Against Cheap Pleasure

There is a direct relationship between the price of pleasure and the total effect it has on your overall happiness.

Pleasures like eating a bag of chips, watching Netflix, or scrolling through social media are bottom of the barrel cheap.

They give you a quick dopamine hit but afterward you feel empty and unfulfilled.

Short term pleasure but long term pain.

For other pleasures, you have to pay a higher “price” upfront but they give you a sustainable return on “investment”.

Working out, for example. It’s not fun in the short term. But if you do it consistently, it will significantly improve your overall baseline happiness.

The same is true when you’re working on a long-term project like a business or a deep relationship. Also when learning something challenging or doing something with a slow payoff like writing.

Short term pain but long term happiness.

But it’s definitely not just about time horizon.

It’s also about risk, effort, and discomfort.

Think: Eating fast food vs. cooking a healthy meal from scratch. Playing video games vs. going to a local meetup where you don’t know anyone.

The biggest problem with cheap pleasures is that they make it so much harder, if not impossible, to engage in the more expensive pleasures.

I’ve recently started paying more attention to this dynamic. Every day I write down what I did, what I ate, and how I felt. Every morning and evening I record my wellness score on a scale from 1 to 10. It’s just a subjective rating of how good I feel.

Without fail, the more cheap pleasures I engage in, the lower my wellness score the next day. It’s not subtle at all.

I always see that I wrote down comments like “constantly distracted”, “low energy”, “procrastinating” on these days.

I simply don’t feel like doing anything remotely challenging or uncomfortable on these days.

Not very surprising, I know.

But directly seeing the impact of cheap pleasures on my own life has made the lesson much more visceral.

Once you put the spotlight on cheap pleasures, it’s shocking to see how much of our lives are filled with them, how much time we spend hunting for them, and how incredibly hard they are to avoid.

It’s a slippery slope.

You start with a piece of chocolate. And before you really know it, you find yourself lying on the couch, watching Netflix, and eating a whole bag of chips, while scrolling through Twitter on your phone.

The more cheap pleasures you engage in, the more you crave them.

It is 100% an addiction.

Now people of course do talk about stuff like dopamine detoxes, monk mode, delayed gratification, the comfort crisis, and all that.

But it’s really a completely different story once you put the puzzle pieces together and start experiencing the impact of cheap pleasures on your own life.

For the past few weeks I’ve started to do my best to avoid cheap pleasures.

“No cheap pleasures” has become my mantra.

It starts with breakfast.

Instead of a tasty bowl of cereal or eggs with bacon, I eat a green shake that tastes like grass.

Instead of scrolling through Twitter, I now write every morning.

I no longer listen to music all the time and have stopped consuming podcasts.

I don’t read any news or consume any social media.

I no longer eat any snacks or drink soft drinks.

I’ve stopped eating dinner. At the end of the day it’s always the hardest for me to resist the temptation and often I ended up eating junk food.

Now one perfectly valid concern is that a life like this is devoid of fun and joy.

But it’s quite the opposite.

I quickly started finding pleasure in new things.

You know how vegetables taste horrible after you eat candy?

But once you cut out refined sugar, even the simplest vegetables start to taste amazing.

It’s really like that with everything.

Simple things like taking a walk in nature, going for a swim, reading a fiction book, drinking a cold glass of water are now sources of real joy.

You also start experiencing cheap pleasures in a completely different way.

A few years ago I spend a month in the wilderness of Norway. No phone, no internet, no electricity, no running water, no nothing.

When I came back to civilization, I still remember that every single song playing on the radio sounded like the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.

These were just generic pop songs to be clear. But after a month of not listening to music, I realized for the first time how perfectly engineered they are to hit all the right buttons in your brain.

It’s now the same for me with a lot of things. When I eat dinner with friends on a Friday night at a nice restaurant, I’m able to appreciate the food and the company in a way that I couldn’t before.

By default we’re all extremely overstimmulated nowadays and our taste buds adjust accordingly.

When you listen to music all day long, you start going for more and more stimulating music. Eventually you end up listening to death metal or dubstep or whatever.

But if you only occasionally listen to music, simple songs or songs with a slow build-up become extremely enjoyable.

Now to be clear, I’m not here to preach or tell you what to do. To some extent you were probably aware of everything you just read.

All I’m saying is that I did the math for myself and realized that cheap pleasures are not worth it.

Avoiding them is incredibly hard and cutting them off completely is impossible.

But becoming a bit more mindful about them and doing my best to avoid them is one of the best things I’ve ever done for my own happiness.

Written on September 12, 2023

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