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How to Make Life More Pleasurable

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Throughout my grade school years I noticed a pattern: whenever classes started again, sleep became much more enjoyable.

It felt like such a gift to discover, by peeking at my alarm clock, that I had another eighteen sweet minutes of blanket-time before the alarm went. Each one was a treat.

Obviously, sleep became more pleasurable because it became more precious. I was busier and couldn’t overindulge in it as I apparently had during summer holidays.

I also noticed that whenever the English teacher assigned a novel about people living during scarce times, like wars or droughts, my own food tasted better and I found real satisfaction in simple things like potatoes or rice.

History class gave me a similar appreciation for tea and spices, after hearing about how precious and coveted they were in the West. When you have a little more reverence for the experience itself, a pinch of tea or a few ground peppercorns can make you feel rich and fortunate (even if they came from a bin at Bulk Barn). And why shouldn’t they? They still deliver the same pleasure to human taste buds.

This effect was always so fascinating to me—how the pleasure we derive from something expands and contracts with its context in our minds. When we’re able to view something as an occasional luxury, we get more out of it than when we view it as cheap and abundant, regardless of whether it really is cheap and abundant.

Recently I stopped drinking coffee daily, and now when I do have a cup, I enjoy it much more. It’s just as available to me as it always was, but when it’s not a ubiquitous part of my experience, the pleasure of it is much greater.

This pattern has happened elsewhere too. A year or two ago I went through a phase when I always had wine in the house. Now it’s back to special-occasion status, and it’s much more enjoyable. Sweets and desserts too—the more occasional they become, the better they taste and the less I crave them.

It’s made me realize that there’s something to be gained in deliberately limiting our pleasures—not for any moral purpose, or to conserve money, health, or the environment—but simply because making our pleasures more occasional makes them more pleasurable.

For example, we’d probably derive more pleasure from eating if most of our meals weren’t delicious. When the typical meal is delicious, a basic, eaten-for-sustenance meal becomes an annoyance, and few meals are special.

When most meals are basic, the pleasure of simply eating has a chance to come through, and delicious meals—ones with prominent salt, fat, or sugar—become pleasurable in a way they can’t be when they’re the norm.

I know I enjoyed movies and music more when there was no unlimited, always-on streaming service piping them into my home. When you had to wait for your favorite song to come on the radio again, or physically travel to a store and buy the album, that song delivered greater pleasure than it does today, coming through Spotify at your command. When you had to wander the carpeted aisles of Blockbuster Video to select which little box of entertainment would define your night, you valued it more and got more out of it.

When pleasures are more occasional, they’re more pleasurable, and that’s reason enough to limit how often we indulge in them. Of course, all the usual reasons we exercise restraint—to save money, time, health, and the planet—only add to the rewards.

That’s been my experience, anyway. But I don’t think I’m an exception. Along with most people reading this, I live in what is probably, as seen from the outside, a very strange bubble of human existence: post-WWII Western consumer society.  

In this strange bubble, enormous marketing departments have had many decades to figure out how to deliver as large a volume of pleasure-inducing substances and services into our homes and routines as we will accept. This relentless pressure to take on treat upon treat, year upon year, has pushed the typical level of pleasure-consumption to a point far beyond what is actually most pleasurable for most of us.

Time-travelers from cultures unlike ours would be baffled by our obsessive and self-defeating relationship to pleasure products.

They might find it absurd that millions of us claim we “just aren’t ourselves” without a morning cup of hot extract from the roasted seeds of an exotic East African berry.

Or that sugar—which used to cost a fortune per pound—is so abundant in the food supply that it’s difficult to keep dangerous amounts of it from entering our bodies.

For those of us who were born in this strangely pleasure-focused bubble, it’s hard to move away from familiar pleasures without believing it will be some kind of sacrifice—I’ll be healthier, wealthier, and will live longer, but life will be less good.

But so far, whenever I do move that way, the opposite happens. The more occasionally I indulge in something made just for pleasure, the more worthwhile it is when I do, and the better life is in every other respect. It’s cheaper, safer, healthier, freer.

It just seems like a better deal, and it’s there if we want it.

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Photo by Anita Austvika

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{ 56 Comments }

Bodhi October 28, 2019 at 2:35 am

This is so, so true. Chinese New year is no longer special because we indulge daily in all the special treats that used to be reserved for big festivals.

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David Cain October 28, 2019 at 9:35 am

That’s such a shame. I would guess this is happening with a lot of special occasions, as marketers try to extend the “season” to a year-round pattern of buying.

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Vlad October 28, 2019 at 2:38 am

Such a cool article!

