Long ago in ancient Greece, being smart was trending and philosophy schools were all the rage. During this time, around 300 B.C., a man named Epicurus founded one such school in Athens.
(You might recognize his name in the word “epicurean” – nowadays used to describe those who have luxurious tastes or habits, especially in eating and drinking).
The story goes that Epicurus established his philosophy school in a garden, where he hung with his Epicurean pals. At the garden entrance was a sign that read:
Here pleasure is the highest good.
This school drew, in part, on the “pleasure ethic” of another, earlier philosopher named Aristippus. To Aristippus, pleasure was indeed life’s highest good and ultimate goal.
Let’s pause for a moment to picture it: heading to class in a garden of pleasure where sensual delight rules the school.
Extra helping of triple-fudge ice cream anyone? (Perhaps with a side of other earthly delights?) Woo-hoo!
School. Is. In. Session.
(I don’t know about you, but I’m liking this Epicurus character.)
Alas, there’s a catch.
It’s true. After Epicurus, many Epicureans did dive headfirst into a life of self-indulgence. Their motto was “Live for the moment!” (and I’m quite sure they’d have no qualms devouring a super-sized sundae).
Thing is, Epicurus – and his original school – weren’t so wild and crazy. Sure, they were all about pleasure, but with caveats:
1. Pleasurable results of an action must be weighed against possible side effects.
2. Short-term pleasure must be weighed against the possibility of better or more lasting pleasure in the future.
3. “Pleasure” doesn’t necessarily mean sensual pleasure (derived from eating ice cream, for instance). Other things count too – values, health, friendship.
Put differently, Epicurus was a fan of taking a bigger perspective and playing the tape forward.
What do I mean by “playing the tape forward”? Well, let’s revisit our ice-cream party in the garden.
Ice-cream party in the garden! Woot, woot!
Picture Epi and his pals hanging around a pillar when the ice-cream chariot pulls up. Seeing that the sign reads “Here pleasure is the highest good,” the vendor anticipates a knock-down, free-for-all, ice-cream extravaganza.
Unfortunately for him, these real-deal Epicureans, upon seeing the array of flavours and toppings spread out before them, were all like:
“Hold on, yo. We’ve got to weigh this pleasure. And play the tape forward.” So they convened a philosophers’ circle and thought on it:
Epicurean Bob: Sure would taste good – all that gooey goodness...maybe with whipped cream. Yeah, definitely whipped cream. Two, three, four bowls at least. Shall we call the girls?
Epicurean Joe: Now, Bob, just hold on a sec. You know what Epicurus would say. Will there be any side effects?
Epicurean Bob: Oh, um, yeah, most likely. Probably definitely. Remember what happened the last time the ice-cream chariot came through...er, uh, what always happens when the ice-cream chariot comes through?
Epicurean Fred: It never stops at ice cream, that’s for sure. We always seem to move onto something else. So much for that healthy eating plan.
Epicurean Joe: Yeah, and I’ll get all bloated and my face will break out. Plus, that pain in my knees will return. And my nasal congestion. Oh, and last time I had to cancel my moonlit rendezvous with Fran – I mean, I just looked and felt too awful.
Epicurean Bob: I heard she went out with Sam instead. He has a new chariot.
Epicurean Joe: You suck.
Epicurean Fred: Well, maybe it’s better to hold off. I mean, there’s an amazing lute concert in the square tonight. I hear they’re serving paleo snacks.
Epicurean Bob: Excellent. Let’s do it!
Okay, so it mightn’t have gone quite that way.
But trust me. After “playing the tape forward” and weighing short-term pleasure against likely side effects and future tradeoffs, this crowd would’ve passed on two, three, four bowls of ice cream.
And you’re telling me this because...
Here’s the gig. Sometimes short-term pleasure is NOT going to bring pleasure that lasts (beyond the last bite, for instance).
What’s more, over-indulgence in the short run can sabotage efforts to find more lasting – and even better – pleasure in the long run.
Makes sense, right?
Problem is, resisting the call to “Live for the moment!” can be really, really hard (especially when the ice-cream chariot shows up).
This is partly because making an unhealthy choice is often part of a larger pattern – one in which we repeatedly indulge in a substance or behaviour that doesn’t serve us. We do this despite knowing how it will turn out – how it always turns out.
Our choice, made again and again, feeds an addictive, self-perpetuating cycle.
Stepping out of this cycle isn’t easy and is very much a process (though it helps to have trained, structured support).
But as a starting point, I’ll share a Do-It-Yourself exercise in playing the tape forward...and choosing the best, most lasting pleasure possible. It goes this way...
Playing the Tape Forward
Next time you’re reaching for your damn-it-all substance or action of choice (you know the one I’m talking about – whatever you just “can’t” resist...and inevitably regret), take a time out.
Just hold on, hit pause, and ask WWED (What Would Epicurus Do)? Answer: He’d play the tape forward.
Before saying Yes to ice cream (or whatever your indulgence of choice), watch the full tape.
See it play out, as if on a screen before you. Try not to have an opinion about it – just watch as the story unfolds, seeing where it will go next...and after that...and after that.
Then, once you’ve played the tape, ask yourself three questions.
1. How long will the feel-good parts last? One hour? Five minutes? A few bites?
2. What are the side effects? Today? Tomorrow? A month from now, if on repeat?
Even if, in the moment, you can’t recall these three questions, play the tape forward anyway.
Watch it through until the end. Then make your choice. Know what you are choosing. Pleasure now or pleasure later? Lesser pleasure or a better, more lasting one?
Look, I know this isn’t easy. And I know you might channel Epicurus, play the tape forward and still choose a third or fourth bowl of ice cream. But most likely, with mindful, persistent practice, one day you will not.
So keep at it – and know that just by taking a timeout and playing the tape, you’re moving in your desired direction.
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In pleasure + health.