The Virtuous Life: Moderation

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 27, 2008 · 22 comments

in A Man's Life, The Virtuous Life

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

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matthew Henderson April 28, 2008 at 3:22 am

Brilliant article! I could not agree more. Everything is getting too much these days and I feel I’m getting desensitized. The pleasure is so much more when you experience it in moderation.

2 Corey - Simple Marriage Project April 28, 2008 at 6:37 am

The fine art of learning how to be present. Moderation is KEY. The nice thing about learning to be present in marriage, everything feels better. At least if you are willing to address the issue surrounding why you have not been present. Typically it seems we will speed up when we have something to avoid or are lost. Slow down and address life, you’ll get more out of it.

Great post Brett.

3 George April 28, 2008 at 7:08 am

That was absolutely fantastic. It is so hard in modern society to slow down. I am going to pass this along to my wife, because your post comes at a very busy time for us.

4 Tibi Puiu April 28, 2008 at 7:56 am

Wow! Great article, Brett. There’s an old saying in my native tongue, which I’ll try to translate: “what’s too much, rottens; what’s too little, doesn’t suffice.” Finding the middle path between the two is essential to living a healthy and balanced life. Thank for this this. Regards,

-Tibi

5 Michael Gowin April 28, 2008 at 8:03 am

Nice one, Brett.

The Japanese concept hara hachi bu (mentioned in Garr Reynolds’ book Presentation Zen) means “eat until 80% full.” This idea is easily applied in other areas of life and I use it often to remind myself that moderation is a good thing.

6 Nate April 28, 2008 at 9:49 am

I think it is funny how you mentioned Ice Cream. I don’t eat ice cream very much, mostly because I don’t like it. However, there is one flavor, and one flavor only, that I truly crave, and that is Mackinac Island Fudge Ice Cream. Now, living in Alabama, obviously I can not easily attain this delicacy, and I don’t try. The ONLY time I ever have the ice cream, is when I am up at my grandfather’s cottage on Bois Blanc Island, and I only am able to go about 1 week a year. That one week, however, I partake in the BEST tasting ice cream on the planet, and I sure enjoy every minute of it.

7 Geoff Moller April 28, 2008 at 10:47 am

Nice job :)

Another jumping-off point:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotle's_ethics#Moderation

8 Art Gonzalez April 28, 2008 at 11:53 am

@Michael, love that concept of hara hachi bu. The Bible is full of admonitions regarding temperance and moderation. Some are:

Proverbs 20, 1
Ephesians 5, 18
Proverbs 23:29-35
Titus 2:7
and many others

My personal favorite on this regard comes on Proverbs 23:20-21:

Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.

Many blessings to all and keep up the excellent posts,

Art Gonzalez
Check my Squidoo Lens at: Quantum Knights

9 Brett McKay April 28, 2008 at 12:45 pm

Thanks for the kind words everybody. I also want to give credit to my wife. She helps me write all the posts, and she deserves equal props.

@Geoff-Actually, when I first started writing this post, I was centering it on Aristotle’s philosophy of the mean. But it just wasn’t coming together like I wanted it to. So I ended up going in a different direction. But Aristotle’s thoughts are definitely worth pondering when it comes to the virtue of moderation.

10 Andrew is getting fit April 28, 2008 at 3:14 pm

Moderation in all things is the key to happiness and health I’ve found.

11 Rodney Hampton April 28, 2008 at 3:47 pm

Perfect article. I’d say you nailed it with this one Mr. and Mrs. McKay.

12 Gary Slaughter April 28, 2008 at 6:36 pm

A lot of the virtues are inter-connected. Moderation goes hand-in-hand with patience. Ever catch yourself tapping your foot impatiently while standing in front of the microwave, or expecting the elevator door to open immediately after pushing the button? I have.

I even saw a tax return ad touting the Rapid Refund one year on TV. A guy was waiting by the mailbox day after day while the mail truck sped past while the voice-over said, “The old way requires patience.” As if that were a bad thing.

We are overstimulated, and too many people seem to expect to be entertained every waking moment. I once asked someone who had to have the radio on all the time, “Are you that afraid to be alone with your thoughts?”

Moderation is key. Sometimes I prefer to be in the moment and use a broom to clear leaves instead of a blower, or an edger that’s powered only by my arms instead of electricity.

13 stevos April 29, 2008 at 8:22 am

Recently I was out with a friend, and there was a couple at the next table. The Guy was with this beautiful women and yet he spent all his time on his cell phone ignoring her, I felt sad for her. We truly do need to take pause and live more in the moment. I do not think moderation is the ‘Key’ to happiness as Epicurus’ philosophy would propose, but it is a start to discover the greater source of fullness of life. It is interesting to note that among the great religions and spiritualities there has always been times of purification, fasting and abstaining from regular delights of the world, that one may focus on the inner spiritual reality of man. Many people who live in extremes lack meaning in their life, they grasp at any experience that makes them feel alive, any thing to get that adrenaline rush; this can lead to destructive behavior leaving one sad and despairing.

14 Jordan May 5, 2008 at 7:15 am

I would add the small addendum: “Moderation in all things, including moderation”. Even moderation can be taken to excess.

15 Wrathbone May 9, 2008 at 8:23 pm

I found myself thinking while reading this, and just remembered something. I too am guilty of overstimulating my audial and visual senses. The other day I was folding my laundry, and had Youtube on. I started cooking dinner, I had the TV on. Whenever I leave the house without my Ipod, I feel just a tad bit naked. (Although in defense of that, the rare occasion I do drive without music on always seems to be the day that the car with the annoyingly-loud bass system keeps pace with me all the way to my destination.)

16 Greg June 25, 2008 at 5:04 am

This is why I don’t like MMA and UFC. Can you say modern day blood sport.

17 C.W. January 7, 2009 at 9:09 am

Just wondering if I may reposted this article, all credits given where due, on my own blog? I’m a woman and I keep finding so many great articles from Art of Manliness coming up in Google searches and such … shame there’s so many websites for women that don’t boil down to the basics of being a good person and living a fulfilling life. (Most women-oriented sites, in my opinion, focus heavily on sex, weight loss, fashion, and many materialistic things … female morals don’t really exist on-line unless its on a parenting site).

18 James July 8, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Awesome article. One of the best I have come across. Absolutely in the category of timeless wisdom.

19 Curtis November 5, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Great article; it compliments this very cool blog. On the topic of moderation and incorporating it into one’s life, there is a handy iPhone app that helps you live more moderately. Here is the link http://www.barizi.com

20 Tanay April 17, 2010 at 7:59 am

The article is useful for me as I am doing my research work on the concept “moderation”. It would be wonderful if you answer my question. What comes into your mind when you hear the word “moderation”? Please, write 5 words or word combinations or sentences.
THANK YOU!

21 Bill October 4, 2012 at 12:42 pm

i-phone app to help you live moderately.

That’s funny!

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