Inspired by https://www.raptitude.com/2012/04/giving-up-the-v-card/ and the climate crisis, I started eating less meat – around 60% of my days are vegetarian, beef only once every two weeks, pork once every 10 days – and I’m SO enjoying my meals now. Funny enough I also enjoy the meals which are vegetarian (but tasty, some tofu tastes like cartboard)

Thanks for writing, you make lives better through words!

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m2bees October 28, 2019 at 9:16 am

I also cut way back on meat, no longer cook it at home. What a treat to have it now when I go out! Same with snack foods, just do not buy big bags of chips and such for home consumption. Every once in a while I’ll buy a single serve bag, and *wow, is that tasty*. :)

German Christmas treats are only available here around the Christmas season…. marzipan, stollen, OMGoodness, oooh. Once a year celebration!

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David Cain October 28, 2019 at 9:37 am

Meat is a particularly apt case of this. There has never been a culture that has eaten anywhere near the volume of meat as ours. As far as I know it’s almost everywhere been an “occasion” food, because it required you to kill an animal, which could only be an occasional event before industrial farming. The norm has shifted so much that it is a big adjustment for many people to have even a single day of the week (usually “meatless monday”) without it.

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Vilx- October 28, 2019 at 3:45 am

But is it really? True, each pleasurable experience diminishes when in becomes abundant, but there’s just so much more of it. What brings the greater total pleasure – a swarm of little pleasures, or a few big ones? And how long does it last? Even the big pleasures are pleasurable only for a short while – while you’re experiencing them and for a little while afterwards. The really, really major ones might last for a few days, but that’s where it tops out. And they’re super rare. Does it not make sense then to rather fill our lives with tiny pleasures? Tiny, but abundant. Where one ends, the next one starts, with little to none intervals of the drab baseline inbetween.

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David Cain October 28, 2019 at 9:42 am

I guess it varies a lot, and it depends on what kind of pleasure we’re referring to. I’m referring to a general pattern — when an indulgence goes from occasional to daily, it loses so much of the pleasure part, and when you go back, it regains it.

Western consumer life is filled with tiny pleasures anyway… entertainment, sweets, hyper-palatable food and drink. I think most people would find more pleasure in dialing this stuff back.

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Bob October 28, 2019 at 3:48 am

You speak to what the Stoics refer to as voluntary hardship and avoiding hedonistic adaptation. It’s very important practice otherwise you start to throw a tantrum when they dont have a bowl of fruit in your hotel room or they didnt fold the ends of the toilet paper correctly. Keep at it and savor the present.

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David Cain October 28, 2019 at 9:46 am

Yes… I also like the modern term “creative deprivation”, where we go without something just to discover what happens. It helps us not take it for granted, but also opens us to other things we can do with our time, shakes up any complacency around it, and so on.

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cathy-lee October 28, 2019 at 4:01 am

Beautifully put. Food for much thought & a practice we should all keep. Thanks as always for your inspiration.

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Gabby October 28, 2019 at 4:22 am

Yep, without a doubt! Although in a somewhat ironic twist, after cutting out regular sugary food, when I do indulge in chocolate or something, it tastes way too sweet and I don’t enjoy it as much as I used to! Probably a good thing

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Lynne October 28, 2019 at 6:07 am

I find this to be true for sugar but not for steaks or ribs, etc.
Probably points to how toxic sugar is to us.

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David Cain October 28, 2019 at 9:52 am

I have noticed this too. Agreed that it’s probably a good thing. Some foods are so sweet they’re only tolerable when you’ve built up a tolerance :)

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Kirsty October 28, 2019 at 4:37 am

And in this material age it is important to realise that buying, possessing this appealing thing won’ t necessarily make us happy.

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Lynne October 28, 2019 at 6:05 am

It’s like that first shower after camping in the desert for a week – sublime!
After a short time at home, showering is no longer a thrill – just neutral or even a chore.

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David Cain October 28, 2019 at 9:56 am

Yes, and a shower really is a pretty elaborate luxury device if you think about it. A clean, enclosed chamber, where water falls gently on you, at any temperature you choose, like rain.

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Holly Fox October 28, 2019 at 6:25 am

Thank you for starting my morning with such a interesting concept. We do live in a environment of plenty yet tend to continue to search for the elusive ‘more”. Looking forward to following the comments and perhaps mor on this theme.

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Catrina October 28, 2019 at 7:01 am

I try to consciously deprive myself of certain things – wine only on the weekend, no sugar, no surfing of the net until lunch time, etc. Reading your post, I think I could expand this concept more. Thanks!

