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The First-World Fear That Makes Life Harder


Here in the so-called First World, we give up a lot because of an exaggerated fear of a particular feeling.

It’s usually pretty subtle, but I see this fear made explicit whenever Mr Money Mustache or other early-retirement advocates get national news coverage. The comment sections of these major publications are always vile, and I don’t recommend you read them, but if you do you will notice a trend. Even when Pete explains the shockingly simple math that proves early retirement is possible for people of average incomes, commenters insist they would prefer to leave their lifestyle costs unchanged than retire twenty years earlier but “live a life of deprivation”.

This unexamined fear of deprivation has a huge effect on our lives. Consumers go into debt because they’re afraid of going without something they’re used to. We eat too much because we’re afraid of being disappointed by small portions. We continue bad habits for years because the thought of disallowing ourselves to do something we enjoy feels oppressive. “We deserve it!” we tell ourselves. Or at least advertisers tell us to tell ourselves that.

The strange thing is that usually it’s not even real deprivation. These are all choices. The big purchase, the extra calories, and the indulgent habit are always available to you to take or leave.

We’re faced with this kind of choice — “Do I let myself have it or not?” — all the time. Particularly when we’re in the midst of some kind of self-improvement effort, we often feel like we’re stuck between a familiar rock and hard place: do the unhealthy thing and feel guilty, or do the healthy thing and feel deprived. You can get the salad instead of the fries, but then you have to watch people eating their fries while you eat your sad little salad.

These kinds of lifestyle choices are about a lot more than simply weighing the respective costs and benefits of excess calories and culinary envy. Going the self-deprivation route feels like we’re renouncing pleasure and comfort as parts of our lives. Such a life of constraint seems awful, so we often choose what looks like freedom. And if freedom is deep-fried, then so be it. 

It feels like we’re constantly running into this:


[If you can’t see the image, click here to view this post on Raptitude.]

It’s helpful just to be aware that many of our personal struggles take this form. When you do, often it becomes obvious that Door #1 is nothing more than selling out your future self for a fleeting pleasure whose benefits that are gone in minutes, and whose costs last much longer. In one ill-conceived trip to the cheesecake place, Right Now You gains seventeen minutes of eating pleasure, while Future You loses twelve dollars and gains half a pound of needless fat that will take five extra treadmill visits to lose.

I’m not saying there’s no room for dessert in life. (I don’t know about you, but I will always make room.) But we are never free from the tradeoff. To refuse to deprive yourself of one thing is to deprive yourself of something else. When we indulge in something because we “deserve it” what are we deciding we don’t deserve? A day off where we don’t open our wallets? Not having to atone for our entertainment choice on a treadmill later?

But even when we’re fully aware that Door #2 is better, we still often choose Door #1 because the thought of living in self-deprivation is so abhorrent to us. We fear that Door #2 will lead us inevitably to becoming a monk- or nun-like figure who eats three grains of rice for dinner, sleeps on a wooden board and remembers that life was once joyful.

The path of self-deprivation feels like giving up on happiness. We get painful mental images of being left out of everything, like beer, concerts, fried foods, nice clothes, nights out, and the freedom to do what you like will always be on the other side of the glass — unless you take Door #1.

This is nonsense. There’s more happiness to be found in doing the wiser thing most of the time, and we know it. Our freedom to go either way is always there, and the agony of self-deprivation is just a monster under the bed. It’s only there until you look.

There’s no such thing as “having it all”

My fasting experiment is confirming an old suspicion of mine: that the pain of self-deprivation (which is probably more fairly called “voluntarily going without”) is just a scarecrow. Living in fear of it is much more constraining than what you find when you pass through it.

Door #2 isn’t the end of freedom, it’s the beginning. There are some initial uncomfortable feelings, some passing urges to throw it all away and indulge, but the background to these sporadic pangs is a steady sense of empowerment, a new confidence in your ability to do what’s best for yourself.

The change in my mentality towards food in the last few weeks has been remarkable, and ironic: because refraining from eating is something I do at some point every day, I experience a greater freedom to indulge. I can have a big fancy meal knowing that I will simply eat less for the rest of the day. Or I can refrain from that meal knowing that it will earn me the same freedom later. In neither case is there any shame or conflicted feelings, or new belly fat. The feeling of wanting but not having no longer scares me, because I’ve let myself experience it. It’s not that bad — much better than feelings like guilt and self-disappointment — and it passes.

