This semester, I’m upping my exercise regimen to include strength training at the University of Minnesota gym. I’m really enjoying feeling satisfyingly exhausted, but I do always wonder why, if I go to the gym to get stronger and have more energy, it makes me feel so weak and drained afterward?
By now (I’ve been on this train before) I know the answer: even though going to the gym wipes me out, it makes me stronger on average, and soon I’ll spend almost all my time better off than when I wasn’t exercising.
There are plenty of activities we do that trade off momentary disadvantage for long-term benefits: I’ve always hated brushing my teeth because toothpaste tastes gross and the brushing makes my nose itch, but I brush because it helps me keep my teeth and gums healthy. In fact, almost everything we think of as a good habit falls into this category:
- Putting money in a savings or retirement account makes it unavailable now, but lets there be more total available later.
- Being vulnerable with people you’re getting to know is uncomfortable, but as they become good friends your support network becomes stronger than ever.
- Even sleeping—along with other forms of recharging—is not productive in itself, but helps you be more productive when you’re awake.
And on the flip side, there are those activities that offer fleeting joy but make us worse off in the long run. When I have a mosquito bite, it feels so satisfying to scratch, but that only makes the bite worse. Comfort food is, well, comforting to eat, but might make me feel sluggish and bloated later. Playing computer games satisfies the need to feel like I’m accomplishing something, but when I’m done it makes me feel like I’m wasting my life. These are bad habits, where I should act against my own preferences if I want my life to be better overall.
It’s rather like the paving paradox from a few weeks ago, where the homeowners in a hypothetical neighborhood all pave a new parking space to raise their houses’ values, but end up worse off than they started because the neighborhood is now so ugly. Commenters pointed out (thank you, Clara and Nick!) that this same paradox appears in the guise of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (accomplices in a crime both have an incentive to testify against the other in exchange for a reduced sentence, but they’re both better off if they both keep quiet) and the Tragedy of the Commons (no one has any incentive not to overconsume public resources, except that if we all do we’ll all suffer their depletion). These are all instances where everyone would benefit from agreeing not to pursue their own self-interest when the total expense to others is worse.
This is why I’m trying to juggle so many habits, and why I am always thinking about how to make and stick to them. My life is filled with moments where I selfishly want to indulge my present self at my future self’s expense, and a habit is a way for my various selves to agree to do what’s best for us all.