Cognitive Daily

Eric Schwitzgebel offers an interesting paradox:

When I was a graduate student, a girlfriend asked me what, of all things, I most enjoyed doing. Eschewing the obvious and half-clever reply, I answered skiing — thinking of those moments of breathing the cold, clean air, taking in the mountain view, then expertly carving a steep, lonely slope. But how long had it been since I’d gone skiing — maybe three years? My girlfriend suggested that if has been three years since I’ve done what I most enjoyed doing, then maybe I wasn’t living wisely.

Schwitzgebel argues that the negatives of these experiences (organizing a ski trip can be a pain) may be what prevents us from doing them more often, and he’s got a point: I love skiing, but what I love is having a great run, when the snow is good, the weather is nice, and the slopes aren’t too crowded. I don’t like long lift lines, and after skiing half a day, I’m sometimes too exhausted to enjoy myself. So I tend to agree with him — certain aspects of skiing can be the most enjoyable, but other aspects are quite unenjoyable. But Schwitzgebel (and CogDaily readers) might be interested in another viewpoint on the matter:

In the book Satisfaction, Gregory Berns argues that too much of a good thing can make it less good. For example, sushi is his favorite food, but if he ate it every day, it wouldn’t seem as good. Part of what we crave is variety. So it’s not just avoidance of displeasure that keeps us from doing our favorite thing all the time, it’s also our craving for variety. I enjoy skiing, but I also enjoy great food, movies, and art museums almost as much. I’d rather spend my life doing some of each of these things, rather than just skiing all the time.

Another point that Berns makes is that the line between pain and pleasure is less distinct than you may think. From ultramarathoners to lovers of spicy food, many people like to do things which are actually painful. Perhaps our avoidance of the things we love actually enhances their pleasure.

As you can see from the Amazon reviews, Berns’ book may be a bit self-indulgent at times (perhaps this is appropriate for a book about satisfaction), but it can also be elucidating. The book is probably half-science, half-memoir, but it’s mostly interesting, and can offer some new perspectives on issues like the ones Schwitzgebel brings up.


  1. #1 zzz
    March 20, 2007

    Here’s another point: that there is actually a certain amount of “pleasure” to be gained from not doing anything or from doing only low input/low reward activities. And the immediate reward from the low input is strong enough to take away the motivation from going for a theoretically “higher reward” activity.

    So unless you’re really bored or restless or motivated then the ski trip won’t get organised.

  2. #2 Chris
    March 20, 2007

    You’re probably aware of this related intertemporal choice finding:

    If you ask people to select from several choices (say, 6 different kinds of candy bars), one for each week for the next 12 weeks, they’ll tend to select different choices each week (or at least, they’ll select a few different kinds). However, if you ask them to pick from the same set of choices, but this time ask them each week instead of having them choose ahead of time, they’ll almost always pick their favorite.

  3. #3 Norm
    March 20, 2007

    Variety makes sense. But then if you haven’t done it in 3 years, you lose the “variety” excuse. You’ve then entered the realm of the lethargic American. It’s much easier to watch TV than to actually do anything. Perhaps most people prefer to talk about something they once did. Talk, talk, talk…

  4. #4 c0t0s0d0
    March 20, 2007

    Enjoyment (and hence what becomes your favourite – which can be very very dynamic) is an attitudinal thing as well…. in some respects, some of my favourite things change every day… i find that i am very often doing my favourite thing…

    An nasuradin’s friend said to nasuradin, if only you learned to love sucking up to the sultan, you would not have to live on chip-peas… and nasuradin replied, but if only you would learn to love chip-peas you would not have to suck up to the sultan!

  5. #5 tekel
    March 21, 2007

    My girlfriend suggested that if has been three years since I’ve done what I most enjoyed doing, then maybe I wasn’t living wisely.

    The real story here is, “Maybe you should just say what’s on your shallow mind, instead of trying to come up with glib lies to tell your girlfriend, because she’s smart enough to call you out for it.”

  6. #6 Eric Schwitzgebel
    March 21, 2007

    Thanks for the link and comment, Dave!

    I must say it seems to me (as I sit here in my office, working on the computer for the three thousandth day in the last ten years) that we don’t tend to seek variety much either!

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