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The “Love at First Sight” Trap: PYP 367

Today's Friday Fertilizer is sponsored by Valentine's Day, and the June 2020 Sick to Fit Retreat in North Carolina. Read all about it here.


I'll never forget my daughter's first birthday party. On a chilly February afternoon, a bunch of friends and relatives gathered at our house to share the joy of the event. We had decorations, presents, singing, and of course birthday cake.

Everything went well, until the cake.

Being good hippie-ish parents, my wife and I had decided that we were going to raise our kids on healthy food only. We made our own organic baby food (it was pretty damn good, actually). No fast food. No refined sugar.

And then our daughter took that first bite of chocolate birthday cake, the one with the raspberry jam between each of three layers of cake, with the rich chocolate icing.

At first, she was shocked.

Then, wide-eyed with delight.

Then, frenzied with the effort of stuffing as much of it as she possibly could into her mouth as fast as she could.

And then – and I'll never forget this moment as long as I live – her eyes swiveled around to look at me and my wife, and she gave us this look brimming with outrage. It said, “You've kept this from me for an entire year! How dare you!”

Love at First Sight

For my daughter, chocolate cake was love at first sight, or should I say, love at first bite.

And to this day, she still enjoys a good slice of cake from time to time.

And many of us have experienced love at first sight, or LAFS, in one form or another.

Heck, I can tell you all the girls I loved at first sight, starting with Diana S in first grade. (The fact that few of them knew I existed did nothing to dim my ardor.)

There's nothing wrong with love at first sight. According to some psychologists, there are times when we know instantly that we've found our soul mate, and it isn't just a matter of biased memory. It's not just a phenomenon limited to mating or masticating or other words starting with M that trigger our pleasure center; I had a LAFS experience of Ultimate Frisbee at Camp Ramah in 1977. And of the doggerel of Ogden Nash in 1981. And my first visit to Yankee Stadium after it reopened in 1976.

So what's the problem with LAFS?

The Problem with LAFS

LAFS is misnamed. It's not really love, not in the deep, abiding sense. Instead, LAFS experiences are typically centered around attraction and pleasure, rather than qualities like passion, commitment, and intimacy.

Think about a person that you love deeply and have for a while. You may not be infatuated with them anymore, but you likely derive far greater personal satisfaction from the seasoning of your relationship.

As Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness write in The Passion Paradox, the whole idea of soul mates originated pretty late in human civilization, with the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. Before then, most societies saw love as a thing that a couple built through time, rather than a prerequisite for getting together: “more a process of cultivation than an instant connection.”

If you think in terms of finding your destined soul mate and recognizing them instantly by the heady rush of LAFS, researchers have found, you're more likely to end your relationship the minute things start getting rocky. Any problem, whether disagreeing on which way the toilet paper hangs (there is a correct answer, by the way, although what it is it depends on if you have cats or not) or arguing over roles and responsibilities in the relationship, becomes proof that this just wasn't meant to be.

In the immortal words of Cole Porter, “So good-bye, dear, and amen. Here's hoping we meet now and then. It was great fun, but it was just one of those things.” (If you're in need of a transcendent four minutes of musical greatness, check out Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of “Just One of Those Things” here.

An Only Child?

This is not a newsletter about relationships, of course. Here we talk about healthy habits, and how to adopt them. And the LAFS problem is directly relevant here.

An old dirty joke:

A sale representative stops at a small manufacturing plant in the Midwest. He presents a box of cigars to the manager as a gift. “No, thanks,” says the plant manager. “I tried smoking a cigar once and I didn't like it.”

The sales rep shows his display case and then, hoping to clinch a sale, offers to take the manager out for martinis. “No, thanks,” the plant manager replies. “I tried alcohol once, but didn't like it.”

Then the salesman glances out the office window and sees a golf course. “I suppose you play golf,” says the salesman. “I'd like to invite you to be a guest at my club.”

“No, thanks,” the manager says. “I played golf once, but I didn't like it.”

Just then a young man enters the office. “Let me introduce my son, Bill,” says the plant manager.”

Let me guess,” the salesman replies. “An only child?”

Get it? (snort)

The LAFS mindset means that we are depriving ourselves of lots of good things that fail to deliver instantaneous pleasure.

And while it's no tragedy to be averse to cigars and booze (and, I'd argue, non-Frisbee flavors of golf), the joke makes its point clear in the punch line: there are things that are worth spending time getting to like.

If you're still unclear about this, I recommend the Greg Brown song, “If I Had Known,” which ends with this assessment of his first sexual experience:

“And, oh, if I had known–I'd do it all over again. Some things just get better and better and better than they've already been.”

LAFS vs Slow Burn Love

So LAFS not only sets us up for failed relationships; it also makes us give up on experiences that aren't instantly transcendent. And for most of us, that includes healthy habits and activities that don't rock our world from Minute One.

I hear this all the time: “I tried kale, but I didn't like it.”

