Why don’t we do the things that are good for us?
OK, that’s way too broad. How about: why do we end up on Facebook instead of, say, reading the best book in the world? On that note, why don’t we bias our reading towards time-honored classics? Why do we spend so little time simply sitting and thinking, with no outside stimuli?
Before going any further I suppose I ought to question my assumptions: Is it in fact better for us to read a book than to check on Facebook? By extension, do we feel better when we engage in activities with more… depth?
Personally I do. Not necessarily more enjoyment, but a sort of elation that lasts beyond the activity itself. That feeling you have after forcing yourself through a good workout. Perhaps because we’re wired to feel satisfaction when we tackle more demanding activities (at least when we aren’t overwhelmed). There’s some really interesting work by Mihály Csikszentmihályi that supports this idea: he repeatedly found that people who take on well-defined challenges appropriate to their level of skill can enter a state of “flow”, which they describe as supremely blissful.
That’s not so say that I always end up doing these rewarding things though. Far from it. But I am writing this, so the answer to our original question must be that there’s a barrier somewhere in our brain that keeps us away from these demanding-yet-rewarding activities. The way I envision it is like the activation energy of a chemical reaction: where you end up is preferable to where you started, but you need a bunch of energy to go through the intermediary state. It’s hard to get yourself going, but once you’re into the activity (which isn’t as soon as you start doing it) you wouldn’t want to go back.
Different activities have different energy barriers, and these appear at least somewhat proportional to how much you ultimately get out of it. A book needs more impetus than a movie, which is harder than watching whatever happens to be on TV. Doing nothing in particular is generally easier than working on something (oddly, doing something you care deeply about seems harder than equivalent work on something you’re blasé about). Our habits play into it too, in that familiarity lowers the energy barrier of an activity a fair bit.
My impression is that the highest energy barrier of all applies to simply thinking. Sitting down and figuring something out, with no input from reading or talking to other people. This belief was corroborated a couple of weeks ago, by a scientific study showing that people preferred giving themselves weak electric shocks to this kind of solitary thinking. Apparently we’ll do mind-numbingly boring things so long as they relate to the world around us, which may be a clue to why these barriers are present in our brains: throughout evolution, you’d have done well to deal almost exclusively with the world around you.
The problem is that if you happen to be a privileged member of modern day humanity, dealing with yourself becomes highly relevant. Focused thinking can be hugely beneficial both for your self-perception and your role in society, but we still have this barrier to doing it. And I don’t really have an answer to this, no enzyme to drastically reduce the activation energy. The only thing I have is an awareness that lets me remind myself that the things I least feel like doing are often the ones I most want to do.