And of course, it isn’t deprivation, because the choice remains mine. True deprivation is when you don’t have access to something you need. Our exaggerated fear of feeling deprived is a sign of how unhealthy our relationship to our wants has become in consumer societies. We don’t just fear not having enough of something, we fear not having all we want of that thing.

Two weeks into my fasting regimen, I listened to a podcast with Joseph Goldstein, a prominent meditation teacher and author, and he made point that was timely for me. He said that the monastic idea of renunciation tends to seem burdensome to us. It implies feelings of deprivation and loss. But he learned to view renunciation instead as non-addiction to our desires, which turned it on its head — rather than the adoption of a new burden, it’s the shedding of an old one.

Goldstein said one of his students asked a visiting Buddhist master, “Why become a master?” He thought about it and said, “Because it’s easier.”

We know both doors have consequences, but we greatly overestimate the downsides of Door #2 (and the upsides of Door #1). This almost certainly has much to do with our First-World ideas of success. Happiness is generally conceived of as “having it all,” and it’s quite a foreign idea to argue that it’s objectively better not to have it all. We are terrified to be have-nots, not because we love our indulgences so much but because we don’t want to feel like poor people. We don’t want to even flirt with the feeling of deprivation, even if our going without is voluntary (and probably temporary), and even when we know it is the better choice.

Adventures in Going Without

Taking my word for it isn’t going to change anything though, because the fear of deprivation is caused by a false understanding of what it’s actually like to live behind door #2 in a particular area; taking a little peek isn’t enough to know. If you’re averse to becoming an early riser, but can see the benefits of it, you aren’t going to know what it’s like to be one that first groggy morning. You will still be in the throes of resistance, still a late-riser forcing yourself through the motions, still unaware of what you stand to gain, with a large part of your heart still set on slipping out through the other door and going back to bed.

The real revelation comes later, when you’re past that initial obsession with what you’re passing up, and you can finally appreciate what you’ve been freed from. Days that end too soon. Procrastination loops. Mid-afternoon bouts of shame and guilt. Late-night, panicked study sessions. A lack of self-confidence you never knew you had. Who knows.

These explorations don’t have to be life-long renunciations either. The idea is just to experiment with taking the other way when you find yourself at that familiar rock and hard place, and staying with it for long enough that you get a sense of what is gained, rather than lost.

Our exaggerated fear of feeling deprived is costing us a lot: years of our lives, our autonomy, our health, and our planet. All we need to do to reclaim those things is to make a game out of seeing what’s behind Door #2 a little more often.


Delicious food picture by Joe del Tufo. Door graphic by David Cain.

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Lena May 18, 2015 at 2:25 am

As usual, you tell me exactly what I need to hear! Until recently I didn’t realize how strong my post indulgence guilt was. I was walking around with such a heavy burden of guilt, that the indulgence was scarcely worth it.

What I tell myself now is “Instead of doing what you like, do what makes you like yourself”. This helps me eat well, get up early, save money etc. I know now that the pride and confidence I feel from taking door two completely outweighs the fleeting moments of “happiness” from door one.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 8:32 am

“Instead of doing what you like, do what makes you like yourself”.

I like this motto. There is often quite a difference between the two. I touched on something similar here: https://www.raptitude.com/2015/01/self-esteem/

Mark8vs29 May 18, 2015 at 2:28 am

As well as a 3 or 4 day water fast (to free oneself from slavery to ones stomach, and remove the fear of not having enough food, and improve ones appreciation of food), I recommend this practice if you are still working to make money and are afraid you are not making enough money … for one year live the lifestyle now that you expect or wish to live during your retirement. After a year you will have either confirmed or eliminated your fear.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 8:34 am

Fasting has been really valuable in learning about wants and how to respond to them. I’m definitely going to make use of it as a perspective-keeping tool even when I’m done the experiment.

Sandra Pawula May 18, 2015 at 2:32 am

There’s so much truth to this! I especially liked this: “My fasting experiment is confirming an old suspicion of mine: that the pain of self-deprivation (which is probably more fairly called “voluntarily going without”) is just a scarecrow. Living in fear of it is much more constraining than what you find when you pass through it.”

And, I so agree with Joseph Goldstein on all accounts.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 8:35 am

Goldstein is excellent. The talk is here (in 2 parts):


Rose May 18, 2015 at 2:32 am

Interestingly I find this rings very true but I wonder how it applies to relationships and emotional health. My “bad” choices don’t tie as much to bodily health as to emotional one. The fear of being without love or affection, or deprived of connection is rather painful, and when I choose to renounce the “quick fix”, I still find myself wanting and being very down. So far I haven’t attained the place where “wanting but not having” isn’t that scary or downing anymore.
But maybe I’m mixing things up that should not be mixed.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 8:37 am

Like any other principle, it’s worth testing with smaller things. Not eating a cracker, for example.

ilknur May 18, 2015 at 2:32 am

With your permission I would like to share this in my blog. This is what I was trying to explain to few people.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 8:37 am

Feel free to link to it, or share an excerpt.

