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Take Pleasure in Taking the High Road

We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right.  But does one right cancel out one wrong?

There’s a good chance you believe that it does.  Research suggests that our brains are wired to think of a good deed as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card.

Psychologists call it licensing.  It works like this:

You come home from a hard workout at the gym and immediately sit down to a double-helping of ice cream with chocolate syrup and whipped cream. The virtuous behavior of exercising makes you feel better about yourself, which then gives you license to indulge the less virtuous behavior of overdosing on sugar.  The responsible act of taking care of yourself makes it easier to rationalize letting yourself go.

But Aaron Garvey and Lisa Bolton of the University of Kentucky have discovered that it goes even further than that.


In their research, they took two groups of volunteers and gave them cookies to eat.  The cookies were identical for each group, but in one group they were labeled “healthy.”  After finishing their cookies, the subjects were given candy.

As the psychology of licensing would suggest, subjects who had eaten the “healthy” cookies ate more candy than the other group.  But not for the reason we might have thought.

Garvey and Bolton measured not only the amount of candy eaten but also the amount of pleasure experienced from the candy.  They found that the candy actually tasted better to the people who believed they had eaten healthy cookies.

Professor Garvey identified two implications from his research.  First, if we do something virtuous before indulging in pleasure, we can actually make the experience of pleasure more pleasurable.

Second, if we reframe our attitude toward responsibilties and acts of virtue by thinking of them as commitments that we want to do rather than obligations that we have to do, we can make vices less attractive and protect ourselves from the damaging fallout of licensing.


These two implications teach us an electrifying lesson in human free will.  Through disciplined thinking, I can choose whether to make my self-indulgence more or less pleasurable.  And that discipline takes the form of how motivated I am to choose virtue over vice.

In other words, do I want to trick my brain into getting more pleasure from healthy acts or from unhealthy acts?  And if getting more psychological pleasure from virtue means that I’ll become less interested in the physical pleasure of vice, why would I ever want to choose vice over virtue?

We know from experience that physical pleasure is nothing more than psychological junk food.  Enjoyments of the flesh feel good in the heat of the moment, but they leave a pleasure vacuum the instant they’re over.  In contrast, emotional pleasures linger, and profound emotional satisfaction endures long after the source of pleasure has passed.

Most of all, the warm feelings we can get from family, community, and the sense of contribution to a higher purpose stay with us constantly.  The less we distract ourselves with empty physical gratification, the more intense and continuous those emotional pleasures become.

King Solomon says, One who loves pleasure will be a man of want, and one who loves wine and oil will never become rich.

In a society that has increasingly debased the nobility of human emotion, people say that they love their cars, they love to sleep, they love to go to the beach, they love steak and wine.  But if these are the objects of our love, what emotion is left for us to feel for our husbands and our wives, for our parents and our children, for the sources of inspiration that beckon us to moderate our lust and pursue loftier, more satisfying ideals?

The comics page can give us a chuckle, but it doesn’t enrich our minds like a good story.  A jingle on the radio might get stuck in our head, but it doesn’t move the heart like a symphony. A passing flirtation may set us briefly a-tingle, but it is a sorry substitute for a lifetime of commitment.

Anything worthwhile requires investment and effort.  Life is too short to squander it on fleeting pleasures when there is so much real joy for us to find.

Published in Jewish World Review

10 ways to stay honest in a dishonest world

Who doesn’t like a good story?

After spending my prodigal youth hitchhiking cross country and circling the globe, living abroad for a decade, and teaching high school for over 20 years, I have a few stories to tell.

But it still happens that friends and neighbors occasionally respond to my recollections by asking: “Did that really happen?”

Are my tales so truly unbelievable? I never claimed to have helped Edison invent the light bulb or to have masterminded the Normandy invasion.

I’ve merely looked for the story within the story, plucking insights from slightly quirky encounters and offering a bit wisdom from my observations on the human condition.

“I loved your article,” someone will say. And then, predictably: “Did that really happen?”

I even get it from my mother.

To be honest, it should come as no surprise. After all, honesty has seen its market value tumble over the years with countless reports of plagiarism, factual carelessness, and blatant fabrication.

But as troubling as such prevarication may be from the media, it’s far more disheartening when it becomes the norm among our political leaders.

The sad truth is that we expect our politicians to lie. But the brazenness with which they conjure up easily verifiable falsehoods grows ever more astonishing.

Once integrity disappears, the only motive not to lie is fear of not getting away with it — and in a society that has grown indifferent to lying, there are rarely consequences for even the most brazen lies.

And that has consequences for all of us.

But there is something we can do.

Click to read the rest.

You never know…

There’s common and there’s sense


My latest poetic musings, published in this month’s issue of The Wagon Magazine.

A change of tone and timbre is occasionally welcome.

Click here to read if you’re so inclined.

5 Strategies for Avoiding Pain Avoidance

Adapted from an article originally published by Pick The Brain.

Are you a parent? If so, you’ve probably experienced a scenario like this one:

You run to see what your too-quiet two year old has gotten into and find him playing with the snow-globe your sister brought back from her trip to Switzerland last year. Since this is not the best toy for a toddler, you smile at your child and gently take the snow-globe out of his hands.

