Pleasure Or Gratification? Which One Brings More Joy Into Your Life?

Pleasure Food - Obi Onyeador

What do doughnuts, sex, and cocaine have in common? They’re pretty danged pleasurable, that’s what.

How about the post-workout high, acing the exams you’ve been studying hard for, and finishing the first draft of your novel? Awesome too, right?

Most of us would lump all of the above under happiness, and rightfully so, but there is a certain distinction between the two (which we’ll be exploring shortly).

We’ve all heard this before: delayed gratification is better than instant gratification. But why? Why is snorting coke off a stripper’s bum not as good as eating salad and working out?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to the question of pleasure versus gratification.

Pleasure? Gratification? Aren’t they the same?

Look, I’m not going to bore you with another mention of the Marshmallow Test (because God knows I’ve seen enough of this study during my research for this post), but what I’ll do is try to explain pleasures versus gratification from my point of view.

Getting a job after a long run of unemployment. Sleeping on new bedsheets. Scratching that indentation from wearing your socks all day. Spring cleaning the house. Going on a drinking bender. Finishing a tub of ice cream. Handing in a well-researched assignment before it’s due. Playing video games from sunrise to sunset.

Chances are, you’ve experienced most of the above, and by reading the list alone you’ve gotten a good gauge of what’s what.

And in case you missed the memo, gratifications are things you can enjoy without guilt. Yes, you can still feel guilty from a healthy diet if it meant not feeding your child in the process, but let’s not dive into semantics just yet.

For now, let’s just assume that happiness comes in two forms: full-guilt and guilt-free.

Your first task is to identify which of your daily habits currently fill you with guilt. Is it the hours you spend on YouTube when you should be writing? Or is it the two packs of chips you eat per day?

Now onto your gratifications.

What do you enjoy without guilt? Is it the satisfaction of a clean house? Or clearing off your debts?

Once you have a rough idea on the types of happiness that are sustainable—or not—to you, then we’re ready to move on to the next part.

Align yourself for success

By now, you might already have an idea on how you want your days to look. For starters, you might be thinking of pursuing more gratifying goals instead of mere pleasure.

That’s exactly where our challenge lies though—we’re programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. So it’s not as simple as lessening one and increasing the other.

I falter all the time too. I still struggle with my workouts to this day, and nothing conjures more dread for me than having to warm up before I start my exercise. Sometimes I even postpone my workouts from mornings to lunchtime.

But now I have a new weapon to aid my fight against pleasure seeking, and that’s guilt amplification.

Every night, I take into account the things I regret, and I trace the feelings back to the actions—or lack thereof—that caused them. Then I use them as a guiding light. So my plans for the next day involve being on the opposite end of those actions. Most days, that means exercise.

For you, your pain might come from that six-pack you drank, or waking up after lunchtime. That means you’ll want to clear the beers from your fridge before tomorrow arrives.

Or, you might want to walk straight to the kitchen and drink a glass of water in the morning to lessen the temptation of the snooze button.

Either way, you’ll want to own your day instead of letting it own you.

Pleasure Own Your Day - Zoltan Tasi

Yep, it’s that simple, and that hard. Own your day before it owns you. Photo: Zoltan Tasi

More tips to supercharge your future

So what other concrete steps can you take to make the most out of delayed gratification? Well, I’ve already done the legwork for you, so here are some handpicked strategies that I’ve found to be effective. Give them a try and see if they do the same for you!

First, a quick disclaimer. It’s important to know that no matter how wired for pleasure you think you are, it’s very possible to build your willpower. To use a hackneyed term, it’s just like building a muscle.

I myself had spent the first thirty years of my life doing nothing but chasing pleasures. Now? I’m still chasing pleasures, but not as pointlessly as I used to. Yeah, probably not the pep talk you expected, but if I can cut down on some of my fruitless pursuits, then so can you.

So without further ado, here are some of the techniques you can start applying today.

1. Plan ahead

Say it with me guys: He who fails to plan, plans to… go through life without a specific direction, resulting in useless pursuits throughout the day. Yup, a famous saying, that one.

Have you ever looked forward to a free weekend? Finally, you can do all the things you’ve wanted to. You’re going to polish your car, write that novel, tend to your plants…

The next thing you know it’s Sunday evening and you still hadn’t gotten anything done. Now you’ve gotta wait an entire week before you try again.

What’s going on here? Didn’t you have a direction? Wasn’t it straightforward enough? That’s the problem when you don’t plan ahead and make concrete goals.

When you don’t draw a plan for yourself, you spend extra energy deciding on what to do. Then there are the variables. Is it going to rain? Do you need to outline your novel first? Should you do the gardening before or after exercise?

All these little thoughts can nibble away at your motivation, turning the normal into impossible. If you want to execute your day well, you’re going to have to plan the night before.

