Hedonism is usually framed as the antithesis of long-term planning and gratification. While this is mostly true, there are also ways to mentally reconcile the two in a productive fashion.
In particular, we’re going to look at an approach that seeks to use an addiction to hedonism to your advantage, by framing long-term planning as a tool to better achieve ultimately hedonistic outcomes. There at least two other valuable approaches to dealing with addictions to hedonism – the first being completely replacing it with long-term thinking (e.g. I mustn’t drink tonight, for I have to study Spanish instead), and the second being merging the two philosophies (e.g. I enjoy my Spanish studies so much, learning is the most enjoyable and hedonistic thing I could do right now!). Keep those in mind when reading this post; the philosophy we discuss certainly isn’t the only way to be productive, but it may be a useful tool in your mental arsenal.
This approach is two-faced, in a way – at once we’re trying to put ourselves in a position to be even more hedonistic, but the method we’re choosing is built around using less hedonistic approaches to guarantee that. We’re not framing it as short-term sacrifice for long-term gain, but rather short-term sacrifice for short-term gain incurred later. It’s all a bit weird and a bit fuzzy, which is perhaps what makes it useful as a philosophy of personal development; you can twist it and bullshit it around in whatever fashion actually gets you off your chair to take action. As with so much personal development advice, the intention of this article is not to be rigorously true, but rather to be useful in line with your pre-determined but nebulous conceptions of what “useful” means.
Anyway – you’re not here to see me crucify myself for lacking access to purely objective truth, so let’s get into some actual application instead.
Let’s build up from the basics first – how does long-term planning help you achieve better hedonism?
Although everyone’s conception of hedonism will be slightly different, let’s run with a generic one – let’s say you want to go out and have a big drinking night with your mates, flirt with guys / girls at a nightclub, and generally enjoy debauchery. One of the limiting factors on this scenario is the amount of money you have with you. If you’re strapped for cash, you might not be able to afford that 3am kebab or a taxi home or condoms for the partner you’re going home with, and your utility curve might look something like this:
(Remember – the curve indicates your level of happiness and well-being, with a peak representing a “happy” state and a trough representing a “sad” state. Your ‘total’ amount of happiness or utility is the total area under the curve.)
On the other hand, if you’ve been working hard and saving money astutely, you might have money for that kebab or a taxi to your new fling’s home where you’ll be able to have protected sex since you can afford a pack of condoms at the 7/11 before you go. Now, your utility curve looks a little brighter:
Note that the perspective we’re taking isn’t that saving money is going to buy you happiness in the long-term; it’s that saving money is going to let you be more ridiculously hedonistic and short-term oriented in the future. This difference is only purely semantic if you believe it is – if you roll with it instead, and use that careful shift in language to “justify” and sate your addiction to hedonistic behaviour, then it’s a radically more effective way to frame essentially the same action and planning. If you’re struggling to combat your addiction to vice, it might be more useful to resign yourself to it instead, and actually use the temptation to fuel more positive behaviour. Mental energy and discipline are finite quantities, so you’re choosing to spend them more wisely on a perspective that will actually get you results, instead of persisting with the purely moral “abstinence” viewpoint which was getting you nowhere.
Let’s add one more basic concept to our arsenal before we proceed further – even if you’re going to be hedonistic at some point (or even on a regular basis), some forms of hedonism are simply better than others. Let’s imagine that you have about $50 free in a week, and you’re deciding what to spend it on.
In our first scenario, you’re going to spend it on three meals of about $16 each – maybe this is a burger, chips, and soft drink from a nearby burger joint, when you could have eaten the meat you had at home instead. (This is actually a big problem for my own finances right now!) On Saturday, your mates unexpectedly ask you if you want to head out with them for a big night, and you can’t… so you stay at home instead and feel a bit shit because they’re all having fun without you. Here’s your utility curve for the week:
On the other hand, if you’d saved money… now you have money to go out on Saturday! (Kebab, taxi, condoms, the lot.) You didn’t get to eat those great burgers during the week, but you had meat at home already which was still alright… and while you had to cook your own meals, you also didn’t waste time going to the store, so you probably had about equal time for other pursuits. Your utility curve probably looks something like this:
The key takeaway here is that you had more hedonistic happiness in the second scenario! Eating three really good burgers purchased you maybe 2 hours total of satisfaction, whereas the big night out might have purchased you 6 or 7. This isn’t some pretentious “long-term life satisfaction” bullshit – this is still the same sort of guilty pleasure happiness, but one attained with a slightly longer-term perspective. You’re still just as addicted to hedonism, you still threw out your Saturday night plans to go get shitfaced with the lads or have a ladies’ night out, you’re still wasting your money like a dickhead… but now you’re doing it better.