DiscoveredJoys May 18, 2015 at 3:48 am

I’ve been thinking a lot about choice and addiction recently, and this article plays into that. Apparently a great deal of ‘addiction’ is down to the situational compulsion to use the ‘habit’ as a means of distraction or displacement activity – rather than the chemical addiction itself. Change the situation and the addiction is easier to overcome.

On to cheesecake… Yes, I agree that the thought of ‘going without’ is fear inducing, but I suspect that there is another factor too. People naturally want to satisfy their hungers and unconsciously learn how to do this as a habitual response. So there is a ‘see cheesecake : eat cheesecake’ unconscious habit built over time – and reacting with an ‘unconscious habit’ is pleasurable in itself.

So not only do you fear the future ‘going without’ you also miss the pleasure of a fulfilled habit in the ‘now’. Powerful factors influencing behaviour when food was in short supply, but not so relevant in a developed society where food is plentiful.

So change the situation, inject a small pause to overcome the compulsion of the automatic habit and give yourself a little time to think it through.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 8:40 am

That’s a good point. Another layer of gratification builds upon the initial one. Our desires are complicated. But that just means we will learn more when we deviate from our normal patterns.

Wendy Gillissen May 18, 2015 at 4:41 am

Thanks for this very clarifying article! This reminds me of how I managed to quit smoking, over 20 years ago. Instead of continually complaining to myself: ‘I can’t have that cigarette,’ I said to myself: ‘I don’t HAVE to have that cigarette any more.’ Choice is empowering. Sure, there were the withdrawal symptoms, but they pass. And I never smoked again.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 8:49 am

That is a huge shift in perspective and I’m glad you were able to find that way of thinking. When we’re fixated on what we are NOT choosing we forget that it’s always a tradeoff, and often what we’re gaining is priceless: self-control, confidence, freedom from addiction.

Lisis May 18, 2015 at 5:13 am

Interesting… for as long as I’ve been reading MMM (and the comments section), I hadn’t associated the issue with “First World Problem” mentality. It’s true, though. I see it all the time where I live… “We live in “Murrica”, dangit. It’s our right to enjoy some stuff!”

Most of the people around me would much rather work until they’re 100 and keep enjoying “stuff” than retire early and live a “simple” life (of depravity). In fact, there’s a PRIDE associated in having to work… doing your part for the economy… bearing your burden… salt of the Earth stuff. Only liberal lollygaggers and hippies would choose not to participate in our societal duties, etc. This mentality would, of course, make that demographic of people extremely resistant to Mr. Money Mustache.

Then there’s the personality angle. I read that most extreme early retirees are from the INTJ and INTP personality types. Adding this bit of data to your first world problem analogy, it makes sense that there’s a whole group of people who feel a lower need to buy stuff (keep up with the Joneses) since they are not defined by the opinions of others.

Myself, for instance… here we are in mid 2015, and I still don’t own a smartphone or a tablet or anything with a touchscreen. I’m that “creepy gal” in the park that still looks at people’s eyes and faces because the only real reason for me to buy one of these devices would be because “Everybody has one… and I deserve one!” But I don’t need one. Do you know how much money I’ve saved by not keeping up with tech trends? And what have I sacrificed so far? Nothing, except looking like a dork when I’m out and about. (Ah… the freedom of being an INTJ and not giving a shit.)

Please forgive my Proustian ramblings here… you’ve lit a little fire in my mind that wasn’t there before. I’m sure it will be burning uncontrollably the rest of the day.

Awesome post, as usual. :)

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 9:07 am

Your Proustian rambling and liberal lollygagging are always welcome here. But you know that.

The “It’s our right to enjoy stuff” mentality is what I’m aiming at here. It’s very prominent in American culture (to which my country definitely subscribes.)

And I agree. I think life is here to be enjoyed. But the “let’s have it all” crowd are missing the reality that each pleasure or gain is a tradeoff with others that might be more valuable. We have conflicting wants (to eat too much but also to be healthy) and I think we often make the wrong choice, on the grounds that enjoying life to its fullest means “having whatever I want right now”. I think this skewed perception has much to do with marketing, but I didn’t want to start ranting about that or this article would be 4,000 words. I do want to make that post one day though. Marketing has trained us to seek happiness in the most inefficient way possible, because that is the most profitable arrangement for those who have gratification to sell.