Write down the things you want to accomplish. Break them down into smaller, concrete tasks. And I mean small. Make them foolproof. So easy that a five-year old can do it. Seriously.

Then list down the possible challenges you may face and come up with a contingency plan. You don’t need to waste too much time on this.

I myself tend to skip writing in the evenings because that’s when I like to browse YouTube. So my contingency plan is to write with pen and paper.

Sounds nerdy, I know, but it really takes the thinking out of your next day. And when you don’t have to think, you get that much more mental bandwidth to actually do what you need to.

2. Stack pleasure and gratification

I love googling for inane crap. That’s my pleasure. Tasks like food prep and writing go out the window once my scumbag brain comes up with questions like ‘Is it better to journal in A5 or A6 notebooks?’

Just ten minutes ago, I mulled the pros and cons of writing with a pencil and pen. That led me down a rabbit hole of famous authors and their favourite pencils. Now you see the need for a contingency plan?

However, just because they’re pleasures doesn’t mean they can’t be reframed to serve you.

So in my case, I redirected my pointless googling towards keywords such as ‘pleasure versus gratification’. So when I fell down the Marshmallow Test rabbit hole, at least I came out on the other end with useful information for this post.

This technique is inspired by James Clear’s ‘temptation bundling’ method. In his book Atomic Habits, Clear describes this method as pairing a task you dislike with the one you enjoy. Do that long enough and you could actually begin to look forward to your ‘gratification’ tasks.

Want another personal example?

I pair weeding with audiobooks. I hate dirt and earthworms, but since I get to catch up on an interesting book of my choice, I now find reaching for the weeding tool just a tad less painful.

Men figurines doing farm work on flowers

When you gotta work the fields but at least you temptation bundling. Photo: Nicolas Hoizey

3. Get bored

This is a tough one, because it involves you putting down the very thing that supplies you with constant hits of pleasure all day: your phone.

But you’ll want to err on the side of boredom from now on if you truly want to walk down the path of gratification.

Why bore yourself to day?

Because being bored enhances the appeal of ‘gratification’ tasks. Like, how bad does doing the dishes sound when the alternative is to do nothing? In fact, it could even sound appealing.

Neil Gaiman uses this exact technique to coax himself into writing. His options during his writing hours are to do nothing, or to write. He can stare out the window, but he’s not allowed to sketch the tree. He can’t listen to music, nor can he look at his phone either. It’s either write or nothing. I guess his amazing body of work is a testament to this method.

The second benefit of being bored is that it allows you to turn inwards instead of relying on outside stimulus. It’s hard to chase gratification when you’re getting your dose of pleasure from articles like this (but please don’t leave just yet).

And trust me, I know exactly how you feel. I’m currently fighting the urge to google ‘what is a healthy resting heart rate’, but we gotta do what we gotta do, eh?

So put your phone or laptop away. Unplug from the collective consciousness and just be you for a while. Maybe then you’ll discover your true line between pleasure and gratification.

The case for pleasure

Having said all that, I’d just like to add that pleasures aren’t all bad. In fact, indulging in a pick-me-up could set you on the path of gratification, so it’s not to say that the occasional doughnut or beer is the devil.

But if you’re ever in doubt, guilt-free happiness is where you want to be. Because at the end of the day, having your shit together will always be the greatest source of pleasure. And you don’t need to read the Marshmallow Test to figure that out.


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50 thoughts on “Pleasure Or Gratification? Which One Brings More Joy Into Your Life?

  1. I’ve witnessed many people who know how to manage pleasure and vice (not the same thing but still overlapping somehow). If abstention is not really achievable, one has to learn how to manage things.

  2. Great piece, thanks. I even stopped playing Candy Crush long enough to read it so I must be doing something right… ;) Good point on looking inward instead of relying on stimulation. That could be why I get inspiration the minute I switch the computer off…

    • I truly believe that we have a well of creativity and productivity within all of us. The challenge is just staying still long enough to them to bubble to the surface—something I admittedly have to push myself to do, with all the conveniences around me.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Fiona!

  3. I was listening to a podcast just today that mentioned the importance of being bored to make you search for answers and inspire deeper thinking. Being bored is not something I’m all that comfortable with and I know I should practise it more. This post was really engaging and it is a joy to read your work as always!

    • Tell me about it! It takes so much to be able to just sit still—or even do my work—without wanting to reach for my phone or open up one of the hundreds of social apps. But I’m glad we share the same interest in harnessing boredom to better align our minds. Thanks so much for your thoughts!

