Oh hello, it’s you again.
What if I told you that you probably shouldn’t go on expensive vacations and buy business class seats, for reasons other than affordability? And then if I followed that up with a well-meaning suggestion to not sign up to the highest quality gym in your neighbourhood, but go with the average one instead? Oh yeah, it might also be in your best interest to skip out on that gourmet Italian pizzeria you’ve been eyeing for your weekly pizza slice fix.
No, I’m not trying to start an anarchist revolution here and revolt against delightful capitalistic pleasures. There’s an underlying method to the madness here that has to do with our brain’s predictable tendency to normalize how happy something makes us feel. I’ll explain in a second.
Let’s take the pizza example. You’ve made it a weekly tradition to grab your favourite $2 XL pepperoni slice every Wednesday after work. Badaboom Badaslice delivers a reliably average to great pizza experience, depending how hungry you are. It’s never awful or exceptional. Just plain good. Let’s rate it about a “7” on the Happiness Scale of Pizza Deliciousness.
It’s the first day of the following month. Just got your paycheque! Sweet! You decide to spoil yourself like never before and treat yourself to a visit to the delectable Gourmet Cheese Crack Factory pizza restaurant and get yourself a $15 Caviar-Kobe-Beef pizza on Tuesday, a deluxe 8 topping $20 Pizzavaganza the following Wednesday, and a $10 Gooey Gouda Goodness on the Friday after that because, gurl, you totally deserve it. They were all mouth-watering slices, earning a solid 9 on the Happiness Scale of Pizza Deliciousness.
Next month, financial reality smacks you in the face when your bank statement arrives and you quickly come to grips that you overdid it last week at Gourmet Cheese Crack Factory . No big deal, right? Totally worth it, money well-spent, you say. Work finishes and you roll up to your favourite hole in the wall, Badaboom Badaslice, and order your usual $2 slice. To your dismay, it doesn’t quite taste as it used to. You find yourself thinking about the previous week’s orders as you disappointingly chew what used to be your go-to pepperoni slice. Your slice suddenly tastes more like a “5,” while Gourmet Cheese Crack Factory slides into the previous “7” rating that Badaboom Badaslice used to occupy.
What the hell happened?
You see, a peculiar thing occurs when we opt for a fancier/higher quality/premium version of something. Initially, you unlock potential shades of flavour, comfort or thrills that you’ve never experienced before. This is great and sometimes makes life worth living.
Unfortunately, over time, after repeated exposure to the ‘premium’ version, your brain will begin to interpret the once-exceptional experience as the new norm. This phenomenon is well documented, and is a good example of the Hedonic Treadmill at work. You’ve probably experienced it a few times in your life. Having indulged in the “premium” version, your brain’s recognition of the potential spectrum of possible said experience permanently expands. And crucially, the lower-grade version will feel predictably bland or mediocre thereafter.
Happiness and pleasure tend to normalize over time, no matter how extravagant or luscious an experience can be. Your brain’s perception of pleasure is relative to its highest possible experienced “ceiling.” This is what I refer to as The Pleasure Ceiling. Every time you indulge your senses with new novelty you feel a high; yet, over time, your brain quickly acclimates and rebrands said ‘high’ as its new definition of ‘normal.’ This is why that same pizza slice that used to satisfy you consistently now feels bland, and why flying business class to a millionaire probably feels like flying coach to you.
Back to our example. I got bad news my friend. You’ve raised your pizza pleasure ceiling. Now, in order to earn a “9” on the Happiness Scale of Pizza Deliciousness, you’re forced to venture out into the gastronomical world on a quest for The One Slice to Rule Them All, a mythical pizza slice that will give you that “9” feeling that your rewired brain now believes exists on the spectrum of possible pizza experiences.
Here’s what your possible spectrum of pizza deliciousness looked like before you raised your pleasure ceiling:
Here’s what the spectrum looks like now after you’ve raised your pleasure ceiling:
Interpreting the Pleasure Ceiling
Increasing your pleasure ceiling can be problematic for a few reasons. Firstly, the ‘premium’ version of anything will invariable cost more. You’ll have to use more of your hard earned spending money to receive the same amount of pleasure you would have received prior to your exposure to the premium product. Secondly, permanently increasing your threshold for what’s considered “great” or “exceptional” will leave you reliably frustrated when encountering, consuming or experiencing the “average” version. Thirdly, constantly vying for a higher spot on the ‘possible spectrum of xxx happiness’ is a fighting a losing battle with yourself, since we know happiness normalizes over time. You’ll be chasing that elusive feeling of ‘10’ on the happiness chart, and, like any dragon-chasing heroine junkie will tell you, be habitually disappointed.
Were the Gourmet Cheese Crack Factory slices worth it? This is the million dollar question, and one for you to decide on a case by case basis. I’ve demonstrated that there is indeed merit in deliberately depriving yourself of the more ‘premium’ version of something, but I’ll concede as well that certain hobbies, for example, could easily deserve a higher investment of resources and time. It’s also probably okay to experience the ‘premium’ version once in a while. I’m not trying to be a draconian, self-flagellating preacher (I promise).
The bottom line is this: find the areas, interests or experiences in your life that you truly believe merit the ‘premium’ version. Enjoy the premium version wholeheartedly and mindfully, but beware of the potential trap of feeling less satisfaction from the ‘normal’ version of the good/service.
The pleasure ceiling applies to every area of your quotidian lived experience, assuming you’re living a middle class life (or better) with disposable income in a developed country. From housing conditions to food; travel arrangements to electronics; sport equipment to furniture. The pleasure ceiling indiscriminately applies to everything, stays with you the entirety of your adult life, and will dictate how satisfied you feel with the ‘accessible’ version of anything.
The pleasure ceiling nicely complements contemporary ideas about the reduction of consumption and the implementation of a minimalistic lifestyle, which have been making a steady resurgence in recent years. If, like me, you’ve to decided to focus on a lifestyle based on principles of simple living, frugality and minimalism, you should apply extra care when considering raising your pleasure ceiling for a particular facet of your life.
The pleasure ceiling is why it might actually make sense to continue flying coach, even if you have the means to purchase the pricier first-class ticket. Why that $24.99 no-frills gym membership might be the one for you after all, despite lacking 3 different calf machines. And why you should happily stick to your $2 XL pepperoni slice.