But yeah — I think the discussions around early retirement make these poor choices particularly clear. Nobody retires at 38 and regrets what they did to get there. The true hedonist is looking for maximum enjoyment, which often means turning DOWN immediate gratification. But the fear of deprivation keeps people from even exploring the joys you have found behind door #2.

Free to Pursue May 18, 2015 at 10:30 am

Marketing vs happiness rant? I’d love to read that. In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert does a good job of covering how marketing and economics push us to pursue the opposite of happiness with the “I’ll be happy when” fallacy. After all, GDP depends on people feeling our present state is not enough.

Rose May 21, 2015 at 3:42 am

Would love to read that article about marketing though. It’s part of what keeps us in our lifestyles.

Tony May 18, 2015 at 5:35 am

Once again, a blog post well written, concise and with a powerful point! Thank you for sharing it, David. I needed to hear this – and it seems that I’m not the only one.

What do you think about the idea of a clean slate: spending some resources – money, time, effort – to get rid of what you have to gain place for something better? An example being – buying a new laptop to set your working habits straight if your work is mostly or solely centered around using laptop (writing, building digital maps, programming etc.) while your current one is working fine, if a bit slow or a bit too small to be comfortable. To make it certain: I’m not asking for an advice – just of your vision of such an action.

If I may ask: what do you think contributes to such a deep insight into human nature? Is it simply you thinking about it long enough, or are there lessons to be learned for a person willing to obtain such deep insight?

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 9:12 am

When it comes to purchases, I think the best approach is to buy few things, but buy good ones that improve your life every day. $300 on a laptop that you hate using is a worse deal, IMO, than $600 on one you love using, especially if you are a writer. The tone of our days is shaped by what’s around us, and if we’re surrounded by crappy stuff we feel bad. The goal of all purchases, ultimately is to improve quality of life, so I think it is worth getting something good (although that doesn’t always mean expensive) for the possessions that we make a lot of use of.

Tony May 18, 2015 at 7:31 pm

Fair point, but not related to the question. What I asked initially was – do you think buying something to use for “clean slate” state (new apartment, new car, new laptop, new coat to replace your old ones) rather than making do or changing your mind about whatever you have is a good idea? Would you do it? Would you advise others to do it?

David Cain May 19, 2015 at 10:31 pm

Oh, I see. I do like the idea of a clean slate. Sometimes it creates a kind of watershed in your behavior. But I know I am guilty of abusing the clean slate idea, by telling myself I need a clean slate of some kind in order to change how I do things.

Tony May 21, 2015 at 2:21 am

Thank you.

BrownVagabonder May 18, 2015 at 6:51 am

Living in Toronto (I think you live here as well), we are constantly bombarded with people who are living it up – women who are wearing the latest fashions, carrying the latest handbags, and looking absolutely beautiful in the process. Being a female, I think the pressure to buy stuff and get somewhere in that journey, is so prominent. It is top of mind for everyone I meet. What is the next item on their to-buy list… That occupies most people’s thoughts.
The idea of saving up for a rainy day or even retirement is so far gone that they don’t even think about it. If I bring it up, I’m just being a killjoy and ruining the party feeling.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 9:17 am

I found this phenomenon at ludicrous levels while walking around Manhattan — people walk by wearing ten thousand dollars’ worth of clothing — and I think that helped me to see how ridiculous a thing it is to chase, which alleviated whatever envy I felt. Alain de Botton has written a lot about the status anxiety which fuels such public displays of stuff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iipn6yM43sM

Vilx- May 18, 2015 at 7:39 am

OK, so _fear_ of deprivation is nonsense. But what about actual feelings of deprivation? A lot of people can force themselves in short term (to diet, exercise, etc) – but the easier, tastier world still calls to them every step of the way. Eventually the willpower wears out and they fall back to the earlier habits.

And it’s not _fear_ of deprivation that does it – it’s the _feeling_ of deprivation. The memories of all the pleasures you used to have and are now denied by yourself. Yes, indeed, it’s the same principle that is behind drugs, smoking, etc. It’s addiction. But how do you beat it? Fear can be dismissed, but what about cravings?

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 9:23 am

What I’m trying to say here is that the fear is largely unfounded. The feeling you’re talking about is short-lived and often outshined by the benefits of opting out. We expect that not having what we want will plunge us into some sort of hell, where our cravings will grind us down and kill us.

