Hedonic Audit


Work and leisure are opposites inextricably entangled with each other, like yin and yang. In economics, the distinction has been formalized in a variety of ways. One distinction focuses on market work, and proposes that work is a disutility (a bad thing, an annoyance) that people have to be paid to do. Leisure, on the other hand, is a utility (a good thing) that people have to be paid to abandon. (See, e.g., Gratton & Taylor, “The Economics of Work and Leisure,” 2004.)

However, not all time outside of market work is truly leisure: there’s a big difference between washing the dishes and watching television. An alternative economic approach is to distinguish work and leisure by the degree to which they can be substituted with market inputs: work is something for which market substitutes exist (Aguiar and Hurst, “Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades,” 2006). For instance, the work of cooking can be substituted with restaurants, prepared meals, microwaves, and the like. Watching television is leisure, by this definition, because one “cannot use the market to reduce the time input into watching television (ibid.).” In this approach, “the leisure content of an activity is a function of technology rather than preferences.” It doesn’t matter if you enjoy cooking or not; it counts as work because there is a market substitute.

A synthesis of these might define work as a disutility for which one must be compensated, OR for which one would have to compensate others to do.

Consider an alternative definition by Robert E. P. Levy:

Any human activity or feature of human activity undertaken as a means to some desired state of affairs can be called work, and thus any kind of play is pervasively laden with elements of productive work

Work is different from play only in that the means are valued less than ends

Play is different from work only in that it is already realizing its value by its means, independent of what might come of it.

So clearly there is no dividing line between work and play, just work-like and play-like aspects of human activities.

Here there is no assumption that work is a disutility, nor that work must have market substitutes. Work is functionally defined as the process of bringing about a state of affairs, and leisure as enjoyment of the state of affairs – which may be occurring at the exact same time. Cooking is a bringing about of a state of affairs, namely food. Even within the domain of cooking, there are sub-domains of bringing-about, especially the mise en place. All these preparatory tasks, from grocery shopping to knife sharpening to vegetable chopping to the cooking itself, have market substitutes. Some people enjoy these tasks; others don’t. When thinking in terms of the two economic definitions above (disutility, market substitutability), cooking is a problem and has two solutions: suck it up or pay someone to do it. When thinking in terms of Levy’s definition, many distinct solutions present themselves:

  1. Learn to enjoy the processes of bringing about states of affairs (e.g., figure out why you don’t like cooking, get more familiar with it)
  2. Seek states of affairs that are enjoyable to bring about (e.g., find dishes you enjoy making, learn to sharpen and use a good knife)
  3. Seek methods of bringing about states of affairs that are themselves enjoyable (e.g., find cooking methods or other food-providing methods you enjoy)

These form the theoretical backbone of the hedonic audit – an introspective analysis within mental problem-solving space aimed at increasing utility and decreasing disutility, within whatever present constraints are present.

Problem-Solving Space

One of the most enjoyable mental states is the process of your brain working on a hard problem. In this state, your brain is too busy to bother you with negative emotions or intrusive, unrelated thoughts. It is focused on some goal, imagining different solutions, running up against constraints, reframing, rearranging, turning things inside out.

For me, the distracted state of mental problem solving is what makes cooking enjoyable: with some (adaptable) food goal in mind, imagining how to bring it about in linear (though overlapping) steps. This mental state even makes grocery shopping interesting. It is the mental state that puzzles aim to induce, and I think that mathematicians, engineers, and programmers reliably encounter it. To me, it’s absolutely crucial in order to make knitting interesting. I find it impossible to copy a garment I’ve designed and executed perfectly, even if I very much want more of them; the interesting problem is already solved, and the rest is just robotic.

Mental problem-solving space is a desirable state of mind, but how do you get there? I, at least, can’t force my brain to enter problem-solving space, any more than I can force it to go to sleep. It’s a desirable state of affairs to be lost in a puzzle, but what work brings this mental state about?