And this: “I started jogging, but just didn't get into it.”

And this: “I downloaded a meditation app, but I didn't enjoy it.”

When we give up on things because they don't trigger LAFS, we are by definition eliminating the possibility of adding the healthiest things to our lives. That's because the healthy stuff, in our consumer culture, is surrounded by foods and activities designed to be addictive.

The food industry makes its money by creating products that achieve the “bliss point” of sugar, salt, fat, and mouth feel that make us crave greater and greater quantities.

Big tech battles for our attention using AI to create apps and experiences that we can't turn away from. Likes, infinite scrolling, autoplay next episodes, and variable rewards all turn us into payoff-hungry gamblers pulling slot machine handles and ignoring the rest of life.

And everything else pales in comparison to the always-available pleasure hits that our brains interpret as Love at First Sight.

Give a kid a candy bar, and see how excited they get by an apple after that.

The real reason it's hard to do healthy things is that they tend to cost us in the moment and provide benefit in the future.

Working out: Hard and unpleasant now. Feel and look and perform better later.

Choosing a salad and baked potato over a cheeseburger and fries: Unsatisfying now. Much more satisfying later.

We Like What We Know

And here's the thing about our preferences: we like what we're familiar with.

Study after study has shown that we like flavors that we've eaten a lot in the past. We like people that we hang out with a lot. We like words that we're familiar with. The more we see a face, the more attractive we rate it. We value (imaginary) stocks higher if their (imaginary) ticker symbol looks like a real word we've seen before.

Which means, when we try something new – a vegetable, a sport, a meditation practice – we probably won't love it at first.

But we can learn to love it if we persevere.

In fact, we love things more when we have to grow to love them. When we struggle at first, but stay with it. That's when we move past LAFS into passion, commitment, and intimacy.

Lots of people tell me that they're “not a runner” because they don't enjoy running right now. Sure, it's fine for me because I love running, but they haven't found their exercise thing yet.

I hated running when I started. Most of the runners I know hated it at first. We grew to love it because it's an intrinsically good-for-us activity, and with time, we made the connection. Now I get a dopamine rush as I lace my sneakers in anticipation of how good I'll feel when I'm on the move.

Lots of people tell me that they hate vegetables. Lucky for me that I'm a kale and Brussels sprouts fan, but that's just not their fate.

Again, these are acquired tastes. You acquire them via a two-pronged strategy: 1) stop eating hyper-palatable crap, so your taste buds can adapt back down to normal; and 2) keep eating foods you don't like until you like them.

The Secret of Slow Burn Love

The behavioral science phenomenon known as “present bias” or “future discounting” says that we care much more about what's happening RIGHT NOW than what will or may happen in the future.

Which is why it's so hard to do things that don't feel great now in pursuit of future benefits.

Luckily, there's a secret: we can fall in love with HARD RIGHT NOW.

We can experience a dopamine rush from the self-esteem we feel when we step up.

We can luxuriate in the pride we experience as we take on a difficult challenge for the sake of BETTER.

It's simply a matter of choosing that perspective.

I was talking with Josh this morning about how much his abs are hurting after a really tough core workout. He was saying how much he loves the feeling of this pain, and how useful it is as he goes about his day:

“I think about grabbing a Clif bar, but then I feel the ache and remember who I am and what I care about. So I grab a bottle of water and wait to eat until my next real meal.”

Sore abs don't feel great, until they do.

They mean pain and limited mobility, until they mean you're the sort of person who does hard things in pursuit of BETTER.

They suck, until they represent your best self.

And at that point, the hard things stop being so hard. You start enjoying kale, and running, and meditating. And so you get to look for the next HARD, to chase the next BETTER.

Hero Practice

So the next time you think about something that you “should” do but don't like doing, or something that you “should” add to your diet even though you're not a fan, take a higher perspective.

Focus less on the future benefit, and more on the person you get to be right now in order to manifest that future benefit. Not the person you “have to be,” or “should be,” or “need to be,” but the person you “get to be.” The person you WANT to be.

Pretty much every Hollywood movie has a moment when the hero gets tested. Actually, two moments.

The first time, the hero fails the test because they lack some important quality: courage, maturity, skill, drive, or knowledge.

The purpose of the plot, from that point on, is to put them in situations where they are forced to develop the quality they're lacking.

And the climax occurs when the hero is tested a second time, for much greater stakes, and this time emerges victorious.

You are the hero of your life.

And every moment can be that second test.

Whether it's just one bite of kale, or three minutes of walking. What's important isn't the magnitude, but the direction and intention. The habit can grow with time. The resolve exists in perfection in this moment.

Which relationship would you rather be in, at the end of the day?

Carlie Rae Jepsen: “Hey, I just met you and this is crazy. But here's my number, so call me maybe.”

Or Neil Young: “Because I'm still in love with you, I want to see you dance again. Because I'm still in love with you, on this harvest moon.”


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