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Xin Hu October 28, 2019 at 7:21 am

I always have the same feeling but you expressed it beautiful. Thank you. It’s all about sensitivity. Too much of anything makes our sensors blunt. That’s also why too much sugar or starch makes us insulin resistant.

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millie October 28, 2019 at 8:05 am

Toblerone bars, used to look forward to them all year; but now that they’re around all the time I don’t even want them anymore. :(

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David Cain October 28, 2019 at 10:07 am

I know! It’s like they’ve jumped the shark. Specialness everywhere has been diluted in that way. The Christmas “season” now begins in October and I’m sure they’re working on ways to extend it further.

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Sarah November 19, 2019 at 9:58 am

Christmas has become so commercial and starts before Halloween is over now so I have come to really resent the holiday instead of looking forward to it. We ruin a good things when over kill

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Poli Impelli October 28, 2019 at 8:11 am

I couldn´t agree more, ´cause I practise all of these habits and they turn to be so great! We can change our mind and thoughts just when we want, and pleasure becomes something more rewarding :)
Thank you, David.

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Legal Eagle October 28, 2019 at 8:16 am

I’m so glad to see you posting more regularly! I love getting the posts in my email for a morning thought snack. I really appreciate your perspective and hearing about your experiences. Keep up the great work!

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Elizabeth Munroe October 28, 2019 at 8:44 am

Oh, how true this is! I am currently recovering from a tooth infection which requires a couple of antibiotics, so there have been no crunchy snacks and no glass of wine after a long week. I made a mug of hot chocolate on Saturday afternoon to make for what felt like deprivation, and it was truly wonderful – all chocolaty and creamy. I probably had hot chocolate the last time on a bitterly cold snowy day last winter.

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David Cain October 28, 2019 at 10:20 am

That sounds lovely… I haven’t had a hot chocolate in forever. I might try one today, it’s really cold here. I will try not to make it a habit though :)

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Amelia @ TheUsefulRoot October 28, 2019 at 10:51 am

Very poignant. I don’t know why but quite often it seems like your posts are so relevant to what is going on in my mind/life. Recently you wrote about crossing the gap before it grows and I happened to be struggling with fear of public speaking. Your words were quite encouraging. Here you write about the benefit of enjoying pleasures occasionally rather than constantly and I happen to be in the mood to restrict alcohol so it’s more of a treat. The way you have framed it here about it being cheaper, safer, healthier, freer is just what I needed at the moment! Uncanny I tell ya. Thanks for the great post :)

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Tenneo October 28, 2019 at 10:56 am

This is a realization I had for myself not that long ago, after changing my diet for the better. Does every single meal need to be delicious? Or is it simply enough to be hot, nutritious and filling? And, as we move into winter, I’m appreciating hot meals more and more, as well as clean, dry clothes.

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David Cain October 28, 2019 at 12:10 pm

I guess we need changes to routine in order to remember the value of things. When the weather turns cold, we appreciate warmth and light again. But when things are steady, we lose track of the value of what’s already present.

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David Magness October 28, 2019 at 11:45 am

Great article!
Some older coworkers & I were recently discussing the “struggle” to get a recording of our favorite songs off the radio using a cassette tape whilst a younger coworker stood silently by in slack-jawed amazement at what he was hearing LOL
I definitely believe the forced delayed gratification of the past was a really beneficial thing.
Loving your articles, David. Keep up the excellent insights!

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David Cain October 28, 2019 at 12:09 pm

Definitely… we still have great music, but there’s something insidious about how accessible it is. It takes no effort… not even the physical act of putting a cassette or record in place, and somehow this makes it harder to appreciate. I think when things don’t have apparent costs we don’t recognize their value.

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Kaila Searl October 28, 2019 at 2:08 pm

On a similar note, a friend of mine who is really into music, bands, and singer/songwriters, will ask people “So what are you listening to lately?” and they often don’t know because they simply tune in to whatever Spotify is playing for them.

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L x October 28, 2019 at 2:10 pm

I’d argue that the struggle is still there. Because of how crowded and infinite the choices are, when I come across a band/artist that I like, it’s pretty exciting! Many great finds still come from recommendations from friends, who had their own exciting moments of discovery in the fog of infinite choices.

I think there was something special and tactile about all the work that went into taping with cassettes and then burning cds etc, and there’s something sterile about everything being digital, but the process of discovery is still there.

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L x October 28, 2019 at 2:05 pm

Hey David, an elegant and thoughtful post, as always. I can certainly relate to how looking into historical or cultural realities of scarcity makes what we have feel so precious. The line “how the pleasure we derive from something expands and contracts with its context in our minds” is particularly sparky. I love that.

