Every time we plan meals and shop for food to a budget we eat really well and get excited about our food. When we go out and buy whatever we feel like we end up getting completely bored with what we’ve got. Shouldn’t this be the other way around? Isn’t the accepted wisdom that spontaneity and freedom from restrictions are what make for a great life?

The counter-view, of enlightenment through self-denial, is not a glamorous concept (especially its poster-boy, the emaciated old man on the mountain). There is a weird kind of paradox here, though, which has at its heart the crushing realisation that discipline and denial are what really lead to fulfillment and happiness.

Trying to circumvent this harsh lesson is what’s led us to celebrity diets, low-fat foods, electrically-stimulating toning pads, engineered corsetry, fat-absorption tablets, stomach-stapling and having your jaws wired shut. I mean, everyone knows (surely?) that eating sensibly and exercising is the way to maintain a healthy weight. And, to get back to the food shopping, planning and control can get you to really think about what you eat, in a good way, while filling your basket with whatever takes your fancy can just make you feel a bit lost.

So, if we know this, if we know deep down that discipline and denial are the ways to achieve many of the things we want to achieve, how is it that we still can’t do it? The simple fact is this: however much you want the end result, the reality of the here-and-now is a stronger force than the mental image of the reward. And there are even greater forces at work. Anyone who’s ever smoked will know that it’s the miserable reality of giving up that gets to you. The idea is great, but giving up smoking means spending every day, for the rest of your life, not smoking. Continuing to smoke is as easy as lighting a cigarette.

Using discipline and denial as routes to achieving the kind of life we want takes a particular mindset. That’s not to say that the mindset can’t be cultivated, but it takes hard work. And you really have to want it.