I recently watched a fitness coach draw graphs on the whiteboard in an effort to convince his followers of the value of self-discipline. The lines on his graphs represented “instant gratification” and “healthy practices” like going to sleep early, getting up early, eating healthy (but untasty food), achieving productivity goals, and working out regularly. The x-axis was time and the y-axis was satisfaction. Over the long-term, indulgences like junk food, staying up late, and being lazy would lead to less satisfaction while disciplined practices might at first be uncomfortable but would lead to long-term satisfaction.

(The point of the video was that he actually took this theory too far, to the the point that he had no social life, so he had to modify the theory to balance a healthy life with some early-evening social activities.)

So far, there’s nothing surprising here. For me it’s seems to be a standard boyish practice of seeking salvation through pure theory.

It seems quite crucial to theorize satisfaction as deeply personal, something we cannot impose or even manipulate through our behavior, but which we must seek with great care. Finding satisfaction requires extensive experimentation, detailed observation, pattern-tracking, and a measure of tenderness.

Well-executed research will discover profoundly personal truths, and they very likely will not conform to received wisdom, common-sense, or “healthy life” templates.

For example, on a recent trip to the US I indulged in a nostalgic tour of the sweet-cereal aisle, along with an assortment of classic treats exotic to my Frenchman. From rocky road ice cream, to barbecue sauce, graham crackers, tortilla chips, sour cream, and mini-marshmallows. It had been a good ten years since I had revisited these foods, and I investigated my reaction with due diligence. Fruit Loops and Cocoa Krispies were familiar, but disappointing. I felt quite sure they used to be more intensely sweet. But mini-marshmallows were as utterly delighful as ever.

For me the cure to junk food and laziness is not inspirational lectures, but serious tasting. If there is something you really love, then by all means eat it when you really want it (but only if you really want it!). Likewise, pay attention to working and working out and find out if you are really suffering all the time, or if there are moments of pleasure and fulfillment.

Many years ago a rather untypical student arrived in my studio. I asked the standard question “why are you doing this?” Her answer has haunted me ever since. “I want to enjoy my life.”

This is an active and investigative proposition. And it requires figuring out how to achieve pleasure and satisfaction in the short-term, so we are not miserably waiting around for the long-term. It means optimizing the day, every day, with awareness of the power imparted by discipline, the meaningfulness gained through work, and the celebration and wholeness achieved in the very most delightful of indulgences.

Originally posted on Syntax of Power