I think this is a delusion created by refusing to even explore the territory behind opting out. You don’t need willpower once you see that it is better.

Dealing with craving is an interesting human dilemma though, and we’re always going to be dealing with it in some form. So why not get better at it? The Buddha founded an entire philosophy and methodology for learning about how craving works and what to do about it. If you sit down in meditation, cravings will appear, and you become more familiar with what they are — fleeting, unstable feelings that arise endlessly and which don’t ultimately have the power to harm us.

Heidiola May 22, 2015 at 12:09 am

Turning feelings of deprivation into something positive is key. If you can’t, you won’t stick with the behavior, or at least I won’t! Avoiding shame and denial helps me honor my commitments to myself. I think of these more healthy choices as “giving my future self a gift” and who doesn’t love a present? I love to get presents from myself. Not procrastinating, stepping up to commitments and exercising all make my future self really happy. I try to acknowledge these good moments so I can reinforce my own behavior. I do it with my kids too. “Give your future self the gift of (insert desired outcome here)” is often heard at our house!

Melodie Elaine Estes May 18, 2015 at 8:51 am

Great insights and new and better ways of looking at our cravings. The comments were also thought provoking. Now if I can just think to apply them when I need to. Keep up the good work, David.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 9:24 am

Yeah, that’s the other trick. I think the best place to start is to notice what it’s like to be conflicted about wanting something. That means you’re standing in front of those doors. Then see what you gain from taking the second one.

Melanie May 18, 2015 at 9:14 am

This article really resonated with an ‘experiment’ i’m doing now. For the last 22 days i’ve been doing Whole30 (no alcohol (hard to do in the Midwest in springtime…), sugar, gluten, soy, beans, dairy etc). One of the reasons for doing the program is to get back into shape and back into healthier eating patterns but a bigger reason was simply to practice self-control. No I won’t have the doughnut/beer/bagel/dip etc thank you. People find this shocking. People at work, family, friends. ‘What do you meant you’re not drinking this month?!’ Like that’s so painfully shocking. ‘You’re not eating cheese? I could never give up cheese’…yes you could. I feel so much better about my body and health (the looser pants and clear skin help) but even more so that I don’t have the guilt associated with the over-eating/drinking. Good stuff.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 9:26 am

The peer pressure to undermine ourselves with bad habits is astounding, particularly when it comes to food. Not only do people want us to do the normal thing, but they will try to convince us it is UNHEALTHY to deny yourself a donut. Ridiculous. Being a black sheep is just part of the self-improver’s experience. Embrace it :)

Astrid May 18, 2015 at 9:18 am

It’s a very interesting point of view for me, because when I was a kid I experienced actual deprivation. My parents weren’t abusive, but they were health maniacs and were extremely controlling about food. On a daily basis, they kept me from eating when I was hungry because they felt I had had enough. They also kept me from eating anything remotely unhealthy – my summer memories come with half a frozen banana, not a popsicle. I’m not saying they underfed me…just that I remember being hungry a lot, and scared to ask for more food because I was always so ashamed of being told that I was a glutton.

I think that although relatively benign, those experiences conditioned me. I understand the point you make here, that the feeling of deprivation is just that, a feeling, and that it’s not worth selling out your long-term goals for it. But when I try to restrict my eating habits for a long time, I turn back into the kid who’s being told that they can’t have another piece of toast because one is supposed to be enough. I just start feeling dirty and worthless for even wanting to eat things I’m not supposed to eat. It’s ridiculous really. And when I end up faltering and indulging, I feel like a complete, total, absolute failure. Like my mom is behind me shaking her head and saying that I have no self-control again.

I’ve tried a lot of methods, because if there’s one thing that my parents passed on to me, it’s the belief that eating healthy is important. So far, what’s worked best for me is letting go (actually I was inspired by your article about attraction and aversion)! If I notice that I feel like eating something fat, sugary or otherwise not much of a part of healthy eating habits, I tell myself that I can have it anytime I want because I’m a free goddamn adult, and my parents have nothing to say about what I do. 8 times out of time my mental reaction is “it’s great to be an adult isn’t it” and I forget about the thing I wanted to eat in the next five minutes. I guess this works for me because those foods weren’t always a part of my life, so getting over the forbidden fruit attraction factor of fast food and treats was for me the best way to improve my eating habits.

Sorry if that comment turned into a novel, I just thought it was cool to read about someone who experienced and responded feelings of deprivation in a different way, and I wanted to share my experience.

