Here’s the advice I try to follow: Resist the temptations of daily pleasure, and I’ll be happier in the long run. My life verse: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepates her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you life there, O sluggard: When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding fo the hands to rest, and poveryt will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” (Prov 6:6-10) I didn’t say this was my favorite verse. In fact, I think it sometimes caters to my worst instincts – work until you drop. (I have never found Proverbs on my must read list of Bible books; I get too busy after reading it). But what if my philosophy of life is wrong? This was the conclusion of a study published this year in The Journal of Consumer Research. Ran Kivetz and Anat Keinan studied what they called hyperopia: an excess of farsightedness.
They interviewd 63 subjects and asked half of them to recall a time in the previous week when they had to choose between work or pleasure – and then to rank how they felt about their decision on a scale from “no regret at all” to “a lot of regret.” Then they asked the other half to do the same for a similar decision five years in the past. When the moment in question was a week before, those who worked industriously reported they were glad they had. Those who partied said they regretted it. But when the subjects considered the decision from five years in the past, the propositions reversed: those who toiled regretted it; those who relaxed were happy with their choice.
Thet also interviews 69 students who had returned one week previously from winter break and found that as a group they were split in roughly equal numbers between regret and contentment for having worked or partied. But when they talked to alumni who graduated 4o years earlier, the picture was much more lopsided: those who hadn’t partied were bitter with regret, whil those who had were now thrilled with their choice.
The big conclusion of the study: In the long run we inevitably regret being virtuous and wish we’d been bigger hedonists. This behavior is due to the nature of guilt, they theorize. Guilt is a “hot” emotion – it burns brightly but briefly. Guilt is quick to rise and quick to fall. But the pleasure instinct is unquenchable. A constant refusal to enter into joy does real damage.
In the ordinary routines of life, the ant is a model for us. But if we keep saying pleasure is bad, there are going to be a lot of regrets. We are made in the image of God, and part of that image is that God is not only the holiest but the happiest of all beings. All that He does is done in pleasure. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all his pleasure.” I think I need to open my life up to this truth.
It is true that as I look back at the years, I regret more the things that I didn’t do than the things I did. It is the joys not taken that I miss the most. My wife had more to offer me than I took. My sons had more to give me than I received. My communities had more experiences to offer than I took advantage of. My friends would have come closer than I had time for. The many authors and poets had written more than I took the time to read. The artists wrote more music and sang more songs than I listened to. The chefs created more delights than I cared to taste. The painters and sculpters labored over more works than I viewed. There were more parties to go to, more wonders to sample, more sights to see, more sideroads to explore. I let too much go. I am the poorer for it.
The pleasure instinct is not a license to sin. It is an invitation to draw near God Himself. I have spent too much time keeping it under control and not enough time letting it loose. I am too much like the character, described by Annie Dillard in one of her works I believe, who as committed Presbyterian never in his whole life committed a pleasure.
We often speak of committing a sin. I want to change the language a bit. We need to commit more pleasures. Who’s with me?