December 04, 2012

The Pleasure Principle

In the upcoming season of excess, what can we do when faced with temptation? When tempted to eat a third piece of pie, drink a fourth glass of wine, or buy a fifth adorable gift for our adorable niece, how can we exercise restraint? If you're wondering how to face the overeating, overdrinking, overspending, and other overs that run rampant in December, here are some ideas:

One way to handle situations that require will power is to have a predetermined rule. As discussed in an earlier post, using a rule means not having to make decisions, thereby avoiding poor choices borne of decision fatigue and ego depletion. For example, if you have a non-negotiable rule that you go to the gym before work every Monday and Wednesday, you don't have to make a decision when your alarm goes off in the morning, you just hop out of bed. If you have a non-negotiable rule that you don't drink coffee after 2pm, there's no will power involved in turning down your colleague's offer to pick you up a latte, because afternoon coffee is simply not something you do. 

Rules are rigid, though, and it takes time for them to be integrated to the point that no will power is required. I have a friend who has a novel approach: My friend pretty much never eats dessert. When others are impressed by her will power or accuse her of denying herself pleasure, she replies that rather than denying pleasure, she's giving herself a different kind of pleasure--i.e., the gratification of feeling fit and liking how her body looks. This is a new angle and one that applies equally well to saving money, avoiding sweets, exercising, and other generally positive behaviours.

I like to call this the Pleasure Principle and I've adopted it for my own use in situations involving, for example, spending versus saving money and going to bed at a reasonable hour versus staying up late reading or playing around on social media. I could enjoy new boots or I could enjoy feeling confident about paying my bills at the end of the month. I could enjoy sending one more message or I could enjoy being pleasant and well rested tomorrow. If I decide to save my money or decide to turn off the computer and get in bed, I'm not denying myself the pleasures of new boots or Facebook--rather, I'm benefiting from an alternative pleasure.

How is the pleasure principle different from rules, will power, and doing your future self a favour? Rules imply rigidity, will power implies self-denial, and doing a favour for your future self implies doing something grudgingly, but for a greater or future good. The pleasure principle removes all of the negative implications, leaving you with pure pleasure--it's win/win.

This holiday season, keep the pleasure principle in mind when you're trying to resist the third piece of pie, fourth glass of wine, and fifth perfect gift for your niece. Let me know if it helps!


  1. Thank you, this is extremely interesting and helpful. I love reading your blog.

  2. Thanks Co! That's great to hear. :)

  3. I wish just jumping out of bed was easy regardless of what I have planned. Often it's easy when it's a one-off but that rapidly goes away. Interesting post though.