Three Hundred Seconds

Modern consumer society does a lot of weird things to our brains as it programs us to desire instant (and therefore more profitable) gratification. This takes many forms, but nowhere is it stranger and more illogical than in our attitudes towards food and health in general.

Now I am not talking about how we all should survive on cabbage leaves and strained quinoa until we reach our ideal weight. Or how everybody needs to embrace jogging so they can live a longer life of jogging. I am not talking any of that pie in the sky (mmm…. pie) crap that the health food cult industry tries to sell you.

No, I am talking about the immediate future. Not six years from now. Not just in time for swimsuit weather. Not even tomorrow. Heck, not even this evening.

I am talking about five minutes from now. How will this make me feel five minutes from now? If I eat this donut, will I feel lousy after the sugar crash? If I eat those fries, will I feel bloated and gross five minutes from now? If I have this complicated coffee/dessert thing from Starbucks, will this actually help me with my day, or will it leave me feeling strung out and confused?

And the thing is, for must of us products of a consumer culture (emphasis on product), our minds instantly rebel at the thought of taking that into consideration. Instant gratification means instant. Not five minute or even five seconds from now, NOW. We automatically feel like thinking about how something will make us feel five minutes from now threatens our deeply entrenched consumer gratification system that supplies our need for reward, and so we shy away from the thought. We come up with reasons why we can’t or won’t do that. We do what it takes to make the bad thought go away. Myself included.

But peep this : what if it is the very things we do and eat that makes us need so much instant gratification in the first place?

Maybe every time we give in to the desires for an unnaturally strong artificial stimulus, we are accepting the terms of a very bad deal. We get a few moments of pleasure in return for feeling really crappy for a while, and we don’t notice this because to us, it’s totally normal?

We think of this kind of empty feeling as natural, and obviously some of it is, but a lot of is, I think, artificial.

What if the cure for the modern malaise is simply to stop eating crap? Would it make a difference? Would we be able to make the transition?

And again, I am not talking about some distant fitness goal that might as well be in orbit, it would seem just as attainable. And I am not talking about what you “should” do in some inane moralistic way that heavily implies that the real reward for healthy living is a sense of smug superiority. I am not talking about what your doctor, your mother, or the American Heart and Lung Association wants you to do.

I am talking pure selfish hedonism here. Pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness, feeling good versus feeling bad. Would you rather spend more time feeling good and less time feeling bad? Is a minute of pleasure worth feeling crappy for two hours? Are we getting good value for what we are eating, or are we settling for less?

And why is it so hard to think about the subject? The logic is flawless. Obviously, if someone said to you, “OK, the deal is that you will feel really good for a second, then terrible for two hours…” we would say “Um, no thanks, that sounds awful.

And yet, we make that terrible decision all the time, myself included. That’s what consumer culture does to us. It make us dependent on instant gratification from superstimuli. So dependent, in fact, that it blinds us to the non-immediate consequences of our actions. We cling to our unhealthy foods and activities because it truly feels to us that it would be “impossible” to live without them, and without them, life would not be worth living.

But billions of people go on living without our modern luxuries every day. They don’t seem to think life is not worth living without them. So clearly, that can’t be literally true. If you didn’t have these things, you would still go on living.

Maybe the real problem is that modern society sucks the life out of us in a million little ways that we can’t even perceive because we are habituated to it. Our supply of happiness is drained away by everyday life, especially our jobs, and so we become dependent on these “safe” (in that they don’t threaten how we live our lives) megadoses of artificial reward in order to continue to function.

“Why do you stay in that cage?” asked the man. “It’s not even locked. ”
“Because the food is really good!” said the monkey. “And I have my cage set up just the way I like it!”

That’s an exaggeration, obviously, but it gets the point across. Modern life depletes us and we are, in theory, free to leave that behind (quitting your job optional) at any time just by changing our habits.

But we all know it’s not that easy. We are bound by chains of artificial need, and our entire worldview is shaped by that. We can’t see outside the cage, not because there is something wrong with our eyes, but because modern society has trained us not to look there because looking there makes us feel sad and confused, and why should we put up with that?

Even someone who starts, in many ways, outside the cage and just keeps going, like myself, stays in the cage to do it. I might see further than others and I might be less restricted that some of the rest of the monkeys, but I am still in here with you all the same.

I just have a spot with a view.

I will talk to you nice monkeys again tomorrow.

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