For all my life I’ve wanted more. More money, more stuff, more space to store the stuff, higher status, more Twitter followers. Yet these rarely bring lasting happiness, and they pale beside the plainer delights.
Why do the greatest pleasures tend to be so simple? A touch. A taste. The murmuring wind. An evening spent reading with one's cat. Having worked so hard to complicate our lives, why do we delight in the inelaborate?
I want to address this paradox in two parts: this week the pleasure, next week the complexity.
The "simple joys" part may be the easiest to clarify, since nearly all such joys touch some essential act of living. Evolutionary psychologists will say that we savor a good meal because our brains are wired to find pleasure in sustenance. We stir at a lover’s touch because our wetware wants to reproduce. And so on. We needn’t follow the Darwinians into speculating about origins to appreciate how most of these joys turn us toward hearth and home.
The Darwinian story feels incomplete for two reasons (and philosophers have identified hundreds more). First, it doesn’t fully explain the thrill of curiosity and contemplation, which remain the simplest of all joys and, in some ways, also the most complex. For these we need nothing but our own mind and perhaps a bit of quiet. Second, it doesn’t account for general life satisfaction. It’s hard to see how my general sense of flourishing is built on any combination of the pleasurable 'modules' on which evolutionary psych relies.
It’s a suggestive story, one of those Rousseauian how-we-might-have-got-here-from-there sort of tales. But it’s unfalsifiable and little more than a fun parlour game.
I think that a clearer answer lies within our own experience.
The simplicity of most pleasure has less to do with the moment itself than our experience of it. Simple pleasures loom large for us because they’re the only times that we stop to appreciate what’s happening. We either think "what an amazing soup" or "I’m so grateful for his friendship" in the moment, or we gathered these reflections afterward in forming a pleasing memory. In both cases, though, we were mentally present enough to appreciate what we were experiencing. Our attention made the difference.
So what happens when we stop paying attention?
I barely remember most of my life. That’s true for everyone, of course, but my childhood amnesia lasted through the first gray whiskers. I sympathize with Montaigne when he says that "there is no man so unsuited for the task of speaking about memory as I am, for I find scarcely a trace of it in myself, and I do not believe there is another man in the world so hideously lacking in it. All my other faculties are poor and ordinary, but in this I think I am most rare and singular and deserve to gain name and fame thereby."
My extended family went on a weekend vacation to Arkansas in my senior year of high school. It was, by all accounts, a good time. My parents thought I was there—"remember that time that Mema had a tick bite on her but and lifted up her gown to show us?"—and it would make sense for me to go, but we couldn’t recall for certain. I wasn’t in any of the videos, which felt dispositive to me, until it became clear that I was the one behind the camera.
And so it goes through my early 20s. Vacations make the problem clearest because they are designed around memory making. We took one every summer at least, at first in our old 1970s RV with its three-hued brown interior, and later in a more rig that was too expensive for how little we used it, especially when we lost money on its sale. But the allure of more is hard to resist, and it seems I learned from the best.
At any rate, I remember almost none of those vacations or anything else from adolescence. Some fleeting impressions, the occasional odd detail or two, but that’s it.
And I’ve always wondered: how could this be?
The best answer that I can offer is that my mind was always elsewhere. On all those summer trips, for example, I’d spend the long drive sprawled in my little bedroom above the cab, reading books or playing Metroid on my original Game Boy. Vacations meant eternal boredom punctuated by tourist traps. Splitting my attention between Four Corners and The Hardy Boys’ Secret of Skull Mountain, neither left an impression.
That seems to have changed as I’ve gotten older. I can identify three causes for this. 1) After entering the world on my own terms, I began experiencing more emotions than I did in my flat and untroubled childhood. 2) After my first brush with depression, I began experiencing those emotions with higher highs and lower lows, a bump in clarity of detail like the shift from old television to 4K. 3) Oh and also these memories are more recent, so perhaps nothing changed at all. Let’s check back in a decade.
One thing I can say for certain: I’m much better able these days to appreciate goodness while goodness is unfolding. I expect to remember so much more of my 30s than my 20s for the simple reason that I notice it more.
Where was my brain for all those years? Typically it was here, in the future. Always in the future. I lived a sort of prelife, always preparing myself for what might happen and never appreciating what did.
And this, I suspect, is at the root of the paradox identified above.
It’s not that the simplest pleasures are too base or low, or that we don’t appreciate them fully. It’s that we’re seduced by our future possible lives, the ones in which we’ve finally made it, finally gotten our act together, in which we lost those extra pounds and feel great about ourselves and finish that novel we plan to write. Our future selves—so capable, so suave, so ready for NaNoWriMo—keep us in their moment and not ours.
And this has three effects. It not only distracts us from the simple pleasures we do experience. (Not that we need more distraction; I find it hard enough to endure a meal without doomscrolling.) It also leads us to search