I wish you the best, please carry on writing!

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 9:29 am

Yes, real deprivation is something else entirely, and you may have traumas resulting from it that will complicate things for you. It sounds like you’re finding ways to manage it though. Reasserting your autonomy seems to be the key.

ONEWEIRDWORD May 19, 2015 at 8:49 pm

It sounds like your parents actually were abusive – scaring and shaming isn’t benign; it’s messed up and cruel. Just saying. It isn’t ridiculous to feel the way you feel – it’s totally legitimate.

Good for you and your 8 times out of ten. And it certainly is great to be an adult!

kate May 18, 2015 at 10:38 am

ah, well…..There is a lot here. And it still comes down to balance. …..A little of this, a little of that. A bit of deprivation, a bit of indulgence. pretty simple. and I don’t know about you guys, but I never (never !!) eat a ‘sad’ salad. They are always awesome. And when I look at the person across the table eating the fries, ha. I sure don’t wish it was me eating them….or I would have ordered ’em !!=). And it may just be that going without even more than having excess makes one more better fit, in many ways. physically, emotionally and of course soulfully….Good post, but maybe there is a tendency to tear things apart a little too much. All the answers are already there…

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 1:59 pm

The balance you refer to is this weighing of the different benefits. If you happen to be most intensely attracted to what’s best for you overall, then I would say you’re very lucky.

Free to Pursue May 18, 2015 at 10:52 am

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your article and subsequent comments. The key is when we realize we don’t need to want…freedom, conjured up right between the ears. And, the way to achieve this view point is to find out that going without not only does not have a downside, but upside!

It’s a realization that is nearly impossible to explain to another person. They have to discover it for themselves. Someone who hasn’t given themselves the opportunity to:
1. delay gratification
2. eliminate a made-up dependency
3. consider that what they have is “enough”
4. lose something dear to them and find out that life goes on and they quickly return to baseline happiness
5. actively simplify their lives
can’t possibly understand what lies on the other side of the perceived psychological chasm.

In this case leading by example can result in the masses looking on with pity or confusion. Their loss, at least in the short term.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 2:02 pm

The things you listed are the often-undiscovered fruits of door #2. These are empowering feelings that create much more well-being than the flashier option in the other door. It’s just a matter of exploring this new territory. Fasting is really helping me do this with food-related desires (hence the culinary emphasis in this post) and I’m excited to apply the same thing to other areas. Different kinds of fasts, just to see what it’s like on the other side.

Chris May 18, 2015 at 11:07 am

“We fear that Door #2 will lead us inevitably to becoming a monk- or nun-like figure who eats three grains of rice for dinner, sleeps on a wooden board and remembers that life was once joyful.”

We always blow things like this out of proportion. My favorite is when a girl says she doesn’t want to lift weights because she would end up bulky. Are you kidding me? Do you know the work that goes into getting those muscles??? We always have to take it to that crazy extreme.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 2:03 pm

Haha… the persistence of that fear is unbelievable. Nobody in history has accidentally built too much muscle.

Hilary May 18, 2015 at 11:38 am

It’s so funny/odd that our dread of practicing restraint can be so massive, when actually practicing restraint is usually such a short-time event that, as you noted, passes. It can seem hard to imagine stopping by the bar to see friends after work and not ordering a drink, but then you actually do go to the bar and actually do get through that one moment when you have to say “just soda water and lime for me” and, I mean, it’s done. Passes. We’re just as easily distracted out of that moment as we are in every other moment — and the more we do it, the better we get at it.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 2:06 pm

Yes. That is a liberating discovery, to see that so many of our fears come down to one moment or just a few moments. We give up an unbelievable amount of long-term ease and well-being just to avoid moments that may be painful.

David May 18, 2015 at 12:24 pm

If you can get over the first few humps of self-denial, or as you more accurately call it “voluntarily going without,” it’s amazing how much calmer you can be about…well, almost any decision. It’s that simple for me. I’m no all-star, but I’ve gotten exponentially better with respect to things like FOMO and dealing with the first hint of hunger. It has introduced an invaluable amount of chill into my life. When I do decide to “indulge” in something — whether it be food, a material purchase, or whatever — I feel like I’m coming to that decision from a much clearer place than I used to.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 2:12 pm

I have noticed that too, that calmness that comes with doing what you know is the better thing. I think it’s the feeling of breaking the addiction to certain door #1s. “Oh, I don’t have to do that anymore.”

