Pleasure: A Goal for Today AND Tomorrow
Albert Ellis has said “The goal of all life is to have a ball.” He advises us to seek pleasure for the future, as well as the present, and recommends balancing two competing adages: (1) Live as if this is to be the last day of your life, and (2) live today as if you are going to live forever. Most of us have no trouble with the first adage, but the second one is much harder to live up to.
At 205 lbs, Bob decided it was time to lose weight. He changed his eating habits to a well-balanced, low-calorie diet; and he began exercising. He stuck to his new regime religiously—for a week. On the eighth day of his diet, he decided that he couldn’t be bothered getting out of bed early to exercise, so he lay in bed an extra half hour and skipped the exercise. Later that same day, at a party, Bob couldn’t resist the sausage rolls and ate 4 of them. He also drank 6 cans of beer. The next day, Bob recommitted to his diet, but it was only a matter of days before, once again, he yielded to temptation and ate a large pizza. Six weeks later, when Bob weighed himself, the scales showed that he hadn’t lost an ounce.
For years Sarah has dreamed of traveling to Europe. To make her dream come true, she takes $50 from her weekly pay check and puts it into a special savings account. Her friends are impressed with Sarah’s ability to discipline herself to save. What they don’t know is that every month, Sarah withdraws money from her savings account to pay off her credit card debt. Her credit card statements show that she’s been using the card to buy clothes and CD’s, and to pay for nights out at restaurants and nightclubs. Sarah is no closer to her European trip than she was eighteen months ago.
Fred is bored with his job and has made up his mind to look for another one. Last Saturday, he bought a newspaper and went through the situations vacant section, circling each of the jobs he thought he was qualified for. As he sat down to write application letters, his phone rang. It was his friend, Ted, on the line. Ted told him that he and a few of the boys were going on a weekend fishing trip, and they wanted Fred to join them. “Sure” said Fred, deciding that the job-hunting could wait another week. This is the third week in succession that Fred has abandoned job-hunting in favor of something more pleasant.
In each of these vignettes, we see examples of short-range hedonism — the habit of sacrificing long- or mid-range goals to engage in feel-good activities. For short-range hedonists, the pleasure of the moment is more important than the satisfaction and pleasure that come from the long-term investment of time, money, or effort.
1 the pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence.
2 Philosophy the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.
C19: from Greek hedone 'pleasure' + -ism.
It’s tempting to take advantage of opportunities for self-indulgence whenever they arise in a life that is full of challenges and difficulties. This would have been even more the case in the harsh environment of 150,000 years ago when our ancestors were evolving into the creatures we are today. For our early ancestors, the habit of taking what they could, when they could, no doubt had some survival and – in the case of sex – reproductive value. Consequently the tendency to engage in opportunistic, self-indulgence is probably hard-wired into us.
Depriving ourselves completely of any and all self-indulgence would lead to an extremely pleasureless life, and one that was hardly worth living. But giving in repeatedly to the urge to indulge in feel-good activities can have devastating consequences. Habitual short-range hedonists lead unfulfilling lives marked by listlessness, underachievement, and ennui; they frequently run into financial difficulties; and their health suffers from poor lifestyle choices such as drug and alcohol abuse, poor diet, and lack of exercise. Short-range hedonism undermines our good intentions while sabotaging our goals; it is deadly to our self-efficacy – the belief in our own ability to carry out goal-oriented tasks – leading to an overwhelming sense of personal failure.
Four factors seem to lie at the heart of short-range hedonism:
- Instant gratification: the idea that it is absolutely necessary to feel good and that good feelings must not be delayed.
- Discomfort anxiety: the idea that unpleasant feelings are unbearable and must be avoided at all costs.
- Entitlement: the idea that we deserve – and therefore must have – what we want, when we want it.
- Approval-seeking: the idea that our worth is based on how popular we are, and that we must do everything we can to win the approval of others.
Most of the best things in life take time and effort to acquire; they seldom come to us overnight or without work and sacrifice on our part. But short-range hedonists regard waiting for life’s long-term payoffs as too hard. Instead, they continually pamper themselves with minor pleasures (food, excitement, toys, etc.). By devoting their resources (time, money, and effort) to instant gratification, their long-term goals remain unmet.
Short-range hedonists who are driven by a ‘need’ for instant gratification tell themselves, “I must feel good at all times. I need what I want, and I need it now.” They believe that it’s easier to constantly enjoy life’s little pleasures than it is to wait for life’s greater satisfactions. If they gave these ideas any thought, they would see that not only are these beliefs self-defeating, but they are patently false:
- Pleasure, by definition is desirable, but it is hardly necessary. No one died from going without the latest designer clothes, or an extra topping of ice cream.