Don’t think of it as being a long-term planner; think of it as being a more successful hedonist. You might find it easier to get the ball rolling on otherwise productive actions that you previously couldn’t have talked yourself into. It’s not perfect (and your mind will probably tell you to just take the burgers and figure everything out later!), but sometimes all you need is a different approach to ‘unstick’ yourself… not necessarily a better one.
However, we have a little further to go! Let’s move on to a conception of how to be a good hedonist in the face of uncertainty.
A natural objection to those utility curves would be that you don’t know what the future is going to hold for you, so you may as well “spend” and maximise your utility as soon as possible. What’s the sense of holding on to that $50 when your mates always flake on big nights out? Why not just give into temptation with burgers right now?
The first response to this is dead simple – you are usually going to be able to “cash in” any savings in one form or another. You might not be able to spend the $50 on getting hammered with Bazza at Shooter’s, but you could spend it on a bottle of gin instead, or fuel for a roadtrip with your partner, or even a fucking amazing burger from a really high-end restaurant. Any of those options would be equally hedonistic, but they still probably outweigh the utility you would have gained from those three mediocre burgers instead of cooking for yourself.
This doesn’t just apply to money, either – if you’re studying engineering and decided to spend five hours studying just so you could go out on Saturday without worrying about your Monday test, and your mates fall through at the last minute… that’s still five hours of learning you’ve probably saved on Sunday, or later in the semester, or even later in your degree when you have to revisit past concepts. Hell, since cramming is so inefficient compared to long-term learning strategies, you’ve probably bought yourself even more than five hours of spare time.
You haven’t lost that big night out or any hedonistic pleasure… you’re just cashing it in later. When you finally cash it in, you might have completely forgotten about all the study you did earlier in the semester, or earlier in your degree, or 20 years ago… but you’re still cashing it in, even though you don’t know it. People always have, and always will, find ways to be hedonistic. If your “long-term hedonism” doesn’t actually pay off right away, don’t worry – you will find a way to cash it in eventually, and lose nothing. You can’t forecast the future, but you don’t need to in order to have a reasonable suspicion that making some short-term sacrifices is actually the best call you can make to fulfill your hedonistic urges over time.
A second response to this dilemma takes it even further – making some sacrifices now puts you in a much better position to be much more hedonistic later. We might term this the “Wolf of Wall Street” approach; you work hard purely so you can play harder later. It’s still surely a brand of hedonism… but a more focused one.
The trick here is that cocaine and fancy cars weren’t the only endgame for Jordan Belfort (to keep running with the WoWS analogy). After working so hard to make a fortune, Belfort could have ended up in any number of hedonistic paradises… travelling to exotic countries on a whim, playing videogames all day in a high-end gaming setup, spending all day on Reddit without any back-of-mind anxiety about paying his bills next week… money might not buy happiness but it certainly buys a lot of opportunities to have it “gifted” to you, if you haven’t done enough other personal development work to generate it yourself.
Even if you don’t know how you are going to “spend” your investments in yourself, rest assured that they will take you to higher hedonistic peaks than ever before – if you want to take them. You are putting yourself in a better POSITION to be more hedonistic than ever.
To give a more down to earth example… I was absolutely terrible at talking to girls in high school, so naturally I started putting work into it. I read books and articles and blogs and wrote a stack of self-analysis and forced myself to adopt and then actually become a (mostly) different person, and eventually, it paid off directly. I was finally able to talk to girls… then I was able to kiss them… then date them… then lose my virginity… then have one night stands… then sustain a long-term relationship… then try an open relationship (she was great, I was still kind of a dickhead at this point)… then finally manage a much healthier open relationship with someone else. It’s been this constant progression of increased success with women and dating, which is exactly what you “expect” from those sort of sacrifices.
