Agree, Disagree? Often It Takes Discipline To Take Pleasure.

One of the mysteries of human nature is: Why do we sometimes have to force ourselves to do the things we enjoy? —even the things we yearn to do?

A friend exemplified this perfectly when she said, “I love yoga. I look forward to it, I enjoy it when it’s happening, and I feel good when I look back on it. So why can’t I make myself go to yoga class?”

It seems like it shouldn’t be true, but it is true: often it takes discipline to take pleasure.

I have to push myself to take time to read a book, even though reading is my favorite thing to do.  I have to force myself to stop in the flower shop to buy a gardenia plant–which, by the way, I’ve been trying to get myself to do for days, but haven’t yet successfully done.

Do you ever face this? That there’s something you love to do, and is good for you, yet somehow you can’t get yourself to do it?

  • CAM

    While I don’t think of yoga as pleasure, I do get pleasure from it. The act of enjoying myself, playing, and having fun were out of my vocabulary for far too long. I learned to enjoy life again, partly because I became a grandmother, and partly because I realized I had neglected that part of life for too long. Still need to give myself permission to enjoy life and relax, but now it’s a high priority. Just finished playing with 6 year olds for a week, and that made me realize two things. That 6 year old is still alive and well in me, and at my age, I need to have a lot more fun than I have been. I love my work as a writer and photographer, but I want to enjoy life just being and living from the heart. Great question, and the answer is evident when a friend, years ago asked me if I ever let myself have fun, my reply was, “I’m working on it!” Couldn’t even talk about pleasure without referring to work. Now I have equal parts of work and play in my life.

    • gretchenrubin

      “I’m working on having fun”—that sums it up perfectly!

  • YES. Yoga. I love it. Can’t find the discipline to go. I’ve been wondering about this for weeks now. I was even thinking maybe there was something that I subconsciously don’t like about yoga which was preventing me from going. But your post makes perfect sense to me. Maybe discipline is an ingredient of happiness. which might explain the happiness gained from making your bed.

    • gretchenrubin

      I think you’re absolutely right, that discipline is a KEY ingredient to happiness. Or is it? what do people think? I think so, but I’m an Upholder and an Abstainer…so for me, discipline, wise discipline, makes me happy.

      • AnneL

        I would agree that wise discipline (and the word wise is an important part of that concept) is a key element of happiness. And thus, it’s opposite wild abandon is also important for happiness.

        • Molly

          Well said.

      • Molly

        Yes, I wish it weren’t so, but I find that discipline is, ironically, a big key to happiness. For one, being disciplined, developing good habits, and following a routine (not equivalent, but nearly so in their practical effects), regulate our emotions as well as structuring our actions and activities. I do not know how it can be doubted that a good life involves discipline.

        • AliB

          If discipline implies routine and habit then it does not make me happy at all – in fact quite the opposite – being squashed into a routine usually makes me very unhappy (I’m a questioner-rebel type) Discipline as committing to achieve something and following through is a different story – it gets you to the place where you can be happy.

  • Maybe because we feel that we are stelast time doing things we enjoy instead of doing what is expected of us?

  • Kit Dunsmore

    “Procrastination is a form of punishment.” Read that this morning and realized this was an aspect of procrastination I hadn’t recognized before. I think it dovetails perfectly with this idea — that even though we are going to enjoy something, we avoid doing it. Perhaps we don’t think we are worthy…

    • gretchenrubin

      Perhaps more accurate to say “Postponement is a form of punishment.” Very thought-provoking! Yes…because we must “earn” it in some way…

      • Tina

        Love that and can relate to it!

  • BKF

    So true! I love to play the piano and once I start, I don’t want to stop. But during a work week (I’m not a musician by trade), it’s easier to do other things after work and I often don’t play for days, even though I could find the time to do it (I might do less satisfying things that need less momentum to start – like being on the internet.) It’s the inertia of switching tasks that holds me back. Once I force myself through the inertia (i.e. use discipline), it’s fun! It’s like the inertia of starting bedtime activities to go to bed that you brought up a little while back. You spoke about convenience in your second book, making an activity convenient to do lessens the resistance to starting an activity (like keeping your daughter’s guitar in her room.) Once you start, the momentum and the pleasure of doing it keeps one going!

