Is Modern Society Obsessed With Short Term Pleasure?
Something I have been thinking about for some time is the issue of short term versus long term pleasure.
A while back I wrote a review of Mark Manson’s book — “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”.
One of the points he makes in that book is that focussing on short term pleasures does not lead to long term happiness or contentment.
Another book I read recently — Simon Sinek’s “Leaders Eat Last” elaborates on some of these concepts further.
One of Sinek’s central hypotheses is that a focus on short term pleasure in modern society is responsible for a lot of the failures in modern business practice and lack of leadership.
It also results in the boom and bust cycle which we witness in the markets over and over again.
It appears to me that the fast pace of modern society has lead to a focus on the short term highs of immediate pleasure to the detriment of long term contentment.
I think if we look at the contemporary society we can see countless examples of this — here are a few that come to my mind:
- Overeating, gambling and addictive behaviours in general.
- Company CEOs who risk the long term viability of their companies to maximise short term profits and their own bonuses.
- FOMO in the stock markets and markets in general.
These are things that are foremost in my mind but it is likely that every person has examples that are more relevant to them.
Immediate Pleasure Versus Long Term Satisfaction
I think we need to draw a distinction between the two main forms of pleasure.
We are somewhat hampered here by language (as we use the same words interchangeably) and that inevitably leads to confusion.
There is the short term pleasure — the “high” or “dopamine rush” as some would call it.
This is our immediate motivator for action and makes us feel good in the short term — but it doesn’t last long and we become tolerant to it fast.
There is also another form of pleasure which comes from long term achievement.
Satisfaction is perhaps a good way to describe this and it comes from sustained achievement and work over a long period.
— Think of completing a big project at work, succeeding in gaining a large contract after months of effort and so forth.
Not only are these things we work on over time but they often involve teamwork and collaboration.
They give our lives meaning and help to create the long term feelings of satisfaction, achievement and fulfilling goals.
They are often costly in time, money and other resources. They are also not always immediately pleasurable.
These two different types of pleasure are in constant conflict within our psychology but it seems that in modern society the short term pleasures tend to win out.
The Hedonic Treadmill
I have previously discussed the concept of the hedonic treadmill and I believe this gives a more technical way of understanding some of this:
The concept was originally developed by Brickman and Campbell in 1971 (unfortunately I have been unable to access the original paper online).
A later paper (and book chapter) by Kahneman  has a nice summary:
“Brickman and Campbell (1971) based their conception of the hedonic treadmill on a notion of adaptation level, which Helson (1964) had introduced earlier to explain phenomena of adaptation in perception and judgment. Anyone who has bathed in a cool pool, or in a warm sea, will recognize the basic phenomenon. As one adapts, the experience of the temperature of the water gradually drifts toward ‘neither hot nor cold’, and the experience of other temperatures changes accordingly. A temperature that would be called warm in one context may feel cool in another. Brickman and Campbell proposed that a similar process of adaptation applies to the hedonic value of life circumstances.”
This adaptation phenomenon is vital for motivation. If it didn’t occur we would just do one enjoyable thing and never be motivated to do anything further again!
We can see clues to why it emerged in our evolutionary history.
Life was very tough for our distant ancestors — just eating would have required massive struggles and life-threatening risks.
Pleasure existed as a means to keep them motivated. — It was a reward that kept them going through the pain and the challenges so that they could survive.
That pleasure was scarce though. Doing anything to bring it on required a lot of hard work and effort.
This is not the case in modern society where food and various other types of pleasure are immediately accessible.
I believe that it is that sustained work and achieving long term goals that leads to the long term pleasure — the situation of feeling contented and happy.
To be happy and healthy we need a balance between both forms.
The problem is that those short term pleasures can blind you to the value of long term contentment.
The Addiction Component
As many of you who have been following me for some time know, I have had problems with addiction myself.
It would seem I am not alone though. According to US government statistics published in September 2015:
Approximately 21.5 million people aged 12 or older in 2014 had a substance use disorder (SUD) in the past year, including 17.0 million people with an alcohol use disorder, 7.1 million with an illicit drug use disorder, and 2.6 million who had both an alcohol use and an illicit drug use disorder.
I believe that one way of viewing addiction is as the result of becoming overly obsessed with short term pleasure.
It is an attempt to beat the hedonic treadmill and as a result it is doomed to failure.
Ultimately you can’t fight your own biology.
It is also a perfect example of the detrimental effect that instant pleasures can have on a person’s life.
Nobody would call an addict happy or indeed healthy. The thing is you don’t have to be an overt addict to engage in addictive behaviours.
Certain modern manifestations of addiction may not even be widely recognised yet (e.g. social media addiction or mobile phone addiction).
I wanted to keep this short because I believe this is a good topic for discussion.
To summarise, my personal belief is that there is a fundamental imbalance in modern life that encourages the pursuit of short term pleasure (highs) to the detriment of long term contentment and happiness.
I believe this touches all fields of life from business to people’s personal lives.
What do you think? Have you seen examples of this?
Were you someone who became stuck in the hedonic treadmill?
Please let me know in the comments.
- Kahneman, D. (2000). Experienced utility and objective happiness: A moment-based approach. In D.Kahneman & A. Tversky (Eds.), Choices, values and frames (pp. 673–692). New York: Cambridge
University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation.
Thank you for reading
All images are taken from my personal Thinkstock Photography account unless stated otherwise. More information can be provided on request.