Sudhir May 18, 2015 at 12:33 pm

Very thought provoking article -thank you.
I particularly liked the reframed version of the word ‘renunciation’. For me, the underlying theme in your article is to become the master of my desires. The 2 door concept is one way to help me in controlling my desires. However, over a period of time, I should become the person, who has overcome the desire for unhealthy options.

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 2:14 pm

I suspect our desires for poor choices may never stop altogether. But we can overcome our addiction to acting on them. The Buddhists developed a whole tradition around responding wisely to desire.

Hamlet May 18, 2015 at 1:49 pm

Perhaps some may find these quotes helpful, from “Open to Desire: The Truth about What the Buddha Taught” by Mark Epstein M.D.:

“As my Buddhist teacher, Joseph Goldstein, always makes clear, as an object of desire, that which we long for causes suffering, but as an object of mindfulness it can lead to awakening. The trick, as far as Buddhism is concerned, is to accept the fact that no experience can ever be as complete as we would wish, that no object can ever satisfy completely. In the right handed path, the Buddha’s followers turned away from the pursuit of sensory pleasure, but in the left handed path, they allowed themselves to come face to face with the gap that desire always comes up against, as well as any pleasure that it might bring.

Allowing ourselves into desire’s abyss turns out to be the key to a more complete enjoyment of its fruits. By experiencing desire in its totality: gratifying and frustrating, sweet and bitter, pleasant and painful, successful and yet coming up short, we can use it to awaken our minds. The dualities that desire seems to take for granted can be resolved through a willingness to drop into the gap between them. Even living in the world of the senses, we can be free.

Desire teaches us, not just by gratification, but by constantly undercutting itself, by never being entirely satisfied. It rubs our faces in reality by always falling a bit short of its goal. This is desire’s secret agenda, to alert us to the gap between our expectations and the way things actually are. In so doing, it shows us that there is something more interesting than success or failure, more completing than having complete control.”

David Cain May 18, 2015 at 2:35 pm

Thanks Hamlet. The theme of this post is “responding wisely to desire”, and as you know know, the Buddhists are the experts in this area.

In my experience, responding to desire has much to do with paying attention to what our experience is actually like, at a level of detail that is probably only possible in dedicated meditation. In that sense, meditation seems indispensable to anybody who suffers from unmitigated desire, which is pretty much all of us. I am humbled by what centuries of Buddhists have discovered through their practices. We could all learn so much from them.

Hamlet May 18, 2015 at 6:05 pm

“. . . responding to desire has much to do with paying attention to what our experience is actually like, at a level of detail that is probably only possible in dedicated meditation.”

While I think you are at least partially correct here, what may be more important is a line I remember from Epstein’s book: “The desire IS the meditation.” (I hope I quoted that correctly.) Properly understood, it is one of the most liberating statements around.

I neglected to thank you for your latest post, which reminded my of Dr. Epstein’s book. It’s been too easy for me, growing up in our culture’s limited understanding of Buddhism, to think only of the negative connotations of desire.

Carter Smith May 18, 2015 at 4:43 pm

If first world folks have it bad, A-list ones have it worse. Just saw another supermarket headline of Brad (I think) caught cheating — and realized that if you have $100 million in your pocket and 100 million views on whatever then you might EXPECT to have a 100 million happiness/pleasure rating. — so you chase after MORE MORE MORE MORE like an addict on cocaine.
The whole thing is both sad and delightful — this delicious range of human experiences. Like the dance of the birds on my bird feeder expanded planet wide.
I love your posts and willingness to explore. Much love, Carter.

David Cain May 19, 2015 at 10:34 pm

I think the more-more-more impulse is inherent in all of us. Mother nature gave us ceaseless desires to keep us moving, securing, acquiring, procreating… the question is how we respond to those desires. It takes a special skillset, but we don’t talk about it much.

Christine May 18, 2015 at 6:11 pm

A big thanks. You write so well and can put into words what many of us feel but don’t know how to describe or give us new ideas to think about.

I have been following your experiment and for many reasons (weight, health, known benefits of fasting, getting overeating habits under control) decided to try it myself. I’ve just completed week one but had a ‘bad’ day yesterday where I seemed to eat all day. After reading your post I see that by the end of the day I experienced every aspect of door one, both the positive and negative. This has given me the motivation to pick it up again today and continue as I see many more benefits to door two, to see if it works out as well for me as it seems to be for you.

David Cain May 19, 2015 at 10:37 pm

The name of the game is just exploring it all… what it’s like to indulge, what it’s like to refrain. Can we do things a different way than usual, and what do we find when we do? All of my experiments are meant to do that. Often I don’t stick to my trial after the experiment period us up, but I *always* change how I do things to some degree. Progress is an inevitable result of new experiences.

