Shortly after waking this morning, while stretching, I was surprised by a pervasive, remarkably pleasant feeling. Physically, I was experiencing sensations from internal parts of my body where I normally feel no sensation whatsoever. You know that saying that often accompanies a strenuous workout: “I’m going to be sore in muscles I didn’t know I had?” Well, I was feeling pleasure in parts I didn’t know I had. Though this feeling was pervasive, it seemed to be emanating from within my torso. There was a lightness in my core. I felt like a kid again.
I instantly knew the reason for this good feeling: the fact that yesterday I consumed only 20mg of caffeine. I’ve been decreasing my daily caffeine intake for nearly two months now. Caffeine consumption causes the body to produce cortisol, the stress hormone. Overexposure to this and other stress-related hormones can cause damage to muscle tissue. Subjectively, too much stress makes me feel like my muscles are tight. I think this is where the feeling of lightness came from this morning: my muscles can finally relax, now that I’m liberating myself from years of chronic stress.
It makes sense that this morning I felt “like a kid again” considering that, in American culture, becoming addicted to coffee is a rite of passage into adulthood. I feel this good because my caffeine consumption is nearing levels I haven’t experienced since I was, in fact, a kid.
If you’ve read virtually any self-help book (but especially one that draws from Buddhism) then you will be familiar with the distinction between the fleeting “happiness” that comes from instant gratification (say, the satisfaction a nicotine addict gets from smoking a cigarette) and a more enduring and meaningful sense of well-being that comes from a wholesome lifestyle, complete with proper nutrition, exercise, and meditation. In my own experience, the knowledge that I am no longer the slave of Big Tobacco is infinitely more gratifying than any cigarette I ever smoked.
It seems to me that most people’s brains are wired for instant gratification. I don’t think this is ingrained in “human nature” (a deeply problematic concept). The brain is extremely malleable, structuring itself according to the unique experiences of the individual in whose cranium it resides. So, if most of the people I encounter seem wired for instant gratification, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, since I do live in the United States, whose culture is hyper-consumeristic.
A now-famous study showed that most people will accept a smaller reward (say, $1) now rather than wait for a larger reward in the future (say, $5 a week from now). I believe these findings are not limited to the financial realm, but can be generalized to almost any situation where there is a conflict between instant and delayed gratification. So, most people would rather end their withdrawal symptoms by smoking a cigarette now, rather than power through the pain and reach a state of equilibrium where you no longer need nicotine to feel normal.
But so far I’ve been speaking of people who prefer instant gratification as if they are hapless automatons whose behavior is determined wholly by the advertisements to which they are exposed. But they are people, just like me, with their own thoughts, choices, and perspectives. In fact, there is a coherent philosophical position that instant gratification is actually preferable to delayed gratification, as immortalized by the novelist Willard Motley in the line, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse!” Or, more recently, the hippie anthem, “Let’s Live For Today.” (Instant gratification is indeed a big tent if it brings together hippies and all-American gluttonous consumers.)
The idea goes something like this: Life is short, and you only get one, so it’s better to get as much enjoyment as possible out of each moment. A shorter life filled with pleasure is better than a longer life filled with austerity and sacrifice. If you’re an all-American gluttonous consumer, annoyed by the constant revelations that your favorite household products are carcinogenic, then enough said. Fuck it, give me cancer. I can’t be bothered to keep up with the research. Let me eat my steak and drink my beer in peace. If I die younger than I otherwise would have, then at least I enjoyed myself while alive.
But if you’re a hippie, then things get interesting, because the counterculture of the 60s brought a little sophistication and subtlety to the idea that it’s better to “live for today.”
When I think of all the worries people seem to find
And how they’re in a hurry to complicate their mind
By chasing after money and dreams that can’t come true
I’m glad that we are different, we’ve better things to do
May others plan their future, I’m busy lovin’ you
The hippie approach to the argument, drawing as it does from the Eastern spiritual traditions that were imported en masse during the 60s, has an air of transcultural authority. It says that planning for the future is a particularly Western habit. Such planning is ultimately futile and does more harm than good. It causes people to become attached to their expectations and to suffer disproportionately when reality does not meet those expectations. It causes people to ignore the beauty of the present moment, and to accept undesirable conditions in the present, because they are putting all their hopes into some future salvation. In this way it’s easy to see delayed gratification as an outgrowth of Western culture. Medieval peasants placed all their hope in an afterlife, while moderns chase “after money and dreams that can’t come true.”
But a recent study suggests that the hippie argument got it wrong. This study found something counterintuitive: In Western cultures where time is obsessively quantified, there is a disconnect between one’s present self and one’s future self, with people more likely to disregard the consequences that one’s present actions will have on one’s future self. You would think it would be the other way around, that the tendency to disregard future consequences would be found in the cultures where people “live in the now.”
I think where the hippie argument goes wrong is in assuming a universal conception of time. It compares and contrasts Eastern and Western lifestyles, without sufficiently accounting for the differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of time. It takes the Western conception of time for granted, using it as the standard, so it’s unsurprising that the conclusions drawn are faulty.
Western time is linear and atomic. That it’s linear means that it stretches in one direction, from past to future. That it’s atomic means that it consists of discrete units (i.e. “moments”). By contrast, many Eastern, indigenous, or “primitive” conceptions of time are cyclical rather than linear and continuous rather than discrete. This explains why Westerners are more likely to disregard their future selves. When you see time as consisting of discrete moments, it’s easy to disregard the version of yourself that will exist at some future point in time. This manifests in such sayings as, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” By contrast, when you see time as a continuous spectrum, it’s much more difficult to ignore the effects your actions will have on yourself at other arbitrary “points” in that spectrum.
It’s understandable that in the West, many are disillusioned with promises of future salvation. Religious authorities used the promise of Heaven to placate the populations of Europe for centuries. But to disregard all planning, all delayed gratification, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Heaven is a promise whose authenticity can never be verified in this lifetime.
But there are plenty of goals, realizable within this lifetime, that are worth striving to achieve. The formulation, “It’s better to live a shorter life of pleasure than a longer life of austerity and sacrifice,” is faulty insofar as it assumes that those two extremes are the only options. It ignores the fact that the “austerity and sacrifice” are only temporary, and that the pleasure one will experience thereafter is of a higher quantity and quality than the pleasure you’re experiencing now.