  • Marjorie

    I somewhat disagree. It depends on whether the things I really enjoy take effort. I never have to force myself to watch Downton Abbey (well, maybe after the season finale – which infuriated me), or take a bath or have a glass of wine. Writing used to fall into this category but, alas, that has passed…

    Sometimes, the things I enjoy take some effort (like yoga – such a popular example) and they require a LOT more discipline. Maybe it’s because, while I usually really like yoga class, I’m not always enthralled while I’m doing it. I’m not crazy about twisting triangle, for example. And I often want to get done so I can do the next thing on my list, so I’m often checking the clock. Sometimes I DO get into that zone and it’s fabulous. And, usually, I feel fantastic when I’ve done it; when the effort is over. That’s what often gets me in the door – knowing I’ll be happy that I did vs. being disappointed in myself that I didn’t go.

    Also, there are things we love to do and things we love the idea of doing or being able to say we’ve done. My sister, for example, likes the “idea” of seeing me and my family much more than the reality of seeing us. 😉

    • molly

      Off the main topic — I agree, the finale of Downton Abbey infuriated me, especially after I read that the actor wanted to leave the show after becoming famous only due to the show.

      • Marjorie

        Agreed – who’s in charge of the writing, of the plot, if you have to manipulate the story line to suit the whims of the actors? I’ll bet the older actors know a good thing when they see it. And they’re the ones you’d expect to be keeling over! It will be interesting to see if he does a “Shelley Long”, who left Cheers because bigger and better things awaited her. Not!

        • Molly

          The actor who came to my mind was David Caruso, who left NYPD Blue after one season bc he thought he could capitalize on his sudden fame. Oh we’ll, if the happiness studies are correct, we will adapt quickly and forget about Matthew! 🙂

    • Nicole

      Got to agree about the season finale. WTF?!

    • I love your point about “loving the idea of doing something” and “loving to do something”! That’s soooo true 🙂

    • Soooo with you on the Downton Abbey thing. Oh, and let’s run right out and see whatever that guy is in next, too, now that he’s made his fans so happy, right? 😛

  • Sandy

    Agree. This is especially true for me when it comes to travel or socializing, but I can even relate to the yoga example. If it takes planning, decision-making, and commitment, I almost have to be forced to do it even though I enjoy the activity once it occurs. And I often regret not making plans ahead of time and then having nothing to do or doing nothing special on holidays/occasions.

  • Holley

    I 100% agree with this. It seems like a lot of people feel like that about exercise. I know I do. I sometimes hate working out if I have a million other things going on. I always feel like I am not taking care of more important things and then I put it off until late or just wait until the next day. But once I start working out, or start doing homework, or even start cleaning house I always feel so good. It is really strange how it all works like that, but I am glad to see I am not alone. This also applies to cooking a big meal for me as well…I love to eat and love making successful recipes, but find it hard to get the motivation to do it. Do you think that perhaps those activities that make us feel good start to feel like a chore because we do them often and that is why our mind reacts the way it does? Almost like it forgets that it will be an enjoyable experience.

  • Kate

    I was just thinking about this, somewhat less elegantly, the other night. I wanted to pick up my knitting, and knew I would enjoy it once I got started. But somehow, getting all my things out, refreshing myself on where I was in the pattern, and starting: it just seemed like too much work!

    • Emb

      I can relate to this. I feel the same way about my quilting projects.

  • Lisa

    I agree with many of the comments below, it depends on how much effort the activity takes and how much available time I have. There is always something else I could be doing, even if this “something else” is as simple as a chance to do nothing.
    I think it firstly has something to do with the busy lives we are living. Additional effort, for a “non-essential activity”, is sometimes so unappealing – irrespective of the expected outcome of our effort.
    The second reason has to do with the fact that we see pleasurable activities that require effort as “non-essential”. This is where I think we have it wrong. Pleasure, particularly of the type that brings us peace or puts us in a state of “flow” (where we are unaware of time passing) are both things required to live a “happy” life.
    To be happy or at peace actually makes it easier to do all the other things we are required to do. It makes us a better friend, parent, lover, worker. We need to start giving more time and effort to ourselves, so we are better able to give of ourselves to others.

  • Kelly

    I feel that way about a lot of things – most of all yoga class! haha. I just get caught up in all the other things I “must” get done “ASAP” even though they could probably wait. Or I am so tired from doing all my “must do’s” that I just want to sit and stare a wall. I’m starting to try some of your energy strategies from The Happiness Project to try to counteract this!

  • YES. Piano. I love to play, but it takes focus, and some days I’ve already spent out my focus quota.

  • Michael Stephen Fuchs

    It’s to do with the fact that our sense of the self as a unified entity is mostly illusion. See, just .e.g., which notes that the brain

    “possesses multiple, overlapping ways of dealing with the world. It is a machine built of conflicting parts. It is a representative democracy that functions by competition among parties who all believe they know the right way to solve the problem.