There seem to be some clear determinants and characteristics of this mental state:

  1. Learning (research). The mental problem-solving state tends to present itself when one is learning, whether in a new or familiar domain. The problem solving state requires new, relevant information to fuel it. One part of the work of inducing this mental state is reaching out to explore, encountering new information through active research or serendipity.
  2. Practice. The problem-solving mental space can only handle simple problems within a new domain at first. Often, it is practice as much as research that reveals new problems that are interesting enough to distract the brain fully.
  3. Concrete final products. Problem-solving space is focused outward and toward the future, on some nebulous object. This could be an omelet, a sweater, a software application, a marble sculpture, or a poem. Whether or not anyone reads the poem or wears the sweater is of secondary concern. Problem-solving space is about concrete ends, and the shimmering, shifting vision of the final product (even if it is something as intangible as a mathematical theorem) is what drives the enjoyment.
  4. Constraints. Formal puzzles are made of constraints, to which a solution must be found by repeated trial and ingenuity. Form in poetry, ingredient availability in cooking, materials and body shape in knitting, form ready-made constraints. Often the best problems come from non-obvious “constraints” – a core idea that constrains the form of the final product, as in The Five Obstructions.
  5. Downtime. Problem-solving space requires that the mind be at rest, to some degree. It’s extremely difficult to socialize and be in this state at the same time; it would either mean ignoring everyone around you, or if you’re lucky, engaging in some kind of heady group cognition. But the ideal condition for problem-solving space is not lying down and doing nothing. This state seems to come on most reliably when doing something “mindless” – taking a shower, going for a long walk or run, doing chores. Note that mental problem solving is one potential strategy for learning to enjoy mindless tasks.
  6. Linearization. This is probably not characteristic of all problems that induce the problem-solving space, but it seems that the typical problem that does so is a nonlinear thing (an omelet, a sweater, literary characters) that one must figure out how to realize in a linear, step-by-step process. Problem-solving space is where tendrils from the future can reach out and be realized in concrete form by time-bound humans.
  7. Positive affect. While in my experience a good problem can resolve negative affect, entering problem-solving space is more likely when one is already experiencing good emotions. Negative affect tends toward rumination, which is the hellish version of problem-solving space in which there are no insights and no new information, the constraints aren’t clear, and it doesn’t even feel fun.

This last determinate – positive affect – is worth exploring in some detail. The academic psychology theory that comes closest to my own thinking on the matter is Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden-and-build theory” of positive psychology. In her view, negative emotions narrow the behavioral repertoire (the list of things you might do), because they indicate the need to respond to an immediate threat. Positive emotions, on the other hand, expand and build the behavioral repertoire. When there is no immediate threat, the theory goes, positive emotions serve to motivate people to play, try new things, get to know each other, snuggle, and figure out new ways to bring about desired states of affairs. Erickson says:

Joy, for instance, broadens by creating the urge to play, push the limits, and be creative. These urges are evident not only in social and physical behavior, but also in intellectual and artistic behavior. Interest, a phenomenologically distinct positive emotion, broadens by creating the urge to explore, take in new information and experiences, and expand the self in the process. Contentment, a third distinct positive emotion, broadens by creating the urge to savor current life circumstances and integrate these circumstances into new views of self and of the world. Pride, a fourth distinct positive emotion that follows personal achievements, broadens by creating the urge to share news of the achievement with others and to envision even greater achievements in the future. Love, conceptualized as an amalgam of distinct positive emotions (e.g., joy, interest, contentment) experienced within contexts of safe, close relationships, broadens by creating recurring cycles of urges to play with, explore, and savor experiences with loved ones. These various thought-action tendencies—to play, to explore, to savor and integrate, or to envision future achievement—each represent ways that positive emotions broaden habitual modes of thinking or acting.

(Barbara Frederickson, “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions,” 2001. Citations omitted. Emphasis mine.)

