Instant Gratification

We are all monkeys

I have a confession: I’m an instant gratification, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding monkey. There, I said it. Actually, you are too. We all are. This is a framework I’ve mentioned to many patients, but it is useful, so I’m writing about it.

All of us are primates. We’re related to monkeys. And at a pretty basic level, our brains work in similar ways. We seek pleasure. We will, in fact, go to great (sometimes ridiculous) lengths to obtain that pleasure. We also, fundamentally, avoid pain and will go out of our way to avoid it. Lastly, we’re impatient, and as a species, we are not wired to wait. We want it, and we want it now!

These traits can cause us all kinds of problems. We eat food that is unhealthy and makes us feel bad, because it brings us pleasure now. We avoid things that are unpleasant, such as going to the gym, because they are unpleasant. We spend money now (pleasure) in favor of putting it away for retirement (pain) because we like what we can buy now, and are much less interested or motivated in what happens later.

This framework is not pejorative, and it is not dismissive. I am not saying that we are incapable of deferred gratification, that we will not do painful but necessary things, or that pleasure is the only thing that matters. Instead, this is our default, and working against this pleasure-seeking pain-avoiding instant-gratification idea goes against our nature. Its a nature we can (and do!) overcome, but it requires effort to overcome, and when we have to expend effort to do something, we do it less (or not at all). Why? Because effort is painful, and our nature is to avoid pain.

But, embedded in this part of our nature is a paradox. Many of the things that bring us pleasure also bring us pain. And, many things that are painful also bring us pleasure. Our minds get stuck in a narrative about certain things with being associated pleasure or with pain, and then that’s what we believe. We stop thinking and default to our nature.

For example, think of going for a run (or going to the gym). Our brains usually think about what is involved– first, put on shorts and shoes. Ugh. Start running. Feel lungs starting to burn. Breathe hard. Ugh. Get sweaty. Wonder when it’s going to be over. Recognize that we’ve only gone two blocks, and have only been running for 72 seconds. Ugh. This is painful. Stop! our brains tell us, stop the pain. Or better yet, avoid it in the first place. Why are we putting ourselves through this misery? “To be healthier?” is not an answer our brains like. To have a lower risk of heart disease? Meh, our brain says, that’s a problem for later. Our instant-gratification brains want to know, how does this misery help me now?

And yet, if we continue to play the tape forward, we can also identify something else. After going for a run, there’s tremendous pleasure. Focus improves. Endorphins kick in. Our energy improves, our mood gets better, and fatigue decreases. There’s a whole host of effects that occur that our brains most definitely like, because our brains are pleasure-seeking. We will often endure discomfort in the pursuit of pleasure, but in our mind, the exercise is associated with the pain, not the pleasure.

How do we work with in this reality? Most of the time, the instinct is to work harder, to overcome our nature. Try more. Force discipline on ourselves (or have someone else force it on you). But fighting our nature, fighting reality, takes a lot of effort, does not work well, and is nearly impossible to sustain. Instead, how do we work with our human nature? Is there a way to harness this tendency of our brains, rather than fighting it?

It turns out, we can use our nature to our advantage, rather than fighting it. We can choose where we direct our focus and attention, with the key being to focus it on the right thing, or at the right point in time. Most behaviors that are unhealthy also make us feel poorly if we set the correct time scale. And most behaviors that make us happy and healthy make us feel good, if we look at the right point in time.

So, here are a few examples:

  1. Eating a big fast food meal feels great in the moment. It feels awful after. If we direct our attention to how it feels to eat it, the pleasure-seeking brain takes over. Eeating well because it is important for blood pressure and cholesterol to our monkey brains is a big meh. If we direct our attention to how we feel after the meal, the pain-avoiding, instant-gratification brain takes over. Why do something that makes you feel bad?
  2. Exercise feels great after, in the moment maybe not so good. Focusing our attention on the burning lungs activates our pain-avoiding brains, and we try to avoid exercise. Doing it because it improves your health is not interesting to our monkey brain. Focusing the feelings that follow exercise activates the pleasure-seeking brain, and we will seek it out.
  3. Being with friends usually feels good both in the moment and after, but we often don’t feel like mustering up the energy to go out and see people. Focusing our attention on getting off the couch and out the door activates our pain-avoiding brains, and we tend to stay on the couch. Focusing on the fun with have with our friends activates the pleasure-seeking brain, and our social engagement increases.

I do not have any illusion that this is easy, or that simply by reading this, you will make miraculous changes and everything will be different. That’s ok. Here’s one last idea for how to leverage the way that our brains work, one that builds on the reality that behavior change is hard.

Let’s assume instead of eating a healthy lunch, you instead ate the big fast food meal. It’s now 130 in the afternoon, and you’re not feeling so great. Rather than trying to ignore the feeling, notice it. Pay attention to it. Link that feeling, in your mind to the meal you ate. Recognize, consciously (harnessing the instant-gratification), that the way you are feeling now (not so great) is because of the food. This noticing and linking in the short term will start to teach your brain that behavior X (eating big fast food meal), leads to feeling Y (mild stomach ache, low energy). Remember, we seek pleasure and pain instantly– in the short term. Avoiding unhealthy food because it increases cardiovascular risk 20 years from now is fighting the nature of our brain. Avoiding unhealthy food because it makes us feel bad 20 minutes from now is harnessing our instant-gratification circuits.

This idea can be applied to things that you did that you wish you hadn’t (as in the example above), or things that you wish you had done, but did not. Its 3 PM, and you are feeling a lack of focus, but you know that if you had exercised this morning, you would be feeling better. Notice that feeling, and actively, consciously, link in your brain the sedentary day with the feelings that are present. “I feel low energy and unfocused (pain), because I haven’t moved all day (recent behavior).” Activate the pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding monkey brain, and make it work for you.

When we harness our monkey brain to the things that actually make us feel good (and avoid the things that make us feel bad) in the short term, we can leverage our human brain to make us happier and healthier. Most activities have both pleasurable parts and painful parts. By choosing where we direct our attention, we can stop fighting the way our brains work, and instead harness our human tendencies to make us healthier and happier. By emphasizing the short-term consequences of our choices on our state being, we can turn our instant gratification circuits into a force to help us live healthier, happier lives.

Be well.

Dr. Justin

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