    As a result, we can get mad at ourselves, argue with ourselves, curse at ourselves and contract with ourselves. We can feel conflicted. These sorts of neural battles lie behind marital infidelity, relapses into addiction, cheating on diets, breaking of New Year’s resolutions—all situations in which some parts of a person want one thing and other parts another.”

    So the “self” that will enjoy the yoga is note quite the same “self” that has to be flogged to get there.

    • JM 12

      How true.My left and right brain vie for supremacy . As a bookkeeper with who enjoys lists and structure, I also have a strong creative side. I enjoy creating with fabric and craft supplies, and do so professionally as a sideline, but I have to get ‘ permission’ from the list making side to play and explore with media.

  • AliB

    Seems its about the hurdles/effort of getting to the pleasurable part – getting changed, getting to the class location, stopping whatever else we are doing – this is what holds us back – unfortunately for our health, eating a chocolate bar or pouring a glass of wine equals almost effortless and instant pleasure! It does seem though, that the more effort we put in the more we get out…

  • Elizabeth Ambrose

    I was thinking about this very subject only a few days ago. I currently find myself at home, job hunting, and cling to this and other domestic jobs when I could easily allow myself time to do creative writing, which I am keen to develop as well as a number of other activities. I think of it as “living in a sweetshop and dusting the sweet jars when I could be eating the sweets”. Time and time again I give myself jobs to do but keep extending the deadlines so that I never do reach the point when I can write, read, sort my photos, phone a friend. It seems to be a perverse version of procrastination or a kind of self-imposed discipline far harsher than someone else would ever dare to try and impose on me. I hereby resolve to spend less time “dusting the jars” and more time eating their contents!

  • molly

    Sometimes, what I love most about this blog is just realizing how similar we all are, even the most disciplined and successful among us! I agree with what you write here, though I suppose, I probably wouldn’t have to push myself to go get potato chips or do some other slothful thing. (I don’t keep chips in the house, so I suppose it might take effort.) But yes, for true happiness inducing pleasures, even these can take effort to get going!

    Gretchen — do you have any blogs or perhaps thoughts (in future blogs, not necessarily here) around the general topic of my first statement. In some ways, just reading your blog makes me happy (and not really difficult to get myself to do) b/c whatever else my faults are, I get so much these days from realizing how similar we all are in our inclinations and attitudes, and being in the “company” of others like me. I find that as I get older, I want more of a balance between pleasure type and achievement type happiness and the contentment we can get just from being aware of ourselves and our surroundings, and enjoying the moment and each other. This involves not being in denial about our faults (you can’t enjoy this kind of company if you aren’t willing to be real — for lack of a better word), and not giving up on improving ourselves, but it can be transforming in a way that other types of happiness are not. Self-acceptance is a word that comes to mind. (I’m not sure what to call this third kind of happiness pursuit.)

  • Gabriele

    It reminds me of the discussion of resistance in “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. This book talks about fighting the resistance to doing the things we want to do but finding the discipline to take on the procrastination battle every day.

  • Dawn

    Yes indeed, I agree that there are times when even things I love to do: writing, swimming, biking – require a little self-discipline to get started. Maybe it’s a momentum thing.

  • Katie

    I have a problem with this when it comes to my weekends. I often have grand ideas and then end up doing exactly what I’m doing now… spending hours online while none of the things I looked forward to doing get done.

    In “The Happiness Advantage,” Shawn Achor writes about the path of least resistance. He says that we often spend our time doing the things that take the least effort (“passive leisure” activities like the Internet, TV) rather than engaging in activities that we know we’ll love, but that take effort (“active leisure” activities like knitting,
    bike riding, cooking). Active leisure takes more “activation energy” to get started.

    To get past this, Achor suggests making active leisure activities possible to begin in under 20 seconds and passive leisure activities take longer than 20 seconds to begin. Put a knitting project with everything you need for it next to the couch and keep your
    computer turned off.

    I highly recommend reading this section of “The Happiness Advantage” because it really changed how I look at this issue. Not that it’s changed how I act yet, but at least it gave me an answer to this frustrating issue.

  • Beth S.