I can’t help but tease further, however, into the actual experience of pleasure. For me, these luxuries like showers and chocolates really are fully pleasurable every time, even though I really am wrapped up tightly in the overwhelming grip of consumer overload. The thing is that, and this is perhaps due to my particularly shitty relationship with food, I will eat everything in sight and seek out the worst “treats” even when I’m not really hungry and devour them all far past the point of satiety. I really am savouring and melting in the ecstasy of these tastes and feels, but they are wrapped up in all those side-effects of over-consumption: guilt and self-hatred. I’m wondering if what you describe as true pleasure is the feeling of pleasure without those side-effects, that makes the pleasure stand out more, makes it more pure. I mean, I know that people say that you lose pleasure over time because you get used to tastes and feelings, and I know that there’s truth to this, but I guess I’m saying that there’s maybe something else going on. Or, this is just my perspective. While the pleasure really is always there for me, the way that I approach pleasurable things is greedy and compulsive, rather than a careful and conscious choice, and that might mean the difference.

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David Cain October 28, 2019 at 8:24 pm

I’m wondering if what you describe as true pleasure is the feeling of pleasure without those side-effects, that makes the pleasure stand out more, makes it more pure.

That might be part of it in some cases… but I think it’s more a matter of how you see the experience when it’s an uncommon one. You pay more attention to it, you know you’re not going to follow it up with another, and yes, the feeling isn’t mixed with regret or other side effects. You don’t find a treat loses some amount of pleasure when it’s a very regular thing?

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Jan October 28, 2019 at 2:15 pm

Hello, David,

Thanks for great post and I’m really glad that I subscribed to your newsletter. Keep up the great work you do!

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Paulina Kay October 28, 2019 at 2:28 pm

Its important to bring back the scarcity to our life because is what makes life fun and full. We surpassed our resources long time ago and the damage is all around. Thanks for alwways bringing an unbelievable insight

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Jolanda October 28, 2019 at 3:26 pm

Thank you for this article. It has reminded me of my awe at reading in a diary of a Dutch Japanese camp prisoner that a fellow prisoner who “needed” to paint during her captivity would trade her sugar rations for watercolour paint. Her ration was a teaspoon of sugar. How precious and valuable one teaspoon of sugar would have been and she gave it up for a means to express herself. Made me feel very guilty for my sugar addiction!

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Priscilla October 28, 2019 at 6:36 pm

I fast 2-3 days per week for health purposes. But I’ve found how this has helped me appreciate food in new ways. I don’t want to eat junk because the nutritious stuff tastes so wonderful. I savor my food more. I even enjoy cooking it more, though I also enjoy the days not having to worry about when/what/how I’m going to eat. My body feels clearer and more energetic every day, fasting or not. I’ve been surprised at how fasting makes me appreciate so much that I used to take for granted.

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Shane MCLEAN October 28, 2019 at 7:36 pm

Oh my Lord. You make so much sense. Except for the coffee. I NEED that everyday with exception. Great post David.

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Colby October 29, 2019 at 6:01 am

Thank you for your post, it is very interesting. I’m wondering about pleasures like meeting friends, doing your hobbies, going out for a walk and such things that are pleasurable. I’ve been recommended to do more of those things, so I wanted to ask what kind of pleasures you are talking about? Is it mostly about indulgent food?

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David Cain October 29, 2019 at 10:12 am

I suppose I’m talking mostly about entertainment and consumable products — things that are immediately gratifying and probably made for immediate gratification. Friendships and hobbies are more complex, take work and are difficult at times, even though they definitely do bring pleasure too.

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Rohan October 29, 2019 at 6:31 am

I can relate to this! I have limited my music listening time to 20 minutes and once a week on Sundays, instead of listening to it everyday. Music is suddenly a lot more enjoyable now. I pay attention to the intricacies and the layers of music, whereas earlier it had become commonplace and I was listening just for the sake of it.

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David Cain October 30, 2019 at 9:54 am

Listening to music with full attention is something that’s become a lot more rare. Hearing music used to require you to be near live musicians… imagine how wonderful it would seem each time!

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miss agnes October 29, 2019 at 7:45 am

This is such a profound article, and so true. I only disagree with your sentence about meals: it does not take loads of salt, sugar and fat to make a delicious meal, or maybe it is in the US. In France, where I live, we do eat a lot of everything, but in smaller quantities. And we do not snack all day long: I find my meals to always be pleasurable, because I’m really hungry when it is time to eat. And we tend to eat produce in season, which is when it is most abundant and delicious. Then you wait for a year for the season to come back, and you enjoy it so much then.

