April 27, 2008

A Man's Life, The Virtuous Life

The Virtuous Life: Moderation

This is the ninth post in a series about living the virtuous life like Benjamin Franklin.

Wheat Field

Avoid extremes. Forebear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

Have you been in a relationship that started out with amazing passion? You got butterflies every time you saw the person and wanted to be with them every moment of every day. The connection was electric. But after a few month things started to fizzle. You began to get bored and restless. The fire has faded to a spark.

Or have you ever moved to a new and breathtakingly beautiful place? The first few months you lived there you were awed each day by the scenery. Just going out to get the mail was an opportunity to gaze with wonder into the distance. But as the years go by those once breathtaking surroundings become just the ordinary background of your day to day life.

Remember the last time you bought a CD that you were completely blown away by? You listened to the songs over and over again; they stirred something inside you. But after a few months you could listen without really even noticing it was on. And eventually you got a bit tired of it and put a new CD in rotation.

What is the common thread in all of these situations? They all show the way in which our brains quickly become accustomed to stimulation. While at first our senses are acutely tuned in to the input they are receiving, they fast become acclimated to the stimuli. The stimuli lose the ability to wow us and give us pleasure. We become numb to it. At this point most people reach for something new to experience those fresh feelings anew.

This is certainly the answer society gives us for our restlessness, our boredom, our anxiousness, and unhappiness. The answer is always MORE. More stimulation. More sex, more movies, more music, more drinking, more money, more freedom, more food. More of anything is sold as the cure for everything. Yet paradoxically, the more stimulation we receive, the less joy and enjoyment we get out of it. The key to experiencing greater fulfillment and pleasure is actually moderation.

Moderation doesn’t seem to get a lot of play these days. Everything is presented in extremes. We have extreme sports, extreme deodorant, extreme energy drinks, even an Extreme Teen Bible. We seek extremes because we erroneously believe that the more intense an experience is, the more pleasurable it will be

Our Insatiable Appetite for Stimulation

Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide. ~ Marcus Tillius Cicero

Humans have always sought greater and greater stimulation. An illuminating example can be found in ancient Rome. The great battles of the Coliseum, made famous in movies like the Gladiator, began on a much smaller scale. The tradition started as a way to celebrate the funerals of important men. Two prisoners would fight to the death. Whoever killed his opponent first was freed.

These battles grew in number and intensity as military officials and politicians competed to put on the grandest show. The contest also grew in popularity as the central source of entertainment for ordinary Romans. Sensing the people’s fervent interest, in the year 40 BC Julius Caesar held the first games that were unconnected to a funeral.

The games quickly grew in size, scope, and barbarity. The Romans’ appetite for the games was insatiable and eventually warranted building the famous Coliseum to hold the rabid fans. These fans constantly demanded a ratcheting up of the experience’s intensity. In the same way that sleazy reality shows of today find new and degrading ways to bring in viewers, the gladiator games sought new twists to keep the audience interested. The games were thus meticulously planned to meet the spectators’ expectations. What had started as a contest between gladiators became a bizarre and bloody circus where humans were fed to animals, animals were slaughtered for fun, and women, children, blind men, and dwarves were made to fight to the death.

Even brief pauses in the action bored the crowd, necessitating the building of elaborate tunnels facilitating the entrance and removal of warriors and animals with minimal interruption. People expected each show to be better and bloodier than the last. Yet the games’ ever escalating intensity could never keep pace with the crowd’s insatiable appetite for blood. It became impossible for Rome’s rulers to keep up with the pace and costs of these elaborate spectacles and the games eventually died out in the 6th century.

The story of the Roman games showcases a very important paradox: greater stimulation will not appease your desires, it will actually increase your appetite for them.

As we increase our stimulation, our appetite consequently rises to meet it. We then need even more stimulation to achieve the same pleasure the old level of stimulation gave us.

Yet the ratcheting up of stimulation will eventually reach the point of diminishing returns. As you seek higher and higher levels of stimulation, you eventually damage the delicate mechanisms your body and mind have for receiving and enjoying pleasure. We can overload our pleasure circuits, and become numb to future enjoyments.

How Moderation Can Increase Our Pleasure

When we feel unhappy and bored there are two ways to revive our feelings of enjoyment and pleasure. One is to seek new things and more stimulation. You can start going out more, having sex more, and buying more new things and experiences. But the pleasure you get from ratcheting up the intensity of these experiences will eventually end in a plateau. The alternative is to cultivate the virtue of moderation by seeking greater enjoyment and pleasure in things you are already doing now.

Reconnect with Your Senses. We live in a society saturated by stimulation. We have become numbed to nuance. You don’t need new stimulation, you need to rediscover the hidden layers of ordinary experiences. Stop wolfing down your food. Start tasting the unique flavors and textures of each mouthful. Instead of doing a keg stand and chugging cheap beer, learn to savor and appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into a quality brew. Start allowing yourself to feel some awe when you look at the night sky. Start actually thinking about how touching your girlfriend’s skin feels. We’re usually walking through life like zombies. Wake up and start delving into the wonder of the world.

Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance. ~Epicurus

Get Reacquainted with Your Attention Span. Whenever I rent movies from several decades ago, I am struck by how much slower the pacing of the action is. Things seem to happen in real time. I can feel myself get slightly antsy during these parts. But the problem is my attention span, not the movie. Similarly, sometimes when my computer is going a little slowly, I get very frustrated. But then I think, “man, it was only a few years ago that I had dial-up.” Our expectations for speed and stimuli have gotten unreasonable. Start stretching your attention span by watching old movies, reading the newspaper, and reading a good, long book. And when you get restless, try to put things in perspective.

Stop multitasking and be present in the moment. If you’re like me, you’re always doing two things at once: talking on the phone and surfing the net, surfing the net and watching TV, watching TV and reading a magazine, ect. Even when I fold laundry, I have to turn on the TV. I crave stimulation every moment. But this craving only begets the need for more stimulation. Try to do one task at a time. Quit mindlessly distracting yourself every moment. Concentrate your senses and focus on whatever it is you are doing.

Our moral theorists seem never content with the normal. Why must it always be a contest between fornication, obesity and laziness, and celibacy, fasting and hard labor? ~Martin H. Fischer

Take a fast from stimulation. Too much stimulation overloads our sensory circuits. It is thus essential to unplug and get away. The best thing to do is to periodically tear out into the outdoors. Leave your phone and computer behind. If you don’t have the opportunity to do this, at least try a phone and/or internet “fast.” Pick one day a week where you don’t check either.

Delay your Gratification. The more you hold out for something, the greater the pleasure you’ll experience when you finally attain it. If you eat ice cream everyday, it’s not going to taste as good as it would if you ate it only once a month. The more you hold out for that new car, the more pleasure you will feel when you finally get it. Have you ever noticed that the anticipation of a holiday can be just as good and sometimes better than the actual holiday itself? Hold out for things and enjoy the exquisite pleasure of anticipation.

Source: Wanting More: Challenge of Enjoyment in the Age of Addiction


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