    In my case, I think the challenge is in choosing to do pleasurable things that don’t have any “measurable benefit” other than personal pleasure…it feels selfish. It’s especially problematic right now because my job was eliminated last November and I feel like everything I do should be a step toward getting back to work. I have managed to protect my gym time because I know it contributes to a healthier me – physically and psychologically – but I haven’t allowed myself much time for reading, cooking, gardening or writing. Those activities feel too much like personal pleasures when I “should” be improving my resume, looking for online postings, or networking with contacts.
    I remember hearing that a word that healthy individuals don’t use much is “should”. Perhaps leaving it out of my decisions will lead to a more reasonable – and disciplined – approach to balancing productive and pleasurable activities. As I look back at this posting, it’s apparent that “should” is a factor all too often…

  • Yes, I agree. The more an activity takes planning and requires that I set aside time, the harder it is for me to get to it because inertia is just so much easier! I do this for exercise, travel, going out to movies. But that tendency is sort of off-again, on-again – sometimes, I can be in a go-go-go mode and I get to the things I enjoy because I don’t leave time to settle in to life on the couch. So, maybe, this is a question of pace – having too much time that finds me sitting still means it’s harder to get moving again even for something I enjoy.

  • Now that’s got me thinking… I love to learn, but like you – getting a book out sometimes feels like a chore! At first glance, I think it’s human nature to put the bad things first. Getting a book out may require you to get up and stop watching TV or whatever else, and that’s hard. Personally I try not to let this affect me much, although it sometimes does. The ‘Just do it’ attitude is what gets me leaping out of that comfort zone, and I hardly ever regret it. The problem is in thinking past the hard part to all good that is to follow…

    Very thoughtful, it’s also quite weird how when you’re there you can stay there for hours, lovely insights, Gretchen!

  • Nicola Davies

    I often wonder if its “doing your duty” or doing whats expected that make you happy. There is a part of me that rebels against doing certain things like housework or cooking. Yet if I do them I feel happy as though I am living up to some my end of some bargain I’ve made. I often think that there is a perverse piece of myself that wants to be slimmer, fitter and more productive and yet also wants to sit around in a state of inertia. This dichotomy does not induce happiness it makes me feel guilty. So yes I think it does take discipline to induce pleasure, however I think sometimes we just like the gold stars of having been a good girl and towed the line. After all these days are we not supposed to be smarter, thinner, better parents and homemakers than ever before. On top of that we should be successful in our careers, creative endeavours and intimate relationships, maybe the inertia is mental exhaustion, confusion and just a tiny bit of rebellion.

  • Nicole

    God Yes! I have a lot of activities that I feel that way about. Any time I try to force myself to do something–whether it be doing it at a certain time or for a certain amount of time or under particular circumstances–it becomes work, and then I don’t want to do it anymore. It’s very unfortunate; I really need to learn how to change my mindset because I would enjoy so many things so much more if I only thought about them differently.

    At the same time, there are also things that I ALWAYS enjoy, going to Disneyland chief among them (I’ve had a pass for more than 10 years). Perhaps I just enjoy these things at a deeper level.

  • eating apples…
    that’s what my husband calls it. You know you’ll enjoy the apple once you’re eating it, and yet you delay the action of picking an apple and eating it..

  • Pat

    This really resonated with me. My way of getting myself to do things I should do is to make it a game. I assign various things a point value, and then give myself a points goal and a prize. One of the ways I can earn the most points is to “do something fun for at least 30 minutes.” in order to qualify, the fun thing requires some effort (e.g., working on a sewing project or going to a theater event). I assigned this such a high point value because I always enjoy doing these things once I start, but find it much too easy to spend my free time doing things that take less effort, but l find less fulfilling at the end of the day.

  • Fifi

    I could not agree more and this is something I have been thinking about over the last week while on a ski vacation in Austria. Skiing terrifies me yet it is something I know I want to be able to do. I gaze at those graceful beings whizzing down the black slopes and it where I want to be.The first run down the slopes practically paralyses me with fear. I am drenched in sweat and I wonder why I do this to myself. And yet I know. The tremendous satisfaction I feel through conquering my fear, learning something new , feeling every muscle in my body do something that I know I will absolutely love once I have mastered it pushes me on and makes me get up morning after aching morning to climb those slopes and perfect the art of skiing.

  • Samantha

    YES. Oh my goodness, this REALLY hit home. I love drawing and crafting, as a non-musical artistic hobby. (I am a music teacher by profession, and while I LOVE it, I sometimes need a different outlet). It used to be that I would craft/doodle whenever I had the time, but I have found that if I don’t make the time, if I don’t “force” myself to do it, the release I need never comes because I have not doodled. I listened to this TED/TEDx talk a few months ago called “Super Better” it was really good, and it leveled me realize that the things that make me happy and help me relieve stress are things I need to do on a daily basis: for my physical and emotional/spiritual/mental well being. 🙂

    Thank you for the posts, and the blog in general! The Internet needs more uplifting/encouraging messages.

  • I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only one who faces this. I struggle with this constantly…I love working in coffee shops, I love reading in the park, I love practicing yoga…but I have to force myself to do these things. I’m so happy after I’ve done them and laugh at how silly I was for putting them off.

