Should we fast from sex and other pleasures?
Before I get into the science of why we should, I want to make one observation about the lies we have been fed by most sexperts who peddle the idea that if you are not having sex with your partner two to five times per week then there must be something wrong with the relationship. Trashy magazines thrive on this message as much as personal trainers thrive on the message you need to work out in one-hour intervals. Both are simply not true. Both create a state of fear and guilt.
So much has been written in recent years about the benefits of intermittent food fasting. Research shows that fasting puts us into a state of ‘autophagy’. Put simply it means the body goes into self-cleaning mode, which boosts the immune system and slows down ageing.
It begs the question; does fasting from sex and other pleasures also have health benefits? Yes it does. In fact it is so much more powerful because fasting from pleasures impacts our mental and emotional health in a profound way.
Fasting from pleasurable things short-circuits our tendency to lose appreciation for them. Psychologists call this tendency, hedonic adaptation — the idea that no matter how good something makes us feel, over time we take it for granted and lose the thrill. We return to an emotional base line, even after the most exciting of purchases, like a new car or a new house.
The problem is that this baseline is shifting. Why? Because we live in an era of extreme affluence where money and technology are making pleasurable things so accessible. Relationships are only a swipe away, so too is our favourite restaurant. Luxury cars, fine foods, bags, shoes, computers, phones; the list of comforts and pleasures is growing year on year and yet, people are unhappier than ever.
Depression is skyrocketing. It makes no sense, right?
Hedonic adaptation also works for us during periods of war and economic hardship because it forces us to appreciate what we have and returns us to our baseline. But during periods of affluence it works against us. We lose appreciation for everyday comforts, food, people and sex. People who stray in a relationship are a product of hedonic adaptation. They lose the thrill and go chasing it elsewhere.
People who binge on food, alcohol, gambling or even drugs are chasing to fill that same emotional gap.
Therefore, the enemy is not hedonic adaptation. It is a useful evolutionary survival mechanism, much in the same way the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is. The enemy is hedonism itself and the lack of control we have over our appetites.
Psychologists use two tools to manage hedonic adaptation. And I will add a third one. Fasting.
The first technique involves practising gratitude, which is familiar to most; to be mindful and appreciative of all that you have. To give thanks. How does this help? I think only marginally. This might be a provocative and controversial position I am taking. You see I believe that being grateful only gives us a temporary (even fleeting) positive state before we gorge on that huge cone of chocolate ice cream or, buy that next pair of shoes that we do not need but is “oh so necessary because it is in a different shade of blue” to the one we already own. So I ask you. Is it ok to over-indulge just because we are grateful for it? Not in my books, because being mindful enough to stop and feel grateful for an over-indulgence does not make it less of an indulgence. And it does not teach self-control.
The second technique is to practice variety. Try a different routine. Eat vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate, try a new sex position or read a book together instead of watching TV, go to a different holiday destination, or try a macchiato instead of a cappuccino. It is arguable that this technique, if not practised correctly, can make matters worse by feeding our hedonistic tendencies. So, you buy a Chanel bag instead of an LV one. That’s variety for you! It is still an over-indulgence. And again, it does nothing for our self-control.
Which brings us to fasting. This is much more effective because it directly strengthens our ability to control our appetite for all manner of desires and pleasures. It goes deeper than practising variety and forces us into a state of gratefulness. It is no coincidence that all major world religions practice some form of fasting. And not just from food.
How do you practice fasting? Simply abstain and practice moderation from all of your favourite things.
Activity: What is your list of fasting favourites?
List all the things that you absolutely love to do. The more you love them the more you should want to protect them. Because the more you fast from them, the more you will appreciate and savour them.
If you love working, you need to practice abstention by taking regular breaks from work. My performance is off the charts when I return from holidays. Do you love dark chocolate? Indulge occasionally in small portions. You should see my face when I am savouring every molecule of chocolate after a month of abstention. My wife says it is priceless.
Some of my favourite things that I regularly fast from include: a fine dining restaurant, wine (esp. Yarra Valley Pinot Noir), Macallan scotch whisky, driving a convertible (any), Italian cheese and bread, drinking TWG teas, listening to my favourite music (currently The Weeknd), watching my favourite TV shows.
Remember that fasting is completely relative depending on what it is. So when I say that I fast from my favourite tea, it does not mean I go without for days. I simply have one cup per day in the afternoon as a special treat, instead of opting for that ‘bottomless cup’.
I’d love to hear your list of favourites and how you would fast from them.