Difficult Pleasures

Posted: January 14, 2015 in Consumerism, Culture, Idle Nonsense, Taste

Everyone has acquaintance with what I call the menu problem. One goes to an unfamiliar restaurant and studies the menu to make a selection from among a broad range of options. Those options may change (or not) based on seasonal availability of quality ingredients or some chef/menu designer at the home office in Columbus, Ohio, changing things up to create buzz in a bid to attract greater market share. (McDonald’s rolls out or resurrects moribund sandwiches with surprising regularity.) No matter, one must content oneself with the eventual decision or else suffer buyer’s remorse.

But the problem lies not so much in the grass-is-greener syndrome of food choices not elected but in the presumption that an optimal choice is possible from myriad options. Put another way, if one can make a poor choice (say, something not to taste), then it’s implicit that one can make a superior choice, maybe even one leading to a peak experience — all this simply by showing up and paying (or overpaying) the bill. A similar quandary lies behind the problem of brand competition and fragmentation, where available options for the right (or wrong) toothpaste, cola, cell phone and plan, credit card, TV show, movie, etc. multiply and create bewilderment if one deliberates too much. Even for someone with effectively unlimited funds, time limitations result in the inability to evaluate even a majority of slated offerings.

And therein lies the rub: conspicuous consumption is too easy and carries with it the suggestion of ecstasy if only one chooses well. Little may be done to earn the enjoyment or reward, and without some struggle, getting what one wants often feels hollow. In contrast, honest gratification over even meager portions, quality, or results often follows on hardship and extended effort. For example, those who have roughed it out in the wilderness know that doing without for a spell can transform something as pedestrian as granola into an unexpectedly superlative experience. Or in the classroom, an easy A is unappreciated precisely because students know intuitively that it isn’t really evidence of learning or achievement, whereas a hard-won B– might be the source of considerable pride. Under the right conditions, one might even feel some justifiable righteousness, though in my experience, hardships endured tend to produce humility.

One of the sure-fire ways I discovered of triggering euphoria is endurance racing. When the finish line finally swings into view, I recognize that in a few more moments, I will have accomplished the distance and be able to stop pushing. My time and place relative to my age group are irrelevant. I also know that I can’t have that rush if I don’t first sacrifice and suffer for it. Further, contentment and euphoria cannot be sustained for long. Rather, they typically come at the end of something, inviting a nostalgic glow that fades as normalcy reasserts itself.

I’m writing about this because I have rubbed elbows with some folks for whom the most perfect, exquisite pleasure is their expectation for everything all the time because they use their wealth to procure only the best at every turn. Maybe they subscribe to some form of lifestyle service, such as this one, and have others pampering and praising them round the clock. I contend that they don’t actually know how to be happy or to enjoy themselves because, when something goes awry or falls short, the fits and conniptions would embarrass a three-year-old. See, for example, this. Such shameful behavior also puzzles me because the current marketplace is a veritable cornucopia (not yet the notorious deathtrap from The Hunger Games). Improved distribution and delivery make stuff available cheaply and easily to nearly everyone with a computer and a credit card. Yet many take it all for granted, grind away miserably at service providers who fail their standards, and fail to recognize that most of it is poised to go away. The current Age of Abundance is shifting toward an epoch-making contraction, but in the meantime, some feel only discontentment because their appetites can never be sated. They don’t understand that difficult pleasures and cessation of suffering are far more gratifying than the lap of luxury.

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