction is almost impossible. Willink puts it most bluntly when he says that “discipline equals freedom”, and by extension one could even argue that “discipline equals happiness”. Choosing to follow through with an exercise routine, a meditation practice, or any other endeavor that requires persistent effort over time are perfect examples: Sure, while doing it you will feel pain and experience setbacks. But in the long run you’ll be able to reap much larger benefits: You’ll live a longer, healthier, and more productive life. You’ll gain expertise and eventually achieve mastery in a field of your own choosing.
Sure, this morning it would have felt way more pleasant to me to stay in bed than to go out and run in the rain for 90 minutes. But what about twenty or thirty years down the road? What will it be like growing old with a strong, well-trained cardiovascular system, with muscles, tendons, and bones used to strenuous effort? Sure, trying–often in vain–to calm a racing mind by sitting quietly in the corner twice a day sometimes feels frustrating, even useless. But how much better is it to face the eventual hardships of life with a trained mind, one that knows itself, and one that’s capable of reflection, concentration, and restraint?
I’m not saying “Don’t watch Netflix”, “Don’t have a night out with friends”, or “Don’t eat doughnuts”. I’m saying that the kind of pleasure generated by these activities is very different from the one that pursuing a challenging endeavor with persistent effort over a long stretch of time will eventually provide, and that we should strive for a solid balance between the two. The “everything-on-demand” mentality of today’s consumerist culture has made it very easy to be sucked in entirely by the former, and to forget that anything at all exists beyond the dopamine kick of instant gratification. Even without becoming a buddhist monk, an ultra-runner, or a capitalism-renouncing hermit, a few, simple changes to how you structure our everyday life can already make a substantial difference. You don’t have to get up and run at 4:30 if you don’t want to. But if you chose to give something like that a try, you may just find it a little bit more gratifying than you originally thought.