Commitment does not follow pleasure. Here’s why.

I am often faced with a moral dilemma. We all know this one. You approach a scenario in your life where you have to choose between what you want to do and what you have already committed to doing.

Depending on the gravity of the choice, I make exceptions in the favour of pleasure alarmingly often. This is a natural response to potential discomfort. It is not something to be embraced, but avoided as far as possible. Why would we make ice cream when we wanted ice cream instead of just buying it? I would venture to say there are only two scenarios where this is likely to occur. Either you really like making ice cream or it’s cheaper and you would not otherwise be able to afford it. You will notice that both these scenarios occur in order to maximise the pleasure we experience.

You might agree with me that this is an unlikely example and therefore cannot be used as evidence to support this notion. However, we as humans tend to be creatures of habit. Patterns in our thinking will remain with very small if any variations in our response. This means that whenever faced with the ice cream problem we are likely to attempt to maximise our pleasure.

Why is this a challenge? For one thing, it trips us up. If I already experienced the pleasure of something, I am not invested in the outcome since my pleasure has already been maximised. Take diet for example. I have one cheat day a week. If that day is on a Friday, I get to reward my discipline with a cheat day on Friday. If this day is a Monday, I enjoy the pleasure before any of the commitment. What are the chances that my eating discipline would look the same if these two weeks occurred in direct succession? We intuitively know the Monday cheat week will be less disciplined.

I have programmed myself to maximise pleasure.

We were designed with choice. Choice is the foundation of our free will. We are free because we have choice. We can love, also only because we have choice.

If we supported a utilitarian approach to choice, we would aim to maximise the pleasure value we obtain out of choice. Reading this you probably think you do it. Surprisingly, we generally do not. We suffer from a mental disease called hyperbolic discounting. This means that we attach much larger values to things we can have or experience now than what we can experience later. This causes us to weigh our decisions much more heavily toward the near future outcomes even when the further future outcomes are much greater.

The inevitable end to this is that we value pleasure much more than we do commitment. We sell it to ourselves like this. “You will become committed to whatever it is you enjoy.” The sad reality is this is not true. We will only be committed to a thing as long as the pleasure commitment trade-off is favourable.

Conversely, if we are committed to a thing, say learning to play an instrument, the initial pleasure is quickly dampened by long hours of boring repetition. If I stay committed to the process and learn the instrument well, I become committed to that instrument. I have a new level of pleasure that I experience and start to see a return on investment. The difference now is that the invested capital (commitment) so heavily outweighs the returns I have had that I need to keep playing to justify the commitment. ‘I worked hard to experience this pleasure. I will enjoy it for all it is worth.’

The two now support one another in a symbiotic give and take relationship. As you enjoy pleasure you also show commitment. The balance sheet never really tips.

Taking this principle to my finances or how I save for retirement stirs some concerns.

What does this mean for relationships and even my spiritual life?

Living a pleasure driven life will never lead to fulfilment. Fulfilment can only come from pleasure we have unlocked through commitment.


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