  4. Ha! I skimmed this post last week, but I’ve got an amazing chance to get deeper into my thoughts now.

    So, thoughts of the week:
    – The post. The post. I feel bad because I was ignoring it for a while. But in fact, I’m going to go read it right now, because I wrote the rest of the comment first. Now I’ma go and read it.
    – Just read it. (That wasn’t some sort of stunt, I actually just read it.) So it’s good. No, that’s wrong. It’s GREAT. I love these posts when you give us some practical tips about goal-setting, habit-building, and life management. As an underage, I need as much of that as I can get!
    – I wholesomely agree with your tips. The getting bored tip was my favorite. Maybe I’ll try this!
    – In French, for the sake of learning and all (if anybody reading this can actually speak French, keep in mind I’m only a learner and there are probably a zillion mistakes in this): J’ai trouvé beaucoup de chooses qui sommes utiles pour ecriver et chercher sur l’internet. Le plus important, c’est une [Chrome extension] qui s’appele ‘Toucan’. C’est pour etudier ou apprendre une nouvelle langue. Parce-que j’apprends le Francais, c’est très utile pour moi. Et toi, qu’est-ce que tu as trouvé dans cet semaine?
    Okay, so this might have been a bit crappy but I’ve just learned the ‘passe compose’ which is some type of past tense and I couldn’t help showing it off.
    – I talked about Toucan (in French, but I talked about it nonetheless), which is a Chrome extension for new language learners. I heard you are/were learning a new language (?) so this might be helpful, but since some others do read these comments, y’all are welcome to benefit. So while you’re reading any passage on the internet, it randomly selects a few words to highlight and translate into your target language. It helps you learn on the go, instead of dedicating specific time to it.
    – I don’t know if I told you before, but you should try playing a game called ‘Cookie Clicker’. I know we talked about our game interests in Stardew and Terraria, but I’m talking about something entirely new.
    – Wanted your thoughts on something:
    – So for as long as I can remember, I’ve not been a phone person. Sure, I used my phone to CALL, but everything else — email, games, texting, reading, listening … laptop. Only recently, I fell in love with a pretty cheap (I’m talking close-features-but-fifth-the-price-of-an-iPhone sort of cheap) phone that I’m thinking of getting. All my life, I’ve had crappy phones because I’ve never felt the need to change. What made me like that phone is because I realized that my time is 30% creating (stuff that can be mainly done on a computer) and 70% consuming (could do on a phone). So, for portability and all (especially since I own a laptop that almost always has to be plugged in) isn’t it better to get a phone? Whatcha think?
    And thank you! 540 words are no easy feat, but ‘cuz they’re fun to write, they’re not that hard either. Thank you for reading and have a nice week! (Since we interact on a weekly basis, geddit?)
    P.S. The Toucan thing decided to translate ‘cocaine’ to French and now let’s hope I don’t learn any curse words in French. Lol.

    • Lol, I like how you’re pushing the envelope each week. Reminds me of how I try to push it during my workouts too. It isn’t that bad when I’m actually doing it, but then I look back and I’ll be like ‘Whoa, I just did that?’ It’s kinda the same feeling I see when I see your last paragraph, lol.

      Let’s start with the phone. I think if it helps with productivity, I don’t see any harm in it. I myself have used my phone to: write entire chapters, do blog maintenance, update my digital bullet journal, keep track of my to-dos, record voice memos, record videos for content, play audiobooks when I’m doing boring tasks like weeding or the dishes… the list goes on and on. So if you like it, go for it!

      Nuh uh. Am not falling into the trap of Cookie Clicker. I’ve heard that it’s addictive, lol.

      Good to see you typing entire passages in French! I couldn’t do that with the new language I’m learning.

      Anyway, thanks as usual for your lovely comments. See you next week indeed, but you’re always welcome anytime!

      • Aww! And that was the first time I got shocked our time zones aren’t as different as I realized.

        Lol, I guess they’re like your workouts. Being a writer gives you cool skills, like making accurate metaphors and stuff.

        Lol, I was just asking one of those questions where I wanted a certain answer and I can’t thank you more because YOU’RE RIGHT! So maybe I’ll give it a go.

        Lolol half the world thinks so. I played it like a year ago and my eyes are glued until now.

        Aww, wait it out. It might be a good time to point out that I’ve been learning French as a third language in school from kindergarten, and that I’ve taken three courses. The school was trash, but it gave me a boost before I took my courses, which helped my get to that point.

        And you’re welcome! I legit think your commenting tactics are genius:
        1) You respond to comments in a one-on-one, friendly fashion.
        2) You do your homework and comment on TONS of blogs, which is I think one of your main reasons of growth. (Ahem, apart from writing great articles.)
        3) You respect lengthy comments with lengthy responses (but you’ll never make it to my length lolol) and short comments with brief, concise ones.
        And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a great way to end this historical analysis of Stuart Danker’s blog. Now I need to go to bed.
        Seeya!

