Is Success a Matter of Getting Addicted to the Right Things?
Athletes say they get a "high" from exertion. I... do not.
“Hey Jason, can you totally change how I view myself and humanity as a whole using only Arnold Schwarzenegger movies?” That seems like a weirdly specific thing to ask but... I think so? Here, let’s start with this one:
“It's as satisfying to me as cumming is, you know, as in having sex with a woman and cumming... I am like getting the feeling of cumming in the gym; I'm getting the feeling of cumming at home; I'm getting the feeling of cumming backstage ... I am cumming day and night.”
Yes, those words were spoken by one of the most famous human beings in the history of the species, who at one point was the leader of the world’s 5th largest economy and probably a legal technicality away from becoming president. The “cumming day and night” quote is from the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, chronicling a young Schwarzenegger’s attempt to win yet another international bodybuilding title. The film single-handedly made him a household name, popularized weightlifting as a mainstream hobby (do you have a gym in your neighborhood? Thank Arnold) and contains the above rant that, I believe, reveals a crucial truth about both the present and future of civilization. Let’s hear the whole thing from the man himself:
“The greatest feeling you can get in a gym or the most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym is the pump. It feels fantastic. It's as satisfying to me as cumming is, you know, as in having sex with a woman and cumming. So can you believe how much I am in heaven? I am like getting the feeling of cumming in the gym; I'm getting the feeling of cumming at home; I'm getting the feeling of cumming backstage; when I pump up, when I pose out in front of 5000 people I get the same feeling, so I am cumming day and night. It's terrific, right? So you know, I am in heaven.”
So now here’s the question, and I’m dead serious when I say this is everything:
If you got the same orgasmic feeling from lifting weights as Arnold did, would you have Arnold’s muscles?
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Yeah, I know there are other factors at play -- genetics, nutrition, opportunity, upbringing, environment, etc. But is it possible that the primary difference between you and prime Arnold, or at least between you and some much more muscular version of you, is nothing more than the amount of sheer physical pleasure you get from the exercise? Because I can tell you right now, lifting weights does not feel like an orgasm to me. It feels like a boring, tedious, painful waste of time.
So when society showered Arnold with awards while shaming the chubby kids like me, was it really just congratulating him for having a brain that dispensed the same pleasure chemicals for exercise that others get from watching porn, or eating donuts, or doing both simultaneously? It seems easy to imagine that, in another reality, Arnold would be diagnosed with a disorder and treated. I mean, nothing about this is normal:
“Hold on now, Jason,” you say, “you’re wasting all of this time on something I’m pretty sure Arnold was just saying as a joke, the man was a notorious prankster.” Okay, let’s take it from the opposite angle: Serial killer Peter Kurten, aka the Vampire of Dusseldorf, claimed he spontaneously ejaculated while murdering his victims, then came again while remembering the murders. He was cumming day and night. So you know, he was in heaven.
Same question: If you got the same pleasure from murder that Kurten did, would you commit his same crimes? “No,” you’ll likely reply, “because I’m not an evil piece of shit!” But please keep in mind that the wrongness of the act is precisely what made it exciting to him; if I gave you Kurten’s fetish/disorder/whatever, the more evil you regarded the act, the more intensely you’d want to do it. It sounds less like a hobby and more like an addiction, where the danger just gets absorbed into the high. Likewise, if a doctor had told 1977 Arnold that he’d die in a month unless he stopped lifting weights, do you honestly think he’d have been able to quit?
“No, I’m sorry, but I would just choose to not indulge a destructive urge, no matter how pleasurable.” But are you sure that’s how it works? Over 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021 alone heavily implies that some pleasures are simply too strong to resist, at any cost to our wellbeing, social standing or moral code. Any question of, “What would you do in this person’s situation?” has to include their whole situation, including feeling the same urges with the same intensity.
Side note: I’m not drawing a direct comparison between Arnold and history’s most depraved serial killer, but I will say this: Part of what made Pumping Iron an immediate hit is that Schwarzenegger himself comes off as a scheming, unrepentant monster, a malignant narcissist who gleefully bullies and manipulates his competitors. And oh, look, here’s a study indicating that higher testosterone increases tendencies toward narcissism and corruption. Feel free to discuss the implications of that on your own.
Okay, it looks like exploring this further will mean setting aside that silly Pumping Iron speech and examining a source that comes with a little more depth and nuance: Terminator 2.
The reason Arnold’s cyborg is a hero in this film after playing the villain in the first (aside from the actor becoming a much more bankable star in the interim) is that he was reprogrammed by rebels to help their side in the humans vs robot conflict. But the terminator otherwise seems to operate with sentience: It can carry on conversations, form relationships and make moral choices. At the end, it even makes the ultimate, Christlike sacrifice by dunking itself in lava so that its destructive technology won’t proliferate.
So ask yourself: What would this choice feel like, from inside the terminator’s head? What does it mean to be both sentient and “programmed” to switch sides in a genocidal conflict? Isn’t that a contradiction?
