Do You Need Self-Discipline to Have Fun?

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?

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  • 西唐王


  • Ken Abel

    Epicurus is the master of hedonism.

    Most people don’t cover his ideas about socialization though. I think he’s right when he says that friendship provides the maximum amount of pleasure. It makes all the difference. I think we can all point to a time where we had to do something unpleasant but because our friends were there it became an enjoyable experience and even can make you happier just thinking about it years later. But how many fond memories do you have of some pleasurable activity but you’re alone? Not as many I’d guess.

    If you can push yourself towards those activities that are more social or that give you more social opportunities I think you’d be happier overall.

  • Nitin Puranik

    My friends are quite frequently surprised at my ignorance of the latest viral videos, trending fads and the currently “in” smartphone apps. They keep reminding me that I’m becoming outdated and that I won’t be able to relate to the current generation if I continue to hold on to my (deliberate) ignorance. What they fail to realize is that all this digital consumption they indulge in tricks them into believing they’re keeping themselves abreast with today’s world, while all they’re doing is seeking an easy, dopamine-infused short-term pleasure giving activity. I’m always amused when a friend comments on a current event and when I ask how s/he learnt about it, the answer almost always is through Facebook or Twitter.

    I do agree with you that discipline and a little bit of motivation is needed to get started with a seemingly difficult activity that promises huge amounts of fun and happiness in return. Taking backpacking as an example, you need to put in some time planning logistics and gear, and then kick yourself out of your laziness laced inertia. You might not even enjoy your initial mile or two of hike. But as you begin getting into that rhythm and your body warms up, the joy that accompanies it is something to be experienced. I’m probably talking about the hiker/runner’s high here.

    The same goes with writing. Sitting down to write is anything but fun. Your brain is racing with the Tennis shoe syndrome. But if you push through that, then pretty soon you’ll find yourself savoring the flow of words and surprise yourself with the content you’re spitting out.

  • Srikant Mahapatra

    Those are some very good points, Nitin! My view on motivation, as far as developing habits is concerned, is that it’s required to get started doing something, but it is discipline that keeps one going. As Jocko Willink says,”Don’t count on motivation; count on discipline.” Self-discipline is not easy to develop, and I think what can help in maintaining a habit is to enjoy the process and not think about the product.

  • And that’s exactly it. In an effort to curb the things that we find challenging, we often turn to the easier things in life. In your example, television. But why? Why do we blatantly ignore the things that will bring positivity to our lives for short term gratification?

    Funny enough, I wrote recently wrote an article about turning the television off for more impactful things. If it is ok with you Scott, I’d like to share it here?

  • Deepti Km

    Definitely yes.
    I’ve been noticing it a lot lately. I’ve ‘banned’ myself (on most days) from doing most of the frivolous un-fun things that one typically resorts to, in the hopes of doing more wholesome, fulfilling activities in their place. It has mostly backfired: I typically end up doing *nothing* instead, since I often lack the stamina for recreation and would rather just putter around the living room. If I can build that stamina up, I’ll be a happy camper.

  • Swati

    Actually I’m quite on the peaked out scene where I’m torn between two negatives – one being overworked and the other being the choice of letting go completely the worries associated with work and cut off the world for as long as I can overcome the anxiety. It’s gonna take strength to plunge either way!

    What is the easier plunge here, and what is the more difficult? I add that anxiety is a result of both time and health constraints.

  • I think that the point is being open to “suffering” or not. Any “not easy” activity implies some suffering or discomfort, even if at the end is more rewarding.

  • go for small trials/tests /from short to long/:
    1min without breathing,
    30 as-much-as deep and fast inhales one after another,
    cold bath,
    eat some hallucinogens like mushrooms or LSD,
    stay in darkness and silence [REST room] for 2+ days,
    3 days of fasting [ketones improve cognition]

  • John Paton

    I think part of the problem is that we’re not great at understanding fatigue. An individual with early signs of Alzehimer’s might be able to easily tell you their name in the morning, but in the evening they may struggle a lot more. The difference: they have become fatigued by the day’s activities. Similarly with us, we might be able to avoid those easy, time-sink activities — like internment browsing or eating unhealthy foods — in the morning, but struggle a lot more after a hard day’s work. The challenge is how to choose the best activities **conditional** on the amount of energy (physical and mental) you are likely to have at a given time.


    Scott, when will I you eventually think of setting yourself SMART goals ? Let me know when.
    Let me give you some examples of SMART goals if you don’t mind.
    There is this one that you can watch until the end.
    THis is : Steve Jobs in Sweden in 1985.
    and also this one. You will only be able to watch the trailer on the web.
    This is the trailer of : Nathan Chan: Breaking The Wall.