Thursday, October 17, 2013

Selfish + Pleasure - Pain = Happy

This was an interesting blurb that a reader sent me about one person's idea of success in life:

Be selfish + seek pleasure + avoid pain = success

At first glance, you may think this formula encourages you to be the most greedy and self-absorbed person imaginable. In reality, exactly the opposite will happen.

This formula virtually eliminates all the short-term bad decisions most of us make about diet, exercise, money, and relationships.

If you just want pleasure, you might cheat on your spouse. But if you want both pleasure and to avoid pain, you won't do it.

If you just want pleasure, you will eat rich desserts. But if you want both pleasure and to avoid pain, you will likely eat less dessert.

If you just want to avoid pain, you might lead a quiet, sheltered and safe life. But if you also want pleasure, you will find a healthy balance between safety and excitement.

To use a simple example, I'm a passionate skier with three "kids." During three different periods, I had to give up much of my free skiing time to teach them to ski. That was a little painful - especially in my lower back - but the subsequent pleasure of skiing with my now-expert offspring far outweighed the pain of a few missed powder days. Teaching them to ski was incredibly selfish of me.

Enlightened self-interest that looks like altruism

Add these three elements together, and you will start behaving in a manner that others interpret as altruism. You will exhibit a strong interest in your community, peers and colleagues, because doing so is how you make the formula work on your behalf.

Here's the critical part: you must adopt all three! If you adopt just one, your life won't go so well.

If you just focus on pleasure, you'll end up with a superficial and unsustainable life. If you simply avoid pain, you'll never accomplish anything worthwhile. If you obsess with your self-interest, you'll become the greedy and selfish person I promised to help you avoid becoming.

The reader commented that this is very similar to how I approach my own decisionmaking process. Does this seem familiar to anyone else?


  1. Cute.

    Most of my decision making process revolves around: what's in it for me vs what it's going to cost me.
    Works pretty well, most of the time anyway.

  2. Sounds like risk vs reward to me. Take risks that will make things better for you and get you things you want, but not so big that it hurts if it doesn't work. Your pain threshhold is the important part.

    1. wow you sound exactly like someone I used to know.
      almost let him ruin my life.

  3. The "selfish" part of the equation is not bad. We have varying
    definations of what it means to be "selfish."
    Curiously enough, if one is "selfish" in a proper way, that's actually
    a benifit, because taking proper care of yourself places yourself in a
    better position to help others.
    Seeking pleasure undues the benefits of "proper selfishness."
    If we place a destructive addicition ahead of healthy selfishness,
    we will destroy ourselves, and drag down everyone who attaches
    their fortunes to us.
    Avoiding pain is also good but only if we can discern what's actually
    painful-long term.
    For example, avoiding unpleasent truths about ourself is not a
    proper way to avoid pain. We will only pay the piper later down the
    road. Also, persisting in unhealthy physical habits, long term, will lead
    to a shortened life. So it is better to face short term pain so we can
    reap long term benefits.

  4. ^ I agree totally with you anon. Part of being properly selfish is to know yourself, your dreams, goals, plans, personality traits, needs, and then know how other persons think, feel and behave on the world.

    As a HSP (very empathetic, creation motivated, emotional (but not dramatic because I take responsability for my emotions), non-competitive with others but competitive with myself, among traits), not unlike ME's brother Jim but with some diferences, the best thing I did for myself was to get my emotions under control and start to use my rationality to understand what makes other people tick, instead of just assuming that people are people.

    For examlple, research says about 20% of people in the world are HSP, and that 4% of them are sociopathic, and it's like we are radically oposite kinds of people, the truth is that while the socio knows me very well, I dind't, coulnd't emotionally ever understand that kind of person that has such a chance of causing me damage, so, in order to avoid pain one of the things I do is study people and everything I can about them, not just sociopaths, but autism, personality desorders, etc. And while reading ME I got the key to survival (in my opinion, socios are survival machines, HSP are creation machines, a lot I can learn from them), is profiling, something that comes so automatic for socios because of competitiveness (the way I expirience competitiveness is, I like to win, but others people sucess doesn't makes me feel bad, and I don't see/feel causing pain has a source of pleasure).

    1. Do you have revenge fantasies though.

  5. Most folks are selfish, they like pleasure like silly tv-shows and, if they can, they avoid cutting themselves while cooking. That´s what normal folks do, in general..

  6. This basic rule (Occam's Razor?) carries reminiscences of pretty ancient rules conserved in religion or ethics (philosophy). Please no harm meant! In spite of the occasional condescension--we are ooh so superior compared to earlier earlier stages in time--some basics in human life never seem to change. And I am not suggesting it is present in the above.

    Not that I do not get into verbal fights with preachers of "balance" ever. But yes it seems to be a core value. But it feel it would be a means to make the rule even shorter. Definitively a careful balance between "egoism" and "altruism" is very essential. Never mind how much I struggled with Kant's "duty", which touches the topic occasionally.

    I am not so sure about "happiness", or if it has that much meaning for me. I guess I can only experience it in a very limited version. I am not hunting it, in other words. But I know what things I love to do. And what raises my mood.

    Hmmm? The "philosphy of happiness".

    Quite possibly a big and maybe well funded market for "Happiness", it feels. But for whatever reason a topic I am not especially drawn to.

    1. The first and last sentence in the second paragraph is a leftover from a longer private meditation on "egoism" verus "altruism". Which is also were Kant and duty enters the scene. For me a difficult issue I am only grasping slowly. They should have gone completely, since I decided to spare you my private meditations today.

      In any case, could the golden rule above be reduced even more with the simple word "balance"? which of course is often reduced to close to meaninglessness or misused in context.

      I also did delete the short passage that would have made my association of happiness (seaking pleasure) more easy to understand. The rule for me clearly competes with self-help books.

      No harm meant, one of the better comments here. At least slightly more reflected and less pretentious, really.

      And now I shut up for a while, something I should have done long ago. ;)

    2. Ok, one necessary relapse to the rule to shut up for while:

      At first glance, you may think this formula encourages you to be the most greedy and self-absorbed person imaginable. In reality, exactly the opposite will happen.

      Feels admittedly inspired by utilitarism, which in turn triggered the dominance of happiness.

      I may be wrong though. I actually like Mills and also have a strong libertarian bent, to the extend it concerns our freedom, at least. But occasionally that seems an aspect that is in full retreat even among Libertarians ...

  7. Off topic - a thank you to whoever concerned.

    Yes, another relapse and a huge thank you to whoever somewhere around here, it feels, sent a link to a series of articles on a selection of the most prominent horror movies.

    That feels indeed a quite interesting lens through which to look at the larger discussion here. Interesting aspect of cultural history too.

    Thanks to, whoever it was.

  8. This behavior pattern strikes me as the definition of mental health.
    If prosocial sociopaths conduct themselves in this fashion, then I think they are very useful members of society and the stigma of "evil" needs to be dropped.

  9. Her reference to her three "kids" in quotation marks was a bit weird, but other than that this is an interesting modern take on hedonism without excessive self-indulgence. I already conduct much of my own life in this manner.

  10. I tried your formula, and unfortunately, it doesn't work.

    Does not compute.

    1. It computes for me and I pretty much live my life this way but unfortunately I do not feel like a success and I have difficulty sustaining the joy one would imagine I would feel.

    2. So I googled "pronoia". I found it helpful. rob brezney has interesting column and you do not have to be into horoscopes in the least bit. If you read all of the signs you can see from a different perspective ... it is the opposite of paranoia.


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