Hedonism is a school of thought that says maximizing one’s own pleasure is the ultimate goal in life. Originally stated by Aristippus, a student of Socrates, the term has become pejorative, usually referring to people who indulge excessively in sensory pleasures of food, drugs or sex.
Most people don’t take hedonism seriously, or directly try to live by its values. However, even if you’re not a principled hedonist, I think a common assumption we make is that the most enjoyable activities are the ones we find easiest to spontaneously engage in.
I’m often surprised how often this doesn’t appear to be the case. Many times the activities I find easiest to engage in are actually some of the least satisfying. I obsessively check the internet, even when I’ve already checked my feeds, so I know there won’t be anything new. Sometimes I’ll cook an unhealthy, tasteless dinner to save myself a few minutes of cooking time. I often feel surprised, after a day of pushing and cajoling myself to go, that I actually enjoy being at the gym.
I can understand why following your immediate urges could lead to sacrificing long-term results over short-term pleasures. Saving and investing is boring; spending today is fun. However, what is more baffling to me is how following immediate urges often leads to sacrificing short-term pleasures as well.
Irrational Pleasure Traps
Proving that short-term urges aren’t pleasure-maximizing is difficult to do. However, if you introspect, I think you’ll also find a lot of situations that fit this pattern. You have an urge to do X, but when you engage in X, it’s not as fun as you hoped. Not just guilty because you should be doing something else, but a more basic disappointment with X itself. X just isn’t as enjoyable as you thought it was.
You can probably also remember situations of the opposite. That you have a strong aversion to doing Y, but when you engage in Y, you really enjoy it. Again, not just because Y is something you “should” do, but the task is intrinsically pretty enjoyable.
While it’s easy to pick examples of X and Y where X is doing something you “shouldn’t” be doing and Y is something you “should” be doing (like eating junk food versus exercising), I find this still crops up even when both of the activities have much less distinction in virtue.
For me, an example of this would be watching movies. Sometimes I’ll see that movie X is award-winning, has 95%+ on Rotten Tomatoes and rave reviews. But it looks like a difficult movie, so I opt for something more poorly reviewed and trashy. However, if I think back over my experience of movie-watching, movies of the first type I almost always enjoy while movies of the latter type I often regret watching.
This speaks to a deep irrationality, if we assume human beings try to maximize their happiness. Even if you assume the weaker theory, that we’re simply drawn towards maximizing short-term pleasures, this is a difficult phenomenon to reconcile.
Ease and Enjoyment Aren’t the Same
My pet theory is that while pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance are powerful human motives, they aren’t the only ones. Seeking cognitive and physical ease is sometimes a more powerful one, and it can override the desire for a more enjoyable option, if that option is perceived as being more “difficult” in some way.
In all of the examples I can think of, the pleasurable activity I felt compelled to avoid, was more difficult in some way than the less pleasurable activity I felt drawn to.
Difficulty here is tricky to specify. Presumably staring at a blank wall would be the easiest possible task. But most of us prefer high-information density entertainment to sitting in a stupor. At the risk of begging the question, I’d argue that ease is not simply relaxation but one that offers a steady stream of easily-digestible stimulus. The easiest food to eat isn’t goop, but it’s also something that doesn’t require much chewing.
Does the Most Pleasurable Life Require Discipline?
I’d now like to return to the titular question. If we assume it’s possible to fail to maximize short-term enjoyment or pleasure, because we have a stronger desire to maximize ease instead, would self-discipline be necessary, even just to live hedonistically?
I believe the answer is yes. Even if you ignore that a major motivation to exert willpower is to favor long-term results over short-term pleasures, you’d still need self-discipline to overcome the short-term aversion against enjoyable difficulty.
What Does This Mean?
I think there’s a lot of implications to the idea that our automatic intuitions don’t maximize short-term enjoyment. These include:
1. Structures and restrictions to push ourselves to more enjoyable options, even when those options are more difficult.
One option is to limit activities you’re drawn to, but don’t give you a lot of enjoyment. I have a friend who feels he overuses television, so he had an ingenious solution: inside the TV stand, there’s a power bar which is connected to one of those lighting timers that only turns it on for a few hours per day. This is locked in the TV drawer. The result is that the TV only works for two hours a day—enough time to watch some high-quality television, but not so much that you’re mindlessly browsing Netflix complaining there’s nothing good to watch.
Another option is to reduce the entry barriers to the activities that are both more difficult and more enjoyable. These friction points can seem really inconsequential, but can end up making a big difference in what you pursue. Most of my habits on reading more books, for instance, have to do with reducing these friction points.
2. Bias yourself towards more difficult pursuits.
If there is a drive towards ease, then it may make sense to counterweight that drive with a discipline to take on harder, more challenging pastimes. Cal Newport has made a habit of this, trying to pursue what he calls “deep” relaxation. I don’t believe his interests are in maximizing pleasure, but that may be a side-effect.
Side note: I’m taking, without discussion, the idea that the innate drive towards ease is somehow less legitimate than the drive towards pleasure. That’s actually probably a point that deserves some justification, but I felt it was too large a digression. In brief, I feel that maximizing short-term ease probably has a strong evolutionary logic from a time period of greater resource scarcity. I also believe that a modern environment is engineered to be easier than our ancestral environment, so it might make sense to put pressure on balancing that out.
3. Watch for spontaneous activities that aren’t actually much fun.
A big implication of this idea is that a lot of the things we do “for fun” may not actually be all that enjoyable. That is, we’re pursuing them for ease, rather than enjoyment.
This opens up the idea that changing what activities we engage in during our spare time might not just be good for our long-term well-being but also our short-term enjoyment as well.
Such motivations are always at risk of being mingled with desires to signal virtuous behavior (e.g. you read Shakespeare because you want people to think you’re smart, not because you enjoy it). However, I think this could be offset by taking a recording of your mood while doing different tasks, and seeing that it holds. If, for instance, you regularly report a 7/10 on your enjoyment of a harder task but only a 5/10 on an easier escape, you could push yourself to do the former, knowing that it would make you enjoy life more.
What do you think? Do you find that a lot of the things you do “for fun” aren’t really? Do you sometimes find that pushing yourself to do something more difficult ends up being more enjoyable?