Lockdown and discovering new micro-hedonisms

17.52, Thursday 20 Aug 2020

Here’s an intriguing new psychology paper about appreciating hedonism:

Relaxing on the sofa or savoring a delicious meal: Enjoying short-term pleasurable activities that don’t lead to long-term goals contributes at least as much to a happy life as self-control.

(Link found over at long-running economics/philosophy blog Marginal Revolution.)

In a nutshell:

  • Self-control to achieve long-term goals creates happiness, as do non-long-term pleasurable activities.
  • HOWEVER, lots of people feel guilt, for instance not being able to truly enjoy lying on the sofa because they feel they should be going out for a run instead.
  • If you’re able to indulge in the pleasure WITHOUT intrusive guilt, the short-term hedonism contributes as much to your happiness as the self-control.

Learning this, there’s a wonderful positive feedback effect in that it makes guilt-free self-indulgent short-term hedonism more allowable, as now I know it contributes to long-term happiness. (I hope that knowing about this research opens some doors for you, too.)

And also it gets me thinking about my own hedonistic activities…

There’s opera and there’s incredible food at incredible restaurants and there’s hiking in the desert. When I’m at the ENO and the first few bars of a Philip Glass starts up, I’m already in tears. But these moments don’t happen very often.

So there are also the day-to-day micro-hedonisms. Picking up a great coffee, passing a second-hand bookshop and popping in to buy something, going out for a long run, etc.

a.k.a. self care. My mental model tells me that:

  1. There’s an optimum time budget for self care. Like, maybe you need 15 minutes of self care daily and beyond that there’s diminishing returns – plus the mental energy required to suppress intrusive guilt is depleted.
  2. Each day, we stick with our go-to self-care practices. It’s tricky to discover new practices, and given the time budget, there’s a cost associated with shifting away from our regular set. So we reach a local maximum and stay there.

But then… lockdown. I’ve not had access to great coffee or second-hand bookshops. Lockdown itself and then scheduling has meant I haven’t been running. I had to find other routines.

Two of my newly discovered/resumed micro-hedonisms:

  • Baking.
  • Writing here.

Can I see myself going back to my old indulgences?

Some yes, others not. As it happens, I did pick up a fancy coffee the other day and it was… okay I guess? Perhaps I’d already hit my micro-hedonism daily threshold of diminishing returns.

Two thoughts as a consequence of the above.

First: scale this up. How much of the economy was dependent on particular micro-hedonisms of the population, and now they’ve changed and won’t go back? “Retail therapy.” Like, maybe retail will be permanently down 5% (and that time budget distributed over other activities) simply because self care habits were forced to change and now won’t go back. Who knows. I’m curious.

Second, it has been an absolute joy to read the blogs of my friends over the last few months and see them pick up new hobbies.

And, reflecting on that unexpected benefit of the last few months, I wonder how to - in the future - deliberately include some kind of regular micro-hedonism-discovery spike so that I can escape any local maximum and continue to find new and delightful self care practices.

Perhaps, once every two years, on 23 March, the anniversary of lockdown starting in the UK, I’ll start my own 60 day lockdown re-enactment, a carnival where I fast from all my old daily micro-hedonisms and instead audit whole new vices - activities I’m terrible at or currently don’t enjoy - sewing, tap-dancing, writing poetry, watching TV, drinking rum - and at the end of the festival, keep the best.

Follow-up posts:

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