What is effort?

No, seriously. What is it?

Let’s say that there is a microchip they can implant in your spine that will exercise your body for you. You will physically do the exercise exactly as if you had decided to do it yourself. Same activities, same pain, same results. The only difference is that you didn’t have to go through with it yourself.

Most people would go for it in a big way. And if you asked them why, they would say it’s because it means you don’t have to go to the effort yourself.

But what is this mysterious substance that we call effort?

It’s clearly not about the pain. The pain is the same. And it’s not the strain either. That too remains the same. It’s not the getting sweaty, or being tired after, or the time it takes, or the boredom, or the muscle aches, or anything. All of that would be exactly the same.

And yet those are the very things we would cite as the reasons why we don’t exercise more. What gives?

There must be a mental resource that we consider finite and treat as precious that doesn’t really map to anything physical or even logical. Something kinda of like effort, sort of like willpower, a bit like chutzpah, but really a thing for which, as far as I can tell, we have no precise name.

Let’s call it “the wherewithal“.

And it seems to me that the question of exactly what it is we are talking about is extremely important because a lack of this substance or power is the single factor keeping us modern consumers from being the person we want to be.

My feeling is that it has something to do with serotonin. After all…. everything does. On a neurochemical level.

Some activities deplete our serotonin supplies, others preserve or even recharge it. Things like exercise, housework, or pretty much anything else that requires doing something we don’t want to do because it isn’t the steady stream of unalloyed pleasure (or at least, lack of pain) that modern society can provide depletes this serotonin (or whatever) and because this substance is the basic building block of our sense of wellbeing, our default behaviour is to hoard it and spend it very conservatively.

The physical manifestation of this is what we usually refer to as “laziness”.

The irony, of course, is that this attitude is all wrong. It does not lead to maximizing happiness. The best it can do is minimize pain, and because of how consumer civilization programs us, we tend to view pain as the enemy and a lack of it as a kind of victory.

This results in a mindset where he thought that some pain is actually worth it – that there are things which involve some pain but bring far more in pleasure than they cost in pain – has a hard time taking root. Pain acquires a level of fear and/or reluctance associated with it that is wildly out of proportion with its actual severity.

So a kind of unenlightened hedonism kicks in, where the idea of delayed (but vastly superior) gratification disappears over some seemingly distant horizon and people act in an almost robotic, mindless fashion, without forethought or purpose.

Why? Because they are so depleted by their lives that their basic needs (in this case, for that reward/serotonin) override their rational brains, and even very intelligent people engage in self-destructive behaviours that they know are stupid, but they don’t feel like they have a choice.

And in a sense, they are right. Evolution gave us big brains, but it also gave our bodies a kind of veto power over our powerful rationality. If the body’s needs are not met, it can usurp control of first our minds and, if things get bad enough, even our body itself.

That’s why it’s hard to concentrate when you are hungry or thirsty. Your body is raising the alarm and there is only one way to turn that alarm off – give it what it needs.

Back to our main subject. How do people end up so depleted in the first place? Let’s start with work.

Work involves a massive investment of that mysterious substance. So does school, to a lesser degree. Our simpleminded and hedonistic ids have to be restrained and forced into things every second of our workdays. So many primitive impulses (like, say, wanting to smack the crap out of one co-worker and mount the other) to suppress, so many stimuli to filter out, so much energy invested in dragging our inner children kicking and screaming through out day that it’s no wonder that when we get home, we don’t want to do a single thing that would take any wherewithal whatsoever.

As we mature, we learn to stop fighting ourselves and just do the things we have decided to do. And of course, exactly how draining your workplace might be is highly variable.

Then there’s diet and exercise. Yes, the very things we want to motivate ourselves to do. There is no doubt, scientifically speaking, that we are making bad choices. Not from the point of view of some moralistic purity standard, but from the purely selfish hedonistic point of view. Our tendency to try to solve emotional issues via consumer purchases, coupled with our depleted states and consequent lack of rationality, leads to a string of short term solutions that in many ways just makes our problems worse over time.

By trying to fill the hole in our souls by cramming things into it, we only make it bigger.

I don’t have a ready solution for this problem, but all solutions begin with the same thing : awareness. If more people knew what was really going on inside them and what they were really up against, maybe they could find ways of making themselves happier in the long term. At the very least, they would find it easier to motivate themselves to do the less-fun things in life if they knew that they were not just deferring pleasure, they were investing it in being a richer (happier) person later in life.

So don’t go to the gym thinking “I want to be hot!” Don’t eat fresh fruit instead of a donut thinking “I want to be healthy!”. Don’t spend time reading instead of frittering away your time on things you don’t even like that much thinking “I want to be smarter!”.

Our inner selves don’t care about that shit.

Say to yourself “I want to be happier!”.

That’s something our ids can understand.

I will talk top you nice people again tomorrow.

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