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Happiness now or later? Why not both?

| Wednesday, February 7, 2018

In a recent New York Times article, David DeSteno argued that resisting the temptation “to value the pleasures of the present more than the satisfaction of the future” will be the key to keeping our New Year’s resolutions in 2018.

But delaying gratification, as we all know, is easier said than done. So, rather than fighting our tendency to indulge in the present moment, why not embrace it? In fact, maybe the most important resolution we can make this year is to value “the pleasures of the present” a little more and worry about hoarding rewards for the future a little less.

DeSteno’s argument is built atop the famous marshmallow test – first conducted in 1960 by Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel. In the experiment, kids are asked to choose either one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. You can imagine what happened, and Mischel’s findings show that humans have a hard time delaying gratification if there’s another reward available immediately.

The process at play here is future discounting, which means that our minds discount the value of rewards that will come at a later time. So, we don’t seem to care that two marshmallows in 15 minutes are more valuable than one marshmallow right now. Or, more importantly, we disregard the fact that 10 dollars next year is a greater payout than two dollars right now. “It’s my money and I want it now!” our mind proclaims, and according to DeSteno, this is a frustrating mental mistake to be overcome.

The history of trying to fight future discounting goes back millennia. In ancient Greece, philosophers compared our inability to recognize future value to the way brains falsely perceive distant objects as smaller than they are. Someone without an awareness of perspective would think that a faraway person was actually tiny. In much the same way, they reasoned, we under-value things in the future unless we’re taught not to. So, Western thinkers have spent thousands of years finding arguments to forego pleasure now in exchange for greater satisfaction someday.

For example, Christianity helps us see reason in forgoing pleasure by promising life after death. According to Christian dogma, suffering now is not only bearable but should even be embraced, since it will ultimately lead to greater rewards in heaven.

Meanwhile, the secular West convinces themselves to put off pleasure by cultivating a desire to live forever, along with the complementary belief that we will, at least, live long enough to benefit from saving our enjoyment for later. We do this by helping people overcome their fear of death. Consider how actuary tables make dying seem unlikely; the $3 trillion healthcare industry buttresses our death-defying courage; well-marketed retirement oases draw our attention away from the inevitable. Taken altogether, these strategies create a cultural concept that oncologist Ezekiel Emanuel calls “the American immortal.” It enables us to bet our time and pleasure now on what could be a larger payout in the future.

But doesn’t that sound like a deal with the devil? Travel to many less-Westernized countries and you’ll find a different understanding of the relationship between value and time. While we work hard to overcome the mind’s tendency to future discount, my friends in Ghana, Greece and Cuba simply work less, and consequently, enjoy the present much more than we do. The difference between these views of time are captured in a classic parable.

Once, an American businessman was sitting on a beach in Tahiti. He watched as a fisherman paddled a small boat towards the shore with a net full of fish. Amazed, the American asked the local how long it had taken to catch so many fish. “Only a few hours,” the fisherman replied, to which the businessman’s ears perked up. He recommended that the native man stay out all day, in order to catch more fish and make more profit.

“You must save your earnings, too,” the American told him, “So that someday you can buy a larger boat and hire employees to fish for you. In fact, with intense willpower, you could even save enough to hire a captain, so that you could take on a managerial role from a more comfortable office. And if you do all this, after saving for a long time, you’ll have enough to retire and spend your money doing whatever you want.”

The fisherman was openly baffled by this unsolicited advice, so he asked the self-assured American, “and what do people do in retirement?” To which the businessman quickly replied, having thought about this before, “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to buy a small boat and go fishing every day.”

Now, the idea here is not to do things that are pernicious today, nor to jeopardize our futures. In one Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, the young boy is disappointed to discover that you need to be 18 or older to buy cigarettes, stating “Eighteen?!? By then I’ll know better!” But it’s possible to balance the time spent preparing for then with the time spent enjoying now, and when deciding how to value time, there is a middle ground between hedonism and bitter frugality.

For example, consider middle manager Tom Smykowski from the film “Office Space,” who lives in constant fear of losing his job. Consequently, he places himself under intense stress as he edges ever closer to retirement. But when a car accident suddenly removes him from the perpetually unhappy trance of delaying gratification, Tom finally finds the joy he had long been postponing. From beneath a full-body bandage, he proclaims that “If you hang in long enough, good things can happen in this life.” But why should we wait for a near-death experience to liberate our happiness?

In 2012, The Guardian ran an article about deathbed observations from a hospice worker. She had recorded the top-five regrets of dying people over many years, including (No. 2) “I wish I hadn’t worked so” and (No. 5) “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” In light of these mortuary mistakes, isn’t it worth considering that maybe our brains are actually successfully valuing happiness in the present, rather than failing to value pleasure in the future? In other words, maybe future discounting isn’t a frustrating mistake, but an important adjustment of value that prevents us from wasting the present.

According to this view, DeSteno’s tips for how to override our brain’s tendency to future discount are still valid, but using them exclusively won’t make 2018 the happiest year yet. Instead, we ought to take a few more dividends this year, and by doing so, let ourselves be happier with the life we’re living right now.

Matthew Williams


Jan. 20

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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