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The Pursuit Of Pleasure

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Portuguese version

I recently got new bed sheets. The morning after sleeping on them for the first time, I lay in bed, awake, curious about their impact on me.

The first thought that raced through my mind was, 'did I sleep better with these new bed sheets?'. I then started to wonder how I would be able to tell.

Would my Oura ring pick up the difference in my sleep data? Might my energy level in the morning be noticeably different? I quickly concluded that there are far too many variables related to my sleep for me to isolate the impact of bed sheets.

Tired of thinking, I observed how comfortable the sheets felt on my body. I was really enjoying the sensations on my skin of these new sheets. I had a desire to stay in bed longer, even if I was awake.

Then a frightening thought arose. What if these sheets were worse for my sleep, even though I seemed to enjoy them?

Can I still enjoy something that may not be the most beneficial for me?

If for a moment, I assumed that I could in fact measure whether the bed sheets helped or hurt my sleep quality, and it turned out that they in fact hurt my sleep, however I enjoyed the experience, would I keep using them?

This reflection is not about bed sheets.

It is about the unconscious tension between the desire for productivity and the desire for pleasure. Rarely do the two pursuits come together as a package deal. It is usually one at the expense of the other.

For example, in my younger years, I would eat limitless amounts of pizza, chips, popcorn and candy. The pursuit of pleasure at the expense of what would have been productive for my physical health. Now, in this domain it has flipped completely, for me. My sister often remarks how I like to eat cardboard, as I choose foods that are first and foremost healthy for my body, sometimes at the expense of how they might taste relative to their alternatives.

Another common example is the professional teenage sport of Instagramming, TikToking, Youtubing and Netflixing. Kids prioritise these sports because they are as pleasurable as highly illegal substances (which research has proven), while also causing highly unproductive mental health issues (which research has also proven).

These are obvious examples. The more subtle areas of daily living are what I am more curious to bring attention to. The more I look, the more I see the invisible influence of a deeper value system of productivity or pleasure at play, influencing my choices.

The choice of walking from my apartment to a restaurant, I could take the shorter but noisier path, or the slightly longer, but quieter and more peaceful path.

The choice of seeing one friend versus another. One may have a perspective to help me in business, versus the other may simply make me laugh, at their expense or even mine.

The choice between going to the gym for a workout, or a hike in the forest with friends. One may be a more productive experience for my body. The other may be a more pleasurable experience for my soul.

There is an endless list of examples I could share. The point is that there are always trade-offs being made. The question is how am I making these trade-offs?

There is a conditioning that I am noticing to generally prioritise the pursuit of productivity over the pursuit of pleasure, for me at least.

This is probably not a surprise.

Having grown up in an immigrant household, where survival was the most important thing in the early years of my life.

Having been raised and educated in a North American, Western and highly competitive culture, where self-worth and identity is tied very much to accomplishment and achievement.

Having started a business at 21, at a time well before it was cool for young people to start companies, and struggling to survive for many years early on.

All of these experiences in my highly formative years, be it through intentional training or accidental trauma, put me on a path to pursue productivity at the cost of pleasure. And I am grateful for it, as it has now afforded me many pleasures.

It is also not a surprise that now, living in Southern Europe, where I observe a greater balance between these two pursuits than what I am conditioned to know, that I am for the first time questioning this topic.

Living in Portugal, a relatively unproductive economy compared to its Western European neighbours, and surrounded by foreigners who have chosen to make this beautiful place home, like me, I am surrounded by people who are showing me how to choose the pursuit of pleasure more often than I am conditioned to.

Learning to make this transition is something that is a work in progress for me. I am reminded about my conditioning every time I try to move too fast in a place where the default is different. I believe in myself to make this shift, and will continue to be patient with myself.

My advice to a young person starting in higher education, or business, or in the workforce, though would be to still pursue productivity at the expense of pleasure for some time, until one feels satisfied and ready to pivot to the pursuit of pleasure.

It is far more pleasurable after many highly productive years, and helps minimise the risk of taking a pleasure-filled life for granted.

And ultimately, the most lasting and enduring pleasure that I can experience is not anything for my senses but the pleasure of gratitude, which comes from my heart.

And my heart told me this morning that I am grateful for the bed sheets.

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