The Problem and Modern Solution.
“I really want that cookie” (I say to myself), “No I don’t. I want to stay away from desserts for now”. How many of us have struggled between various desires in our lives? Part of me really wants that cookie, the other part of me wants to stay disciplined and on track to my personal health goals. Personal discipline and self-control have become quite popular recently. If you look at the most downloaded podcasts, for instance, former Navy SEAL, Jocko Willink, who is now a business consultant, as well as Psychologist, Dr. Jordan Peterson come to the top of many lists. A common theme these two speakers have is their emphasis on person discipline and self-control. Jocko’s famous line encapsulates the need for personal discipline, “Discipline equals freedom”. He explains the benefits to doing what you “should” do over and above what you may want or feel like doing in the moment for later rewards. This includes things like exercise for physical health, financial restraint to save for later in life, and just about anything else you can think of.
I believe this rise in proponents of discipline and self-control comes in response to our modern Western culture that has unimaginable material wealth, disposable goods, access to cheap tasty food, entertainment on demand, and just anything you want at the click of button from your phone. Our culture has become inundated with the ability to indulge in just about anything we want, from gambling, to food, to pornography, and more. These are examples of quick hits of dopamine (the neurochemical that is related to desire and attainment of certain goods) and the ease of access getting it when you want how you want it, anytime, anywhere. And this access to dopamine on demand without the effort that our ancestors worked for (hunting, working, developing relationships) often short-circuits our reward systems. We can continue to indulge in these quick hits moving from one thing to the next, but the body wants to maintain a level of homeostasis, it wants to keep things at baseline. Not too much of this neurochemical or that, not too little. So, the body compensates, after a massive hit of dopamine, (think of a see-saw going up) eventually the body dips down below baseline as a way to course correct (now the see-saw comes crashing down). If we can ride out the bottoming out effects of low dopamine, low serotonin and more, you will stabilize yourself, your body will find its way back to baseline and homeostasis will be restored. But many of us struggle to stay in that below baseline place for too long. So, we try to boost our own mood through using the same things we did before, food, drink, sex, drugs, shopping etc. to get us back to feeling okay. The problem is, the body will once again compensate, leading to an ever-diminishing cycle that leads to addiction and dissatisfaction.
The 19th century existential philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard noticed this tendency in his own time period, seeing humans in this “aesthetical” state of being, moving from one thing to the next in a kind of constant and somewhat frenetic paced life of distraction. He goes on to reflect on the deep, existential anxiety this state of being leads to, as we continue to shrug off our responsibility towards a more authentic state of living. From a modern scientific view, the authors of The Molecule of More, a book all about dopamine’s effect on our feelings and choices, describe the difference between the chemicals in our brain that relate to desire (dopamine) and the chemicals leading to enjoyment (serotonin), which explains how we can want something even if we don’t enjoy it when we get it. This aptly sums up a person caught in the throes of addiction. Whether it is to a drug or behavior, the person often at some point stops enjoying the addiction, but continues to want it and often in greater intensity or frequency. This is because of the strong desire for dopamine which over time we become desensitized to. Our bodies compensate by release less dopamine (or our neurons become more effective at absorbing the dopamine released having a similar effect) for the similar acts, so we crave more of the thing in order to elicit a similar response. On a less severe scale however, we see this with other behaviors. Think about that first bite of a delicious dessert. It’s sweet, tasty, and very satisfying. But if you’ve had the first helping and gone back for seconds, thirds, or the whole box, you’ll notice much less enjoyment and satisfaction after a while. That is because wanting something, and enjoying something are not the same, our body releases different chemicals and we experience the longing for something differently than the possession of it.
The problem we are faced within our modern society often comes down to avoiding being bombarded with opportunities for these quick dopamine hits that feel good in the moment but lead to greater levels of anxiety, depression, and dissatisfaction long term. And because of this prevalence, a host of voices have emerged to encourage others out there to take the harder path, to choose to not indulge too much in food, drink, social media and more. The response and general advice is that the easy road isn’t better, it is in the long run much less satisfying and does not lead you where you want to go, so you must develop the discipline and habits to control those desires, to do the right thing regardless of how you feel in the moment. This is helpful advice because we are more than our feelings, we have the capacity to want more than constant satisfaction of base desires for food, sex, and comfort. We are more than just instinctual animals, but in these conversations, it seems often that it stops there. Self-control for the sake of freedom becomes the goal, the concept is you may always struggle with internal conflict and desires that go against your own good, but you must master them, control them, subdue them. This is a good place to start, and certainly will bear more fruit in your life long-term than the easy, distracted, easy dopamine hit filled alternative path to life. Choosing to embrace small discomforts in the here and now does seem like a successful way to protect against larger psychological and existential anxieties long-term. In a follow up article, I will give a more robust philosophical account of the person that allows for not just “self-mastery” in the sense that one dominates and controls their own desires, but actually develops true virtue, in this case becoming the kind of person who wants things in proper proportion.
But for now, two key takeaways here: First, wanting something and enjoying it are not synonymous, so notice your desires as well as the level of satisfaction you get from those desires. Second, a life without self-control is not carefree, our bodies are not designed for a “good vibes only” state of being. Doing only what feels good will have lasting consequences, something that one can see by noticing the trends in mental health conditions today. Despite having more access to things that can make us feel good, more and more people are reporting issues with anxiety, depression, isolation, and more.