Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Holding Off on Good Times

In his NYT column, John Tierney explores our tendency to delay pleasure, maybe to our detriment:
For once, social scientists have discovered a flaw in the human psyche that will not be tedious to correct. You may not even need a support group. You could try on your own by starting with this simple New Year’s resolution: Have fun ... now!

Then you just need the strength to cash in your gift certificates, drink that special bottle of wine, redeem your frequent flier miles and take that vacation you always promised yourself. If your resolve weakens, do not succumb to guilt or shame. Acknowledge what you are: a recovering procrastinator of pleasure.

There are two different forms of "procrastination" here. There's delaying consumption of what you see as "free," like using frequent flier miles or visiting a local landmark today. The second is waiting to consume something that is high-cost and "special," like an expensive bottle of wine. The first form seems to have more in common with "lazy" procrastination, an undervaluing of the worth of using a gift card or visiting a nearby museum, when weighed against the time it takes to enjoy their pleasures. But the second type, holding off on opening that special bottle of wine, implies an overvaluing of the pleasure consumption of that wine will bring at a future date. On this second type of procrastination, Tierney's article makes an interesting point: overvaluing consumption compounds upon itself:

Once you start procrastinating pleasure, it can become a self-perpetuating process if you fixate on some imagined nirvana. The longer you wait to open that prize bottle of wine, the more special the occasion has to be.

This seems intuitively true. Still, is it a problem? Isn't this just another form of saving? Replace the rare bottle of wine with a chunk of your current income, and the story becomes not one of procrastination (an ugly word), but of prudence (a noble word). It makes sense that someone is worse off if he forgoes the value of a gift card by letting it expire. But it's not so clear that waiting to drink that bottle of wine doesn't really bring greater pleasure by consuming it at a future date. As long as you don't get run over by a bus before opening it, that is.