Some seek novelty; others crave routine. Some go to their favorite restaurant to order their beloved dish; others perk up about the specials with anticipation of a surprise. It could be physiology; it could be habit. Are you the kind of person to eat your cherished chicken parm for the 100th time, or to scan the menu and order something different—searching for a new discovery?
It goes beyond food. Do you re-read books, re-watch shows, follow the same exercise routine, drive the same way to work, walk dogs on the same path, shower in the same sequence? Does pleasure come from getting exactly what you want or from getting what you didn’t know you wanted?
The mysterious and misappropriated Einstein quote of: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results” comes into play here. By finding that comfortable, habitual nook, are you limiting your possible outcomes? Is repetition innocuously reassuring or persistently limiting? “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” But is that bad if you’ve always gotten good results? That is the despairing call of the neurotic. So, it appears to be simple, if you always find good outcomes from your customary conduct—continue. If you are following routines that result in distress—discontinue.
Sounds easy, but we know it isn’t. We dig ruts for ourselves and carry that weight until the ruts become walls and we can’t even see the obscured green grass on the other side. Maybe that well-known chicken parm isn’t a rut, but a familiar gratification. Maybe there is comfort in consistency. But no doubt, that comfort comes with a price—undiscovered joy. What is more fulfilling: the known or the unknown?
Sometimes, I require classics, the familiar, to know before I go. Other times, some voice in my head bemoans my boring sameness and pushes me out of my box. I think my youth was spent purposefully dodging anything I’d enjoyed before, and now in middle-age, I likes what I like. As a child I remember nibbling summer blueberries by the handful. But if my mom said, “Here I know you like blueberries, so I bought you ____” (some blueberry-flavored snack), I’d tense up. At some point, I became so terrified of being pigeon-holed as a blueberry eater, I secretly moved on to apples. (However, blueberries in cereal is still an absolute delight.)
It’s the same reason I can’t have a tattoo. What could I enjoy that much to make it forever a part of me? My favorite animal, color and movie were always changing. I had trouble committing to myself!
My twenties were a carousel of searching—new jobs, places, girlfriends, apartments, and ideas. There were times that I ran from a positive experience simply because it was familiar or faintly reminiscent of a memory. My thirties transplanted me across the world into South Korea where everything was naturally, totally and refreshingly—new. It was a paradise of novelty. Nothing was old; all was unique. The homogeneity of the Seoul buildings, streets, restaurants, and people were very conforming—but not to me. I was a dab of American in a mass of Korean, a dot on a crowded canvas, a drop in a sea at motion. Every corner, every space was unknown. My years of traveling were not spent comparing cultures or cuisines, but more cherishing my reactions to the moments I couldn’t repeat.
Now in my forties, I still enjoy a surprise, but maybe I’m all newed-out. I’ve been in America since August 2021. Back then (in the masked times) I was ordering from local restaurants, switching it up, sampling, testing and searching for new favorites. Some were pleasant surprises, some frustratingly tasteless. When you’re new in town, you can’t have any favorites yet. There are three foods I crave: a dependable pizza, tasty tacos and a good cheesesteak. I found places to satisfy those cravings in Korea, but one thing was missing: Chick-Fil-A.
Korean fried chicken is everywhere, but it’s saucy, boney and lacking waffle fries. I missed CFA so much. Chick-Fil-A entered my consciousness when the only place to get it was at the Exton Mall. It was a tiny local mall, nowhere near as big and expansive as that destination mall—King of Prussia. On special occasions, I would get lucky when my mom wanted some lemonade, so I got some nuggets. In college, it was sold in the Trabant University Center—the centralized eatery on UDel’s Main Street. When substitute teaching at a high school in South Austin, it was the closest, easiest, tastiest, and cheapest option. CFA is not just any restaurant for me—it’s pure pleasure. The kind of pleasure that only repetition can provide. I order the same meal nearly every time: 8 pack of nuggs, CFA sandwich (extra pickles), large fries, lemonade. It’s a lot of food, but disappears quickly.
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” Today is Sunday, the day when no matter how bad you want, no matter how far you’d drive or how much you pay for delivery tip, no chicken for you. For about six months in 2008, I worked two jobs. I’d substitute in some random corner of Austin, finish babysitting the students/monsters (highly variable are children), before driving to a hilltop mall on highway 360 where I worked at Brookstone. Brookstone used to be quite a destination until everything they sold could be purchased online or the public realized the products were just elaborate nonsense. I’d also work weekends there. Usually arriving hungover and sleep deprived to open at 9am on Sundays, I would picture my chicken biscuits with honey and hot sauce as my road to recovery. Mall walkers (i.e. elderly wearing NB shoes) escaping the quickly warming Texas sun breezed by me in conversation and as I’d pass the food court, the darkened lights of CFA would remind me that I’d get no such satisfaction that day.
Hedonic adaptation is the idea that no matter how good or bad life gets, we all have a certain equilibrium where we recurrently settle. Either winning the lottery or falling off a motorcycle, you’ll still return to your baseline. I like to think that if you push enough good into that treadmill of emotions, it’s possible to raise your boundary of bliss. But just wanting something doesn’t make it real (e.g. craving CFA on the Lord’s day). I think knowing that the roller-coaster ride of life will always bring you back to where you started is both settling and distressing. How are we to understand effort or leisure when either one can pull you down or push you up before leaving you exhausted in your bed ready to wake up the same desirous, grouchy, gleeful bum you were yesterday?
What’s life about? We all want to know, and everyone will have their own answer. But really, isn’t the point of life to simply fill the hours between dreams with experiences. If it’s good, smile, it won’t last. If it’s bad, breathe, it won’t last. So it goes, says Vonnegut. If bread-coated and peanut oil-fried chicken bits give some pleasure, eat ‘em up and feel good. Spare a thought for the poor chicken and the workers who prepped and plucked to balance out your delight and then get back to work.