To me, positive emotions seem valuable for their own sake. Erickson argues that, in addition, positive emotions are valuable for instrumental reasons: they cause people to be more creative, to solve problems and build relationships.

Taken with the above, this has an important implication: when people are experiencing negative emotion and no threat is present, or the negative emotions are out of proportion to existing threats, simply inducing positive emotion (e.g., with drugs) could help people get into the mental state to solve their problems.

This relates to a strange phenomenon pointed out by Scott Alexander: “the weird inability of intentional psychopharmaceutical research to discover anything as good as things random druggies use to get high.” He wonders why recreational drugs like ketamine and MDMA seem to be proving more effective than anything pharmaceutical research has produced in the 21st century. He offers several alternatives, one being that recreational drugs are selected for doing something (kind of like smacking a computer to get it to work) and not being terribly unpleasant.

I think this is a fascinating question, and it connects to the role of positive emotion in exploration. Psychedelic drugs like LSD, phenomenologically speaking, do more than just smack the computer at random. In a good trip, they transform the world into a new and different place, worthy of exploration. They tone down the perception of tacit social rules, casting doubt on what a proper outfit looks like or what a normal use of outdoor space is. They remove the taken-for-grantedness of objects and spaces. While they are notoriously variable in whether they produce positive or negative affect, they alter the world enough to make it interesting to explore, should positive affect occur. Alexander has written elsewhere that these effects from LSD may even be permanent in some way.

There’s a particular injustice with post-traumatic stress disorder: people who have gone through a horrible experience deserve less suffering, not more, but Nature doesn’t care how you feel. The story that seems most plausible is that evolved responses to serious trauma (threat) permanently increase threat sensitivity, increasing negative emotions and narrowing the behavioral-affective repertoire. The evolutionary etiology of depression is more mysterious, but depression too involves an increase in negative affect and a narrowing of behaviors. Techniques for feeling good are nice for healthy people, but critical for preventing serious suffering in people with defective feeling-good systems.

The Hedonic Audit

Feeling good is hard to do intentionally. The hedonic audit is a method for evaluating and increasing positive affect throughout one’s daily activities.

The first step is to get practice entering mental problem-solving space, as described above. The second step is to turn the problem-solving space onto the problem of enjoyment itself. I think normal people refer to this as “fantasizing” or “planning.” Hedonic problems have constraints, but understanding the constraints can serve to highlight the degrees of freedom that exist.

Since learning seems to trigger the problem-solving state, learning about one’s own enjoyment (and other emotions) is a promising step. How do you feel right now? What is something you used to enjoy, but haven’t done for a long time? Why not? How do you feel most of the time? What tasks do you hate? What makes them bad? What was the best breath you took yesterday? The best footstep?

Unfortunately, you have to actually do things in order to enjoy doing things, but fortunately, even lying around counts as doing something. Research and practice leads to questions and new problems: What could I enjoy? How can I enjoy what I’m doing right now?

The way I experience linearization in problem-solving space is usually imagining myself performing actions in a sequence (again, “fantasizing” or “planning”). Imagining oneself doing something is a good way to get information about how it might feel under different circumstances, without having to actually do anything. However, the forecast will only be accurate if you already have a good working knowledge of what it is like to do the thing. This is why practice and experiment are necessary: to increase knowledge and produce better, more successful fantasies (and, hopefully, better, more successful activities). The “concrete final product” can be an experience rather than a thing, such as doing yoga, going for a walk, or solving a rock climbing problem.

Consider a hedonic microproblem: “I’m not enjoying walking down the sidewalk, how can I enjoy it more?” Here there is no complex long-term answer, only immediate experiment with immediate feedback: slow down, speed up, more or less sway, look around, deep breaths, different music. Sometimes I consider how to enjoy each step maximally. Small solutions to tiny problems build capacity for larger, more complex problem solving efforts, like “How could I enjoy myself for a whole day straight?”