      • It’s scary how much you know about my tactics through your observations alone. Are you me? Like in a Fight Club kinda way? Hahaha.

        Yeah, I truly appreciate the time people take to read and comment, so I do try to match their effort out of respect.

        But to reach your level is like playing on Expert mode, lol. So do forgive me if I fall a few paragraphs short. Anyway, our timezones are probably VERY different since I am just starting my day. Have a good night!

      • Lol but at least we were both awake at the same time, even if it was just the few minutes where you just woke up and I’m in bed.
        And nope, your comment game is as good as it can get.
        Thank you for your time!

  5. Lots of great advice. I see all my bad habits here, especially the Google thing. I spend hours Googling and I hate myself for it. YouTube too. It finally dawned on me though that this mindless consumption only dulls creativity and writing ability. Seeing that I’m more productive when I spend my team reading as opposed to Googling medical symptoms so I can give myself a new disease has changed my habits slightly. I chuckled when you mentioned listening to books when you weed to bundle something you like with something you don’t. I listen to music on my phone to make things bearable. Finally, I love assessing what makes you feel guilty at the end of the day so you can make changes to avoid that. As a guilty Catholic, though, “guilt amplification” could prove deadly, so I’ll call it “guilt analysis” 😜.

    • Lol, tell me about it. I really think that googling for stuff really does kill my attention span. Somehow, I think that dopamine hit isn’t very healthy, and those little searches DO feel like dopamine hits. If that alone kills my creativity, I have no idea what other things like YouTube does. Anyway, great to have you here as usual, Hetty!

  6. Interesting information as always, dear brother! “It’s important to know that no matter how wired for pleasure you think you are, it’s very possible to build your willpower” – THIS HAPPENS TO BE THE MOST REASSURING SENTENCE I’VE READ TODAY!
    I can attest that being bored and controlling your urge to type random things in Google really comes with innumerable benefits 😅
    Excellent write once again, with well-researched information. Thank you! 😊

  7. I like this: “So put your phone or laptop away. Unplug from the collective consciousness and just be you for a while.” My laptop took a ‘holiday’ earlier today to force me to do just that! Haha….it must have taken your advice to heart! Thanks again Stu…I need to cut my screen time and learn to embrace a rested heart and more simple non-digital pleasures myself! Have a great weekend ahead n stay Covid-safe ya?!

  8. What a great article. I got immense gratification from reading it, though I’m going to have to look up this marshmallow test you referred to. Now, however, I must go exercise so I can feel gratified. (On that note, I always exercise before gardening.)

    • Save yourself! Once you marshmallow, you’ll never hear the end of it.

      No way! I always exercise before gardening too! Because my justification is: I’m already sweating and my clothes are dirty, so I might as well do the dirty stuff.

      Anyway, always great to have you here!

      • Just looked it up. Of course! I was a psychology major in college, so… I’d just forgotten that it was called the Marshmallow test.

        Your reasoning for exercising before gardening mirrors mine exactly. Why shower twice?

        Thank you!

  9. The bored thing sounds like a dopamine detox. 24 hours no internet, no video games, no movies, no music. Just you and silence to do whatever you want. I tried it once… Once.

    • 24 hours sounds kinda challenging, though I have to admit, I’ve thought about going to silence retreats where you remain silent physically and mentally—so even no books and writing—but I was too chicken to try, lol. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  10. Pingback: Pleasure Or Gratification? Which One Brings More Joy Into Your Life? | Self Care & Mental Health

  11. Super interesting, definitely had a few moments reading it where I was like, shit, I do that. One of my worst habits whilst working is having a podcast (sometimes even the TV on). I’m telling myself I’m not getting enough work done because there’s so much to do. But maybe I’m over stimulating when actually I should work, or be bored. Definitely taking this method forward into the week!

    • I too am looking to unstimulate myself, so let’s embrace boredom together in the coming week! Yeah, simultaneous consumption is becoming an issue. My partner has a live stream on while doing everything else, even while watching the TV. I think we’re turning into junkies and don’t know it. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

    • Thanks so much for stopping by! Boredom is amazing once we flip the switch on it. Sometimes I still fall victim to the crack cocaine that is our mobile phones, but awareness is what starts it all, am I right?

  12. I have occasionally used that boredom technique to great effect. I can be convinced I have no energy, but when I suddenly can’t do anything, aha, there it is! Of course, the tricky thing is keeping myself from sneaking in some gratification on the side, as well as balancing my anxiety that I’m not “getting anything done.” In the long run, it actually does save time because it’s easier to get back on task, but it can make me antsy in the short run.

    • I think there really is a magic to doing less, but doing MORE of those less things, and the boredom technique is one such way to explore this avenue.

      You know I’m a sucker for other people’s creative processes, so thanks for sharing yours!

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