Bryan Caplan  

Raise Your Standards, Control Yourself

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Happiness researchers often advise us to follow the Epicurean strategy of lowering our expectations. To quote Tsunami Bomb:

Be grateful that you have a brain for thinking,
And legs to take you places.
But suppose your problem is that you're overweight because you enjoy eating too much? It just occured to me that you could use a simple inversion of the Epicurean strategy.

Example: Suppose your problem is that you have an excessive love of fried chicken and potato chips. Then I suggest you spend some money to sample much higher-quality food than you're used to. This will raise your expectations - and help kill your love affair with cheap calories.

If, like me, you rarely experience self-control problems, you don't need to follow this strategy. But if you need a little extra help, perhaps you should spoil yourself for a while. After you've gotten used to fine food, cheap buffets may no longer tempt you.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
mjh writes:

This strategy has not worked for me in the past. On net, I gained weight, while I lost weight in my wallet.

Chuck writes:

Very interesting.

One problem might be that what is driving many out-of-control behaviors isn't a relative desire for yummy chicken and chips that can be overshadowed by delicious grilled salmon and green beans, but an absolute desire for fat, salt, and calories.

My own personal eating strategy is, instead of bringing less food intending to diet and then having no choice but to buy junk food the vending machines when I'm hungry, I bring lots and lots of healthy food (like a grocery sack of raw broccoli, carrots, an apple, banana, etc) and then prevent myself from getting too hungry to begin with.

dave smith writes:

But isn't fried chicken the highest quality food?

You have to be a total Epicurean. He also recommended "everything in moderation." He was Greek, after all.

I suppose one could also take the Stoic approach of waking up every morning and meditating on everything that could possibly go wrong over the day so that when none (or practically none) of it actually happens, you're left with no worries and are thus happy.

Kat writes:

mjh's comment goes along with my intuition: if you already have a hard time with self-control, you now have an eating problem and a spending problem...

Sisyphus writes:

Obviously, Dr. Caplan has not had truly great fried chicken or truly great, house made potato chips. With the embrace of comfort food and Southern foods in haute American cuisine, it would not be surprising to see either on the menu of a high end restaurant. Of course, the bread crumbs would be panko, and the potato chips would probably be fried in duck fat with truffle salt seasoning...

Given that food prices are a relatively small part of a well-off person's total expenditures, could this strategy be successful? One can't get into the French Laundry every night, or even every month, but there are many choices available if you have sufficient means.

another bob writes:

I only eat desserts that cost more than $10.

Steve Roth writes:

My first boss had a great line that I've been quoting ever since. (But only cause it's funny.)

Happiness is attained through achieving one's goals. If one sets one's goals low enough, happiness is assured.
mjh writes:

@Steve Roth: Even if I agreed that happiness = achieving one's goals, I don't believe that setting your goals low enough will ensure happiness. At this very moment, I just achieved a goal of getting up, logging into the computer, and reading this blog. I can't say that my happiness is significantly higher. It would have certainly been quite a bit lower if I weren't able to achieve it (e.g. if my internet connection were down).

I think that achieving goals *can* contribute to happiness, but the goals must be past a certain level of significance before they contribute anything at all. Otherwise they simply help you maintain status quo.

$0.02

Glen writes:

mjh,

You set your goals to high.

afigienas writes:

I only eat desserts that cost less than $10.

DJH writes:

At some point in the near future, one of the authors of this blog will indirectly lament the quality of comments here by praising the "unusual" high level of discussion elsewhere. When that happens, no one will point out that tripe like this post merits only snark.

I think the best science suggest sating yourself some other way (because self-control is zero sum, although practice can *slowly* increase your amount of self-control).

I recommend safe sexual gratification (monogamous partner? free internet porn?) as probably the lowest cost alternative sating to overeating.

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