That’s when the screaming begins.

What do you do? Do you endure the shrieking child or give back the snow-globe?

If you’re normal, your thinking probably works its way through the following steps:

1.     He can’t really hurt himself with the snow-globe

2.     He probably won’t break the snow-globe

3.     I never really liked the snow-globe anyway

4.     If he does break it, it’s no big deal to clean it up

5.     So is it really worth making him miserable by taking it away?

But we’re not really worried about the child’s misery, are we? We’re more concerned about ourselves.

In the end, the odds are pretty good you’re going to let the toddler keep the snow-globe.

But the real issue isn’t the snow-globe; it’s the lesson you’ve just taught your child:

Click here to read the rest.

My Stairway to Heaven

Reclaiming Civility

A child’s brain is like a sponge, absorbing everything with which it comes in contact. As the brain gets older it learns to process, to analyze, to interpret. And eventually it begins to slow, begins to forget, begins to lose function.

Few prospects are as forbidding as mental decline, the specter of which haunts us as we advance toward old age. And so the experts tell us to keep our minds active, that using the brain is the surest way to stave off mental deterioration.

  • Crossword puzzles
  • Sudoku
  • Word games
  • Logic problems

These are common recipes from the diet books for the mind. But don’t stop there; the more creative and more challenging, the better for your brain.

  • Go traveling
  • Take up knitting or gardening
  • Learn Italian
  • Drive a different way to work
  • Get an advanced degree

Anything and everything that piques cognitive activity belongs in our catalogue of mental health activities.

“That’s all good,” says Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind and New York Times health and medical science editor. But the most intriguing advice Ms. Strauch has heard is this:

Click here to read the rest.

Be not scornful

Post-Victory let-downs are for the birds

Why do people gamble?  Obviously, they do it for the rush of adrenaline they feel when they win.  No?


At least not according to Professor Jessica Stagner of the University of Florida.

Professor Stagner and her colleagues hoped to find support for evidence indicating that gamblers feel the same thrill of excitement when they almost win as they do when they actually win.  To do so, they created an experiment in which pigeons had to peck at colored markers in order to receive hidden rewards.

That’s right:  Pigeons.

And what did they discover?  Although pigeons are willing to take a risk for a bigger payday, they only like it when they win.  People, on the other hand, are excited by a close loss almost as much as a big win.

In other words, pigeons are smarter than people.

The researchers speculate that a near-miss creates the illusion that we have control over situations that are largely random.  This is similar to the hypothesis that people embrace conspiracy theories because they find a world manipulated by sinister puppet-masters less frightening than one in which events unfold for no reason at all.

But there may be a more profound lesson to these studies.  Because in one sense, approaching success can truly be more satisfying than success itself.

Do you remember the last time you…

  • read a really engrossing novel?
  • watched a gripping action movie?
  • worked on a challenging business project?
  • went on a date when all the chemistry was working just right?

Do you remember the excitement, the elation of living in the moment, the expectation of what was to come?

And do you remember the bittersweet commingling of fulfillment and disappointment when it was over?

In truth, we love to win much more than we love to have won.


Because at the very moment of success, victory, conquest, or completion, we have to face the inevitable question:

Where do I go from here?

On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like the keen pleasure of watching success draw near, of feeling that victory is nearly within our grasp.  And even when things don’t go our way in the end, we can still bask in the glow of that tantalizing instant when we felt triumph waiting right around the corner.

The mistake we so often make is to focus on our goals with such single-mindedness that we forget to enjoy the process of attaining them.  The first day of an adventure is usually the most exciting, for it is filled with possibility and mystery, while every successive day brings us closer to the moment when it will all be over.

So what can we do to preserve the thrill of near-victory?

Here are a few suggestions:

Make the process the goal.  Of course we have to get work done, fill quotas, and meet deadlines.  But focusing on the quality of work, the feeling of genuine achievement, and the camaraderie of collaborative effort sweetens both the journey and the destination.

Think in rest-stops, not end-points.  Almost any task can be seen as part of a larger mission, project, or game plan.  Have in mind the next logical phase for connecting each point of completion with a new beginning.

Exchange star and supporting roles.  Often, we can accomplish more as partners. Recruit a colleague to add his or her area of expertise to your project and contribute your expertise to hers or his.  Both projects will be likely to be completed better and ahead of schedule, and you’ll end up with two victories instead of one.

King Solomon teaches, Fortunate is the one who listens for me, attentively waiting at my doors day by day, keeping watch by the doorposts of my entryways.

It is not so much what we find on the other side of each door, but the anticipation of always looking for the next opportunity and the next challenge, of looking forward to each victory not as an end unto itself but as a stepping stone to the many victories that will follow.

Each step up the stairway to success leads to the next one.  So it’s worth remembering that the moment we reach to top of one step we are immediately at the bottom of the next one.

And keep in mind that if we do reach the rooftop, we might find ourselves only in the company of pigeons.

Adapted from an article originally published in Pick the Brian.