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Known Costs, Unknowable Benefits
The best parts of life are hidden
Many of the best quality-of-life improvements seem to have known costs but unknowable benefits.
Before I was in the habit of exercising regularly, I didn’t understand why someone would care about running in circles or picking things up and putting them back down. It seemed silly. Why would you waste all that time, spend money, get uncomfortable and sweaty, and for what, some modest aesthetic improvements?
I had some idea that exercise was “good for you” and that it made you “feel great,” but it was impossible to know what that meant as a non-exerciser. Part of what made me consider taking it seriously was hearing that Obama worked out for an hour a day, despite all his presidential duties. I figured if the president spent an hour of his day working out, there was probably something to it. And if he had time, I had time.
So I gave it a try. And to my surprise, there were wonderful benefits from regular, intense physical activity that I was blind to in my soft flabby life. There are immediate short-term benefits, like the feeling of accomplishment from a new PR or the high you settle into after a few miles of running. But there were sustained long-term benefits, too, like being much less prone to depressive episodes, being less irritable, and for lack of a better way to describe it, just feeling better.
Before giving it a try, I had some recognition or awareness of those benefits, but without having personally experienced them, I couldn’t know those benefits. It’s a special kind of knowledge that requires full embodiment. Until you’ve experienced the benefits for yourself, you do not truly know them.
Exercise is just one example. Another that’s been concerning me lately is anything under the umbrella of unplugging.
When I went canoe camping for a week and couldn’t access Twitter or anything with a news feed, I realized how much that constant stream of information was disrupting my life and happiness. I recognized that being so plugged in wasn’t good for me, but I needed to dramatically unplug to know it.
It took at least a few days to notice the benefits, too. It wasn’t immediate. And this is coming from someone whose Screen Time was rarely above 3 hours before.
But to be motivated to pursue these positive life interventions, you must be aware of the benefits, even if you can’t fully know them. And often, the more intervention would benefit you, the less aware of it you are. If you’re spending zero time walking around in nature, it’s much less obvious that you should prioritize it than it is to someone spending even ten minutes a day touching the grass.
So now we have two criteria that make these massive life improvements exceptionally challenging:
The benefits are not fully knowable until you make the change, as it’s some new mental state that is unreachable for you without the change.
The more beneficial the change would be, the less obvious or desirable it will seem to you.
Where else might this be true? Committed relationships and having children are obvious ones. There are so many wonderful benefits to committing to building a life with someone that are not knowable until you are in it.
Men often get this backward, thinking they need to figure out their life on their own before committing to someone because having a partner or family will be some sort of distraction or loss of productivity. But nothing gives you better clarity of purpose or motivation than having others you’re building a life for besides yourself. Once again, though, that’s not something you can know until you’ve experienced it.
It may be that these changes with known costs and unknowable benefits are consistently the best interventions we can make, and the challenge is to choose them over the changes with known benefits. Choosing discomfort and exploration over comfort and complacency.
If you keep hearing some vague descriptions about how much better some change in life is, but you don’t really “get it,” maybe that’s a sign it’s something you should explore rather than shy away from.
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