- By giving in to the urge for feel-good activities, short-range hedonists may feel better for a while, but the good feelings are only temporary. It won’t be long before they realize that, once again, they have sabotaged their own goals. And then the good feelings are replaced by remorse and regret.
- The more practice we have at waiting for long-term satisfactions, the easier it becomes. On the other hand, the more we give in to our urges for short-term pleasure, the more easily we will do so again in the future.
- Short-term pleasures, by definition, provide pleasure for a short time. After the pleasure has worn off, short-term hedonists – who act as though they are addicted to pleasure – find themselves, like any other junkie, frantically looking around for their next fix. Soon, things that used to give them pleasure no longer interest them, and they require greater and greater doses of excitement just to get the same buzz they used to get from their former activities. After a while, nothing excites them, and nothing pleases them. Their lives become sterile and dull.
Many short-range hedonists are guided by their feelings: if they feel like doing something, they do it; if they don’t feel like doing it, they don’t do it. These short-range hedonists are inveterate procrastinators. For example, they put off doing household chores because they don’t feel like doing them, and instead, they spend their afternoons watching football on television simply because they feel like it. Their feelings play a greater role in determining their behavior than any consideration of the consequences of the behavior.
These short-range hedonists have developed a fear of negative emotions by convincing themselves that discomfort (in the form of self-denial) is awful and unbearable, and must be avoided at all costs. Consequently, they frequently undermine their long-term ambitions because they ‘can’t stand’ going without. The belief that unpleasant feelings are unbearable and must be avoided at all costs is false and self-defeating for a number of reasons:
- Waiting can be hard and, at times, unpleasant, but it’s not fatal
- Holding the belief that self-denial is awful almost guarantees that these short-range hedonists will not achieve their long-term goals because they will nearly always succumb to temptations, even though those temptations prevent them from reaching their goals.
- By convincing themselves that self-denial is awful and unbearable, they actually make self-denial harder than it would be if they accepted it with equanimity. Much of life involves waiting for the things we want. The more relaxed we can be about waiting, the less of a burden it is. By convincing themselves that waiting is awful and unbearable, short-range hedonists only make things harder for themselves.
- The world will not stop turning if a short-range hedonists goes without the latest temptation. Mountains will not crumble into the sea just because a short-range hedonist resists buying a new dress.
- Although a short-range hedonist may believe that he must avoid self-denial, there really is no reason why he absolutely must avoid it. The idea that he must avoid self-denial exists only in his own head; it does not exist in the real world.
- It is a monumental leap of logic to go from the premise “I don’t like denying myself” to the conclusion “I can’t stand denying myself.” It is a similar leap to go from “I prefer not to deny myself this pleasure” to the conclusion “I must not deny myself this pleasure.”
- Short-range hedonists fail to recognize that by denying themselves a short-term pleasure, the worst that could happen is that their lives will be unchanged. They’ve gone for years without (for example) the latest Madonna CD, and nothing will change – living will not be any harder – if they continue to go without it.
Many short-range hedonists believe that they are entitled to treat themselves to a short-term pleasure, especially after a particularly long and grueling day, or after they have suffered from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They tell themselves that they deserve – and therefore must have – what they want, when they want it. Unfortunately, they often go on to treat themselves to a pleasure that interferes with their long-term ambitions. Their sense of entitlement is self-defeating, and the belief that it is based on is false for several reasons:
- Rewarding ourselves for our accomplishments makes good sense as it helps to motivate us. Similarly, pampering ourselves after a hectic day helps to keep our stress level under control. But when the reward interferes with our goals, it is more of a punishment than a reward. Putting a little more thought into choosing their reward would go a long way.
- A sense of entitlement leads to hostility and self-righteous indignation when – as is often the case – we don’t get what we believe we deserve. These unhealthy negative emotions create additional short-term and long-term problems of their own.
- When it is boiled down, a sense of entitlement is little more than good, old-fashioned people-rating – the belief that some people are better than others. After enduring a difficult patch, we tell ourselves, “I did well; therefore I’m a good person – much better than other mere mortals. Because I’m such a good person, I deserve a reward.” Many people don’t even have to suffer to regard themselves as better – they believe that because they’re smart, or wealthy, or pious they are automatically entitled to the good things in life. Such bigotry is not only ugly, it is demonstrably irrational.