As I have previously written (Deep Laziness, Notes on Doing Things), following Christopher Alexander, positive change is a matter of producing “structure-preserving transformations” – starting with a core, and figuring out how to elaborate on the core in a way that produces wholeness, not mess. These possible transformations are what you’re looking for in problem-solving space: states of affairs that are near the current state of affairs but better, and achievable without destroying the dignity and cohesiveness of the existing state of affairs. Each transformation allows you to begin imagining further transformations from a new starting point.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. 2 tricky examples

    – listening to podcasts or watching YouTube at 2x-4x speed: instrumental work or play?

    – using discretionary resources, including illegal cheats, to solve video game problems

    Example of latter. In the excellent puzzle games two dots and dots etc. which I play, you win little tools as you play that you can use to get out of a tough spot. Interestingly, I almost never use them. Spoils the fun. The game involves connecting like-colored dots on a grid to make them disappear and the tools do things like removing an inconvenient dot. There’s no payoff in solving a level with one of the tools. The fun is getting there unaided within the move budget.

    You might like it btw, a bit like knitting.

    Another angle that occurs to me. When I cook, I find it most satisfying if I go end to end, clean kitchen to clean kitchen. This often means starter cleanup to get to pleasant state, then all the cooking, then final cleanup, preferably even before plating and eating, then put away leftovers etc. Done is turning on dishwasher.

    I think this is a mix of means pleasure and ends pleasure, but also OCD (doing dishes is less pleasant than chopping veggies, but I do it anyway) and some sort of mild ptsd reaction to messy kitchens.

  2. Romeo Stevens says

    Anything with positive hedonic effects is *specifically* screened out of drug trials. Anything that rats will self administer repeatedly is not pursued.

  3. Another complexity is the hedonic treadmill, and the related psuedo-buddhist or perhaps anti-buddhist definitions of pleasure:

    We try to design forms of suffering that give greater relief when they stop than they ever actually caused in the process of perpetuating them, similar to that example of AI’s attempting to break energy conservation from within their simulations.

    The buddhist hypothesis could be phrased as saying that a state of dissatisfaction from seeking goals in the end costs more than it gains, and it’s possible, that there is a perspective from which that is true, and our human tendency to depreciate memories of suffering could distort our view, but it is also possible that in many cases the result is opposite, and the dissatisfaction created by striving for arbitrary goals results in a greater satisfaction when the activity of being appropriately dissatisfied is chosen and applied correctly. This does get a bit more buddhist as far as the past is concerned, as ideally, activities form into a loop such that the fading of the relief or success is instead transformed into anticipation of further relief, rather than trying to retain memory of the original experience. In game terms, the glow of satisfaction of completing a level, after it fades, encourages you to return to the original suffering of failing to complete the next one, in the hope of similar satisfaction. Pining for the very first time you completed some game would not be an encouraged part of this model, though you could gain a different kind of appreciation from reliving a digitised past and increasing your capabilities within it.

    Anyway, I feel there is an interesting border region, between flow and frustration, where a task may be rewardingly hard when completed, specifically because of the way it exceeded the limits of your normal capability.

    There’s probably a temperamental element here too, in terms of stimulation; some people want a more noisy hedonic graph, in order to raise their levels of mental activity sufficiently to appreciate their surroundings, whereas others have a slower response time in terms of reducing their external sensitivity in times of suffering, and so prefer less high frequencies in their curves.

  4. Learning to enjoy activities that are usually viewed as chores was one of the best things that happened in my life. I now experience simple things like doing the dishes with a sense of accomplishment, as restoring the kitchen to its proper order; much like enjoying mise-en-place. And I’m now consciously able to shift from ‘have to’ to ‘want to’ with respect to many tasks. I would advise everyone to seriously consider the practical consequences that ‘hedonic audit’ can bring about. Learn to enjoy what needs to be done anyway.