The Value of Voluntary Hardship / by Jennifer Chan

 

Recently I was overjoyed when I realized I had a whopping $246.27 left in my budget. It was two days until the beginning of the next month, which meant my budget would restart. It was around 8:00 PM, when I was sitting home alone starting to feel hungry. I began thinking, “I could really go for some sushi tonight.” Without hesitation, I opened up the UberEats App on my phone and started scrolling through the endless options. I came across a local sushi restaurant and selected my order. With tax and delivery fee, my meal was totalling $22.

I knew that I wasn’t going to be spending much, if anything, the next day but that I would be spending around $20 the day after since I had confirmed plans. Still, plenty money left over, right?

I then immediately started to feel guilty. My girlfriend made us this yummy vegan coconut curry that was sitting in a large pot in the fridge, just a mere few feet away. Was it a waste to choose sushi over the curry, simply because I felt like I deserved to treat myself and had the means within my budget?

The typical me would go ahead and order the sushi without thinking twice. If I had any money leftover in my budget at month's end, I wouldn’t hesitate on spending it on things that make me happy. And sushi definitely makes me happy. But, why did I always feel the need to spend all that money? It’s not like that money suddenly disappears once the next month starts. I also didn’t feel that I particularly deprived myself during the past month either.

I decided to eat the curry. Not only was it delicious, and thoughtfully homemade, but I also saved myself $22.

While I could afford the sushi, I realized that I didn’t need to spend the money just because I had it. I decided to intentionally deprive myself of pleasure, and it felt kind of… empowering? Not to mention, I also realized that I would be pocketing about an extra $200, which could go towards debt, my emergency fund or one of my short-term savings goals.

Hedonic Adaptation

Hedonic adaptation, also dubbed the "hedonic treadmill", is a term that was first coined in a 1971 article titled, “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.”  Essentially, it’s the idea that individuals return to a certain level of happiness despite significant positive or negative events that occur over the course of their life. The theory asserts that individuals have a “set point” of happiness that they consistently maintain throughout their lives. So if an individual gets a raise at work, a significant positive event, they will first experience an increase in happiness. However, with the increase in salary comes a correlated rise in taste, wants and expectations, which lowers their happiness back to their “set point.” As a result, there will be no permanent gain in happiness as they eventually acclimatize to their changed situation. 

The Value of Voluntary Hardship

Tim Ferriss talks about the importance of restarting your set point through voluntary hardship. In this regard, he kind of blurs the lines between hedonism and stoicism, which some indicate are fundamental opposites. He cites “Letter 18: On Festivals and Fasting” from the Moral Letters to Lucilius by Seneca. In this letter, Seneca talks about the importance of experiencing true poverty to reset both your gratitude and happiness. Seneca writes,

“You need not suppose that I mean meals like Timon’s, or “paupers’ huts,” or any other device which luxurious millionaires use to beguile the tedium of their lives. Let the pallet be a real one, and the course cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.”

While admittedly I am nowhere near as hard-core as Seneca, I believe that through undertaking voluntary hardship more often in my life I can truly optimize my happiness on the things that I already know bring me pleasure.

I also think this will curb my impulsive spending, which will be a bonus. Just because I can afford to buy something, doesn’t mean that I always should.

The unintentional problem that I have with my reasonable budget is that I never feel deprived. I still buy coffee whenever I want. I still go to the movies and buy overpriced popcorn. I still eat sushi, shawarma, and all the other delicious foods that bring me immense happiness. But I want to make sure that my happiness is always at an all-time high with these experiences, and won't just eventually plateau. I believe intentionally depriving myself, within reason, may be the solution I had been seeking. This isn't to say that I will now abstain from everything that makes me happy, but rather that I will be more intentional when I choose to engage in these activities - maybe limit these experiences to only once or twice month. After all, my goal isn’t to save money, it’s to optimize my happiness.

I’m excited to incorporate this practice into my life. I expect that I will write about this again to share my results.