(As an aside, I’ve also been able to make a lot of girls happy and help them lead good lives, which is actually immensely gratifying. Learning how to be an attractive person is usually initiated for selfish reasons, but it’s not a one-way street, and certainly not unethical if you make sure you’re not becoming manipulative or abusive in the process!)
What I didn’t forecast is how many other ways that learning would vastly improve my life, especially – for the purposes of this post! – in a hedonistic fashion.
I’ve now had girlfriends cook really delicious meals for me while I just mucked around on the computer or stayed in bed. I’ve had girls get me free tickets to formal balls which I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. In fact, the idea that prompted this post is that I’ll be heading down to Sydney for a conference soon, and instead of paying $300+ for their offered accommodation (which I would’ve done otherwise, since I value this conference), I’ve organised to spend about $200 for an AirBnB with two girls, one of whom I’m dating. It will very likely be more fun this way and I’ll save a bunch of money for a student – which I could spend on alcohol or food or vice instead if I wanted to be a hedonist. This was only possible because I taught myself how to talk to girls – with my old personality and temperament, I would have been way too fucking terrified to even talk to them, let alone date one or suggest we all stay together.
More succinctly, learning how to talk to women somehow – ridiculously – has essentially given me a $100 fund to get blind drunk with… ten years after I started.
Is that enough to justify it by itself? No, but there are so many of these little differences that all add up into one massive increase not just in long-term well-being, but also in my long-term capacity to be a ridiculous hedonist and experience temporary, massive peaks of pleasure. I don’t know what form these will take in the future, but I can basically guarantee that they will exist.
This, then, is the attitude I want to convey with this post. If you’re addicted to hedonism or find it extremely difficult to resist temptation… just roll with it and ask how you can do it in the most bombastic fashion possible. Start pushing it as far as you can! If you think it through, you’ll (hopefully) find that most of the actions you start taking are compatible with long-term “healthy” progress, simply because those actions are also the most likely to put you in a good position to be ridiculously hedonistic at any given moment in time. You don’t know what you’re gonna spend that $10,000 in savings on, but you know it’s gonna be big… and if you end up deciding against that, hey, saving ten grand also happens to be a responsible choice anyway. Either way, you’re in a much better position to “win” at life.
Similarly, if you’re thinking about grabbing a $16 burger and chips for lunch when you really shouldn’t… sure, you can try to convince yourself not to by thinking about how unhealthy it is, or how you need that money for rent, or how you always like to have $500 in an emergency fund and this would cut into that… that’s great long-term thinking and I encourage it elsewhere on this site.
But if that doesn’t work, and you just KNOW you’re in a hedonistic mood and nothing is gonna change that… start using it to your advantage. Tell yourself you’re not going to buy the $16 burger because you could get 8 litres of dirt cheap wine to drink alone instead, or you could just cook a regular lunch and spend it all on dessert snacks, or you could spend it on condoms and spend the rest of the afternoon swiping on Tinder to find someone else to come over.
You’re not “fighting” your hedonism any more – you’re replacing it with a slightly different brand of hedonism which is helping you to make a good decision in that instant… and when you’ve actually saved that money, you don’t actually have to follow through with the logic you used to get there. You can fight it the same way (why spend $16 on cheap wine to drink alone, when I can save it and spend $50 on amazing rum for a night out with my friends next week?), or have another crack at the traditional long-term thinking vs hedonism battle when you’re feeling more confident of winning it (because the burger menu isn’t right in front of me anymore to keep me tempted).
Or… fuck it, you can just be a better hedonist anyway because you actually figured out there were better ways to spend your money even in the immediately short-term, so you’re still happier than you otherwise would have been.
Being a hedonist probably isn’t optimal, but sometimes it really can’t be helped, short of a superhuman effort to resist human nature. Sometimes, you’re going to have to work with it instead, and find ways to make that temptation work for you… and you certainly don’t have to be an unthinking hedonist who just chooses randomly between outcomes. If you’re going to be a hedonist, you may as well get the most out of it, right?
And if you want to be the most hedonistic, selfish, short-sighted motherfucker on the planet… well, you’ll (ironically) have to do long-term personal development before you get that opportunity.
Invest in yourself. It’ll hardly ever be a bad call.