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David Cain October 29, 2019 at 10:17 am

France is definitely known for having a healthier relationship to the pleasure of eating than the US and places strongly influenced by its food culture (like Canada, where I live). Over here meal time is less occasion-oriented. Out-of-season produce is everywhere and even well-off customers accept lower quality food.

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Shelley Malo October 29, 2019 at 9:19 am

The sense of gratitude for what I have and a desire to be less frivolous with it has recently been reinforced for me while reading: Pressure Cooker by Sarah Bowen. I think you would really appreciate it! Every story reminds me of all the many things I take for granted and for me it has been an important read.
https://winca.ent.sirsidynix.net/client/en_US/default/search/detailnonmodal/ent:$002f$002fSD_ILS$002f0$002fSD_ILS:1253374/ada?qu=sarah+bowen

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Pamela October 29, 2019 at 1:43 pm

This is part of why I wish it were easier (and cheaper) to eat locally and seasonally. When pineapples are delivered by jet in January, it’s just not that interesting. But if there was a “pineapple month” (the way October is pumpkin spice month), at the peak of the nearest pineapple awesomeness, think how great that would be?

I’ve tried to pay more attention, and man do I enjoy peach season and pear season these days. Watery peaches and too-firm pears delivered from too far away all year round — just not the same. When a crappier version of the “menu of everything” is always available… it almost seems designed to blunt real pleasure. (Which I realize is one hell of a luxurious “problem” to have. But it’s a problem more and more people will run into if they keep following our lead. And/or our whole civilization might collapse if we keep on this joyless, extractive trajectory and take the rest of the world with it.)

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David Cain October 30, 2019 at 9:51 am

This is something I hadn’t thought of until you and others mentioned seasonal foods in the comments. Seasons have traditionally had an effect of bringing certain things into and out of our lives on a periodic basis, which would help us not take them for granted. In my neighborhood there’s a farmer’s market that operates at the end of my street from June to the beginning of October, and the quality of the stuff is just unbelievable compared to what we’re used to getting through the supermarkets. And it’s made more special by the fact that it’s not available year round.

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Bev October 30, 2019 at 12:14 pm

As always another great article. Shows how much we take thing for granite. Even if we are thankful for some things, when there are constant in our life, taking a step away is a great way to help us refocus and appreciate the special gifts that we do have in our life.

Thank you for all the information you share with us!

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Laertes November 1, 2019 at 1:09 am

I started experimenting some months ago with intermitent fasting and avoiding ultraprocessed food and now each and every meal is like a treat, even a simple boiled egg tastes great. It is also great to know that you can go 16-24h without eating easily, something I thought was extremely hard to do, it removes a lot of stress from your life. And on top of that is good for your health.
I started also taking cold water showers, it has several good effects on your health, but also is good for your mind. We are so used to hot water that we are weakened by its convenience, we are not able to shower if it fails.

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Bradley November 1, 2019 at 1:20 pm

I’ve recently read about a new trend of “dopamine fasting” where people abstain as much as possible from anything pleasurable… https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/vb5qb9/dopamine-fasting-is-the-newest-sounds-fake-but-ok-wellness-trend

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retrocrank November 2, 2019 at 8:53 am

The consumerist culture is only part of this; humans lack the evolutionary equipment to cope with the freedom from survival concerns characteristic of the last century. Until the last hundred years or so, human existence included a daily concern for survival for most humans. Assured safe food, health, and easy shelter from seasonal climate were not the “givens” that we enjoy now. Self-deprivation with the goal of enhancing the pleasures of existance is a practical but shallow means of acknowledging these facts; like religion, if icons and ritual are required to bring the message to the masses, then we should preach self-deprivation. But the real content still lies with the constant recognition that the current biologic epidemic of humans is the result of transforming buried carbon into food, climate control, and technologies. Self-deprivation alone – while “good” on an individual basis – sadly does little to address the fact that we have replaced the historic individual survival challenges with poorly understood challenges that potentially risk population survivals.

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David Cain November 3, 2019 at 10:49 am

I don’t disagree that there are larger problems caused by our the mismatch between our evolutionary heritage and current environment. Until we solve that problem, which is really thousands of interconnected problems, it can still make sense to do a thing that helps manage one of the many symptoms.

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Mariya November 4, 2019 at 12:26 pm

Very interesting. Will read.

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Tim November 9, 2019 at 9:18 am

Think of eggnog, always nice to have one around the holidays, imagine that stuff being here all year… and the calorie punishment.

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