Pleasure and utility

A friend mentioned that the Venn diagram in “Your Life in Weeks” resonated with him. The diagram focused on the intersection of what you enjoy and what builds your future: try to spend your time on activities that do both; one or the other is okay, but if something doesn’t address either of those, you should probably stop doing it.

While reflecting on the diagram, I realized that I prefer an X-Y chart instead. It reminds me that there’s a mix of pleasure and subjective utility in everything I do. Otherwise, I wouldn’t choose to do it. Pleasure and utility vary by activity, and even for a particular activity, they may vary based on factors such as time or energy. There are no hard cut-offs or fixed measurements. I can adjust things up or down with attention, too.

2015-07-25a Pleasure and utility -- index card #choice #utility #pleasure #time

2015-07-25a Pleasure and utility – index card #choice #utility #pleasure #time

For example:

  • I can increase my actual utility by double-checking subjective utility against what actually happened (decision reviews, etc.).
  • I can increase my subjective utility by thinking about what I could get out of an activity. For example, co-op gaming turns out to be a fun way to spend time with W- and practise managing small stresses.
  • I can break an activity down into the things I enjoy or find useful about it, and find similar activities that might be more enjoyable or more useful.
  • I can increase the pleasure I get from a useful activity by focusing on different factors
  • I can decrease the pleasure I get from an activity by focusing on the opportunity cost or thinking about what I enjoy about other activities.

Here’s where a few of my current activities are on this chart:

2015-07-25b Utility and pleasure - activities -- index card #utility #pleasure #time

2015-07-25b Utility and pleasure – activities – index card #utility #pleasure #time

This reminds me a little of my reflection on leisure activities (noble, advantageous, or pleasant, following Aristotle’s distinctions). It might be useful to analyze utility (noble/advantageous) and pleasure with the extra dimension of energy/effort.

While the sweet spot of high utility and high pleasure (for me: prototyping and learning) is fun to be in, I also like spending time outside that intersection. It’s not all about “Hell, yeah! or No”. Experimenting with things that make me feel awkward or mediocre might lead to discovering an activity that I enjoy or find really useful.

Lately, I’ve been giving myself permission to focus on things I enjoy, even if they aren’t particularly useful – like playing video games in the middle of the day. At the same time, I’ve also let go of the desire to enjoy everything. Some activities are not pleasant, but they’re necessary. Even as I get through them, though, I’m happy about my growing ability to get through them. I might be annoyed for a few minutes, but I’m happy about the decisions of my past self and the results that I anticipate for my future self. I’m learning to enjoy adapting to my circumstances, even as I know those circumstances will change.

2015-07-27b Pleasure and satisfaction -- index card #pleasure #philosophy

2015-07-27b Pleasure and satisfaction – index card #pleasure #philosophy

I like being able to step back and think about what I do, why I do it, and how I feel about that. Because I can influence how I feel about something, I can change why I do it, and even what I do. Through little nudges here and there, I want to make things that are good for me both easy and fun. If I can’t, I want to make them extra-useful and satisfying.