  • Maybe it depends on how Type-A you are. Some people probably have an easier time chilling out and doing fun things than other people – I tend to be more the type who feels guilty doing enjoyable things if I haven’t done all the things I “should” do first, whereas my boyfriend can just kick back and play games and not worry about it. But this issue is entirely self-imposed, and probably to my detriment. I’m trying to moderate it lately. 🙂

  • Heather Bestel

    Isn’t human nature interesting. It seems that making ourselves do the things we like is something that adults have learnt. I’m trying to imagine a child having to do this and I just can’t. Given the opportunity I think children will race towards the things they like doing, maybe we’ve learnt over the years that there are other (more important/useful/dutiful things we ‘should’ be doing). I tend to use these ‘things I like doing’ as rewards or special times to look forward to in my daily round. That way, I can totally enjoy them and not have to force myself to do them, as I’ve already achieved something in order to get them.

  • Kirsten

    Totally agree! I constantly discipline myself to finish books I’m reading, paintings I’m working on, etc. I enjoy those things but if I don’t discipline myself I won’t finish them.

  • I would have to agree…I enjoy writing but I have to have a reason and a deadline before I motivate myself to get it done. It is infuriating because I think I could do better if I disciplined myself enough to carve out time when I’m not in a hurry, I could do a better job. Similarly with playing the piano…love it after I start, but sometime the mental energy required to start takes a lot of effort…thank you for this post!

  • Valley Girl

    I have a hard time starting things I enjoy (knitting, cross-stitching) but have an even tougher time stopping to do the things that NEED to be done (dishes, dissertation, cleaning the bathroom). So hard to find the happy medium for me. :-/

  • Megan Gordon

    I do have trouble making time for ME in general, which includes things like writing regularly, taking photos regularly and settling in for a long read on the weekends. I manage to take baths regularly (right now mostly because I am trying to unclench my shoulder muscles and it’s part of the treatment) and read a little during the week.
    I have the same issue with yoga. Love it, but if the class doesn’t come to me, it doesn’t happen often.

  • Tori

    Have been wallowing in this myself. I have realized that if I can have certain things done first thing in morning, then my happiness scale goes way up for the rest of that day. Working out is at the top of this list. I understand the “Just Do It” mantra, but I just can’t understand why, (WHY!!!) I struggle with this year after year after year. A running friend made it clear though. There is no “think about it”. It is just do it. No distractions allowed – just go from A to B and stop thinking . It takes discipline, but not much thought.

  • Aajaxx

    Brain research clearly shows that habitual behavior can overrule almost any thoughts about what we think we want to do or ought to do. So, if you really think you ought to do something, but you are not doing it, what is the habit that is getting in the way, and how can you break the habit if necessary?

    • Sally J

      It is my understanding that it takes 21 times to form a new habit. There are things that I love to do (writing and creating art) and I have even written down goals. “I will work on my art and my writing 15 minutes each – every day.” But, I don’t. Help me!

      • Aajaxx

        Sally – For one thing I notice you do not mention the time of the day when you are going to do the writing. That’s crucial. Scheduling is a minimum requirement in a case like this. Choose the time carefully. Also, where are you going to do the writing or art? What tools are you going to use? Set it all up ahead of time. What are you going to reward yourself with, if anything? Be ready for the spurious thoughts and bodily sensations that will come with the thought of going to your creating place or staring at a blank piece of paper or canvas and don’t get distracted by them. Dive in, and when the ‘editor’ cuts in and tells you your work is crap, have a good laugh at that old linguistic habit of yours trying to survive your indomitable will. Oh, yeah, and she will win a few battles, but that doesn’t meant the war. Good luck.

  • Anna

    I’ve enjoyed the happiness project tremendoulsy and while simply reading it gave me freedom to pursue happiness, it took me close to a year to decide that yes I’d like to be disciplined to exercise and get enough sleep to feel happier. Still struggling with these first, but probably, hardest things!

  • Jennifer S. Martin

    I am considered disabled and have recently returned to part-time work as a trial to see if I can do it. I can say I appreciate and therefore find more pleasure in being home now than I did when I was home all the time. The discipline of leaving on a daily basis, whether I feel like it or not, makes the pleasure of being here all the greater. I don’t know if this completely applies to what you are saying here but it’s how I related to the question.

  • Jude

    Any suggestions on what to do about it? The suggestion below I don’t find will work for me. Thanks

  • Hello there, I found your web site via Google while looking for a related topic, your web site came up, it looks great. I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.