Well, I think we know exactly how it would work: The terminator would feel like it’s free to choose, but would be wired to experience bad feelings when deviating from its programming and euphoric sensations for obeying. Heroism would feel fantastic, it would be as satisfying to the terminator as cumming is, it would be getting the feeling of cumming while fighting the T-1000 at the mall, it would get the feeling of cumming while rescuing John on a motorcycle, it would get the feeling of cumming while sacrificing itself in lava. So you know, it was in heaven.
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And that, of course, brings us to Total Recall. Here, Arnold plays a construction worker who, in a series of convoluted and frankly implausible events, realizes that he is not who he thinks he is: He finds out his memory had been erased and, when he recovers it, realizes he’s actually a badass killing machine (the best news any man can get) but that he was working on behalf of the evil oppressive government (less great news, though not bad enough to offset the awesomeness of that first thing). Once those memories are restored, however, he now chooses to side with the rebels and become a Good Guy.
That’s a common plot at this point (“Amnesia that makes you forget entire previous personality and moral code” has its own TV Tropes page) but again, is that how it would really work? If you erased young Arnold’s personality -- I mean the actual guy -- how long would it take him to rediscover that pumping iron feels like cumming? More importantly, how long would it take him to realize that humiliating and dominating his opponents feels even better? The 1977 Arnold bears no resemblance to the kindly grandpa we know now — if the man mellowed out with age, was it because he became wiser, or because some hormone levels changed?
Either way, at this point it’s clear that Arnold was dedicated to exploring these themes in his filmography. Remember The Sixth Day, the film in which Arnold gets cloned against his will, complete with identical memories? And it triggers a whole crisis about what makes an individual? Just the fact that his first impulse was to kill his clone should give you something to ponder for the rest of the day.
Clearly, we can all agree that Arnold will turn out to be by far the most prescient thinker of his era. That’s because at some point in the future, we will know what specific wiring in the brain causes some people to feel more pleasure from exercise than others, or why some brains can’t resist the rush of gambling while others find casinos so boring that they’d literally rather watch a magician. “What the hell are you talking about? Gambling is just degenerates hoping for easy money instead of honest work!” You know there are prescription medications that list compulsive gambling as a side effect, right?
So will there be a day when we can engineer a medication or gadget that causes brains to get rapturous pleasure from virtue and feel nothing from vice? To create geniuses for whom studying physics gives them the feeling of cumming day and night? If so, remember that such a thing could just as easily be used for nefarious purposes. Imagine if the system wanted to subjugate the population via a method that offers the zombification effects of opioids but without the social and health costs. Like maybe some device that dispenses little hits of pleasure at quick intervals, just enough to keep you sedentary and satisfied, just endlessly sitting and staring down at your hands. Terrifying.
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I really do like the main thesis of this article, but as someone who's been bodybuilding/powerlifting for the past 8 years I will say that there's a bit of nuance to Arnold's statement, at least as far as my lived experience goes. When I first started exercising I HATED it. Whenever I was forced to run in gym class, or my parents pushed me to do an interminable series of team sports in the desperate hope that their incredibly unathletic, rail thin son would somehow be bullied by coaches into becoming sociable, I experienced nothing but misery.
After I decided to try and get into weightlifting after various health problems related to being undernourished and sedentary popped up, guess what, I STILL hated it!! It wasn't until after almost 6 months of half-hearted sessions in the gym that I started to get an endorphin rush from training. I started to actually look forward to improving the numbers from my previous workouts, and became excited about the prospect of pushing myself as hard as I could. All of the stress from the day would melt away as I focused all of my effort on moving the weights.
I think that this principle of originally hating something but then finding joy in it after an initially rough learning period can be applied to SO MANY things. Sticking to a decent sleep schedule, social interactions, eating healthily, hell even goddamn dark souls!
So I think one healthy take away from Arnold's original message (that I'll admit isn't readily apparent in what he says and needs clarification) is that certain originally unpleasant tasks can BECOME enjoyable and rewarding if enough time is put into them.
This post resonated with me.
Over lockdown I got a virtual reality headset and started playing a bunch of VR games. Some of these are quite active - I'd end up drenched in sweat after a long session. I found a service, "YUR.fit" (as in, "Why You Are Fit"), which tracked the calories you burn in VR. There's some gamification to it - monthly "seasons", where you get a medal at the end of each month based on how well you did. I've gotten a platinum medal every month since the service left beta - 20 months of doing, on average, 60-70 hours of cardio per month. I'm trapped in a gamified exercise loop. I lost a lot of weight - so much that started getting kind of gaunt, and had to really increase my calorie intake to get back up to a healthy weight. My resting heartrate dropped from 90 to 60. Despite the good results, the habit definitely has some of the hallmarks of addiction - I feel worried and anxious if I'm falling behind on the monthly target, I forgo social activities to spend more time exercising, I keep exercising even when I've injured myself because I cannot permit the streak to end.
I just need to find a way to make things like "getting a better job" or "learning piano" just as addictive and rewarding.