- Rewarding ourselves for our efforts can be beneficial, but just because it is beneficial, it doesn’t mean that we must reward ourselves – especially if the reward in question subverts our goals.
- By learning to accept that nothing they do or endure makes them any more special or deserving than the rest of us, and by practicing unconditional life-acceptance, short-range hedonists can give up their irrational belief in entitlement, and work towards attaining their long-term goals.
It’s good to be popular. Having a strong network of friends for companionship and support adds quality to our lives; doing what we can to build and maintain a circle of friends makes sense. But many short-range hedonists take this goal to extreme limits, and try to win the approval of everyone, under all conditions — even to the extent of sabotaging their other long-term goals. They base their self-worth on how popular they are, and tell themselves, “If someone doesn't like me, it means that I'm no good. So I have to make sure that everybody likes me.”
As a result of this belief, they act in ways that are detrimental to their long-range hedonistic goals. For example: afraid of offending their hosts, they eat everything that is put in front of them; wishing to appear ‘cool,’ they share a joint with their friends; wanting to make a good impression, they max out their credit cards buying high-status items that are beyond their budget.
The short-range hedonist’s belief that “to be considered worthwhile, I must win everyone’s approval” is self-defeating and false because:
- Popularity is a poor way of measuring self-worth: It’s impossible to have everyone’s approval; winning one person’s approval may entail losing someone else’s approval; being popular doesn’t necessarily imply greater worth; approval-seeking places a high demand on your time, energy, and finances; trying too hard to win others’ approval often has the opposite effect; etc.
- The idea that some people are better than others, and that we can become better people by being more popular is fictitious. Ultimately, there is probably no way to accurately measure our worth, and no way to increase it or decrease it. Sacrificing long-term goals to boost our popularity is not going to make us better people.
- The efforts of short-range hedonists to win others’ approval jeopardize their dream of a healthy and prosperous retirement. Additionally, their unhealthy appearance and financial difficulties brought on by poor choices, make it much harder, in the long run, to retain the approval that they value so highly.
Overcoming Short-Range Hedonism
Most of us succumb to short-range hedonism from time to time. As noted above, the tendency is probably hard-wired into us. The occasional giving in to temptation is unlikely to have any serious, long-term effects, and undoubtedly has some benefits. But if repeated short-range hedonism is getting in the way of your goals, what can be done about it? The following six-step formula might help.
- First of all, pay attention to the obstacles you put in the way of your long-range goals. Are you sabotaging your goals with your own self-indulgence? Are you spending money unnecessarily when you want to save it? Are you overeating when you want to lose weight? Are you relaxing while there is work to be done? Occasional lapses are not likely to be a problem, but learn to be aware of them to ensure that they have not become habitual or detrimental to your goals.
- If you are conscious of overindulging your short-term pleasure center, don’t give yourself a hard time. Instead, decide for yourself that your actions are unhelpful and that you would like to change them.
- Merely deciding or wanting to change your ways is unlikely to be sufficient. Make yourself determined to change. Tell yourself that no matter what it takes, you are resolved to stop indulging your short-range hedonism.
- Look for the irrational beliefs that underlie your short-range hedonism; especially look for beliefs related to instant gratification, discomfort anxiety, approval-seeking, and a sense of entitlement. Look for the ‘musts,’ the ‘awfuls’, and the ‘I can’t stand its’.
- Dispute your irrational beliefs. Ask yourself questions that show up the falsity, the illogicality, and the unhelpfulness of your irrational beliefs. Use the online REBT self-help form and the online Dibs form. Use these and other disputing methods to replace your irrational beliefs with rational alternatives.
- Once you have developed rational alternative beliefs, act on them. When tempted to act in ways that sabotage your long-term goals, firmly remind yourself that you don’t need what you want, and then strongly and actively resist the temptation.
By following these steps, you will go a long way towards overcoming short-term hedonism and continue making progress towards your long-term goals. But being a fallible human being, you will most likely backslide from time to time. What should you do then? Answer: Without putting yourself down, go back to step one and start again.
A final word from Albert Ellis seems appropriate:
“Well-adjusted people tend to seek both the pleasures of the moment and those of the future and do not often ask for future pain to get present gain. They seek happiness and avoid pain, but they assume that they will probably live for quite a few years and that they had better think of both today and tomorrow and not obsess themselves with immediate gratification.”
About The Author:
Will Ross — is the webmaster and co-founder of REBTnetwork.org; he tutors REBT self-helpers and is the author and publisher of online REBT self-help materials.