By: Andy Crawford
As I write this, it is 10 p.m.
and I am exhausted. My daughter woke up early this morning after keeping me up late into the night. I was in court all day arguing several different cases. I came home late, just in time to begin the bedtime routine for my daughter. Then, we had everyone over to my house for Bible study. By the time everyone was gone, my wife was off to sleep. And now, I finally sit here with a glass of whiskey, pen, and paper.
I do not write this to complain. I am an incredibly blessed man with a loving wife, beautiful daughter, rewarding job, and excellent friends.
I write this to demonstrate how little time is my own. At best, I have two hours to spend pursuing whatever activities I want.
It would be understandable if I spent my evening catching up on my DVR, and maybe playing a little Madden. However, one of the greatest fears in my life is that one day I will be 40, and have never done anything other than live thousands of days in the same way.
I answer this fear by investing my time in higher pleasures, and spending less time on the lower ones.
John Stuart Mill first explained the distinction between higher and lower pleasures in his classic work, Utilitarianism. While I know I read Mill in college, I began making the distinction on my own after studying the lives of successful men. Reading biographies on Theodore Roosevelt, Benjamin Franklin, and other historical figures highlighted a common trait among them. They were efficient with their time, and rarely invested in frivolous pursuits or habits. In other words, they spent their time indulging in higher pleasures.
So what are higher and lower pleasures?
These are activities from which we draw no self-improvement. The pleasure gained from the experience lasts only as long as the experience itself. According to Mill, lower pleasures usually satisfy basic faculties. Like a baby who loves to hear fun sounds and see bright colors, the newest Transformers movie appeals to those same senses with loud explosions and the newest special effects.
Lower pleasures usually take little effort, such as binge watching a show on Netflix. Watching is all the effort required (usually on a big, colorful HD screen), and the mind doesn’t have to engage on a deep level.
The best example I can give for a 21st century man’s lower pleasure is video games. I used to spend more hours than I care to admit playing video games. Zelda, Fallout, Halo…they have claimed thousands of hours of my life.
What do I have to show for it? Very little. It is not long until I have forgotten the game, and replaced it with a newer iteration with better graphics and gameplay.
Of course, one can be content by only indulging in the lower pleasures, but is that really how we want to invest our time? Consider those who spent countless hours playing Guitar Hero, thumbing those colored tabs with expert precision. If those same players had invested that time into learning to play a real guitar, they could be shredding Guns N Roses tunes today. Instead, they have nothing to show for their time other than a toy guitar collecting dust in the attic, probably next to their RAZR phone and rolled up 300 poster.
These offer an enriching experience, often leaving us more intelligent and cultured once they are completed. The lessons learned from such experiences can usually be applied to other areas of life.
According to Mill, higher pleasures stimulate the advanced faculties, such as intellect and imagination. Furthermore, once a man discovers a higher pleasure, he will prefer it to a lower pleasure, even though it
may take more effort to experience.
One example of a higher pleasure is reading a classic work of literature. When was the last time someone considered a movie better than the book on which it was based? Read the short stories of Flannery O’Conner, or a biography on a historical figure you find interesting. Analyze the works; let them roll around in your mind a while, like you would savor a sip of good bourbon.
Other examples include learning to appreciate the art of John Singer Sargent, discovering the sounds of Mississippi Delta Blues, or observing the rings of Saturn through a telescope. Pick something that interests you, and become a learned man on the subject. Music, art, literature, astronomy, natural history: the topics are endless, and the benefits apparent.
-There is nothing wrong with experiencing (and enjoying the hell out of) the lower pleasures. Sometimes it is good to give the intellect a rest
, and just enjoy some mindless television or an easy read. However, the more time you spend indulging the higher pleasures, the less you will find yourself seeking out the lower ones. For that thirty minutes between getting the kids in bed and passing out from exhaustion, you may just find yourself reaching for a jazz record rather than the television remote.
-Think of this distinction as a continuum rather than two separate groups. Reading is not always better than playing video games. Going through the superb story of Red Dead Redemption on your Xbox 360 is a higher pleasure than reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
-These distinctions are subjective. We don’t all enjoy the same things the same way. One person may watch The Departed to consider how the characters’ actions affect their identity, while another person may watch the movie because they want to see mobsters shoot at each other.
-Don’t forget the social factor when deciding what hobbies you want to enjoy on a given evening. Experiencing something with friends and family is almost always better than experiencing something else alone. Playing Halo with a friend is better than sticking your nose into Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea (at least for one night).
-I would include a third tier, even ahead of the higher pleasures. That tier is creating something yourself. Instead of just reading short stories, why not try to write one yourself? Instead of learning about art, why not get a brush and canvas and develop your talent? I may expound on this in a future article. For now, keep in mind that producing something can be a source of even higher pleasure.
Now it is 11 p.m., and I go to sleep in about an hour. What would you do with that time?