Burak May 19, 2015 at 10:31 am

Another awesome post here! I liked it very much. However, I would like to add a little note to say that this problem is not a First World problem; rather, it is more apparent in so-called “First World”. Other than that it is a problem of human attitude in general, which is more in line with your blog anyway :)

David Cain May 19, 2015 at 10:38 pm

Yes, I agree. But the exaggerated emphasis on the horror of “feeling deprived” is a first-world phenomenon. It comes from an ignorance of what actual deprivation is.

maria May 20, 2015 at 2:15 am

My little brother loved candy and wanted to eat nothing else. My wise mother put him on a candy diet. The only stipulation is that he could only eat his candy and nothing else. It took about four days and my brother was eyeing the roast chicken at dinner. To this day, he will only eat the blandest of desserts and often skips them in favor of real food. There is nothing better sometimes than to have a free fall into your rapturous craving…and to really come to know it for what it is.

Ursa May 21, 2015 at 4:37 am

Very thought provoking article! I’ve found that “depriving” myself has brought me more contentment and happiness overall (despite the naysayers). It also seems to help me exercise my willpower which means an overall improvement in all areas of my life. Eating that high calorie meal may feel good momentarily but you know it’s going to have a negative impact long term. You won’t feel as good or be as healthy if you eat like that too often.

Glen May 21, 2015 at 3:34 pm

David thank you for a thoughtful post, I too am enjoying fasting. It has made me look at food differently. Normally I have such as sweet tooth but now I see food as fuel.

But still enjoy the quality food I eat rather than quantity. Having also lost 16.5 lbs I am glad I started this.

It is often said the simple things in live are the best

Take care


yiwu market May 21, 2015 at 10:57 pm

This is a great article, I want to share this article in my blog!

ikechi May 22, 2015 at 5:31 am

Hi David

You are so right and the First World concept of deprivation is so wrong and has never been of benefit to mankind.

The concept of having it all or feel guilty with lack has cost so many people wasted resources and this could have been avoided if there was a right mindset aboout wants and needs.

Thanks for sharing. Have a nice week.

Kathie May 29, 2015 at 1:59 pm

I am a new subscriber and find your writing speaks to me with relevant, meaningful, and practical insights and ideas–and this “fear” one in particular–deprivation indeed rears its head quite regularly in the “first-world” as well as my daily world. Your piece on self-esteem (“Do I like who I am when I’m doing this?”) and Lena’s suggestion (comment above), “Instead of doing what you like, do what makes you like yourself” have been especially helpful. Thank you. And, forgive my ignorance, but what is F.O.M.O. (behind door #2)? Looking forward to your next post.

Edward June 2, 2015 at 10:35 am

What I cannot understand is why the comments against MMM (or most people who advocate frugality, self-restraint, a debt-free lifestyle, healthy eating, etc.) are so rabidly venomous. The angry opinions are so blown out of proportion of what’s’ being stated in an article. Is abject rage the new normal?

Dwain Dibley June 5, 2015 at 12:43 am

1. Food, clothing, shelter, everything above that, is gravy.
2. Never own more than what you’re willing to lose.

The purpose of life is to expend as little time and energy achieving #1 so you can spend all other time and energies doing what you please, living. Or, you can spend all of your time and energy accumulating stuff, and if that’s the case don’t forget #2.

The purpose of society and civilization is to mitigate economic competition and lessen the time and energies it takes for an individual and the populous to achieve #1, the less time, the happier and more productive they become. The more economic competition, the more time and energies it takes to achieve #1 in a society, the less happy, less productive and less civilized it becomes.

A society based in free private enterprise and free economic activity, serves the most with the least amount of time and energy expended.

A society based in Capitalism, with its artificially induced economic competition, constantly demands more time and energies and will over time, tear itself apart.

A society based in socialism, your time and energy are not yours.

Just my 2cents

Chris June 9, 2015 at 10:24 am

Hi Dwain,
could you elaborate on the difference between “a society based in free private enterprise and free economic activity” and “a society based in capitalism”? As far as I understand, using the (I think) usual meanings of the words, those two would be roughly the same.

Capitalism is a very loaded term to many people, though, so maybe I am missing something.

Afaik, capitalism = private ownership of the means of production, => somewhat free private enterprise and economic activity, depending on the degree of regulation.

Your first ideal society sounds to me like capitalism with the least possible amount of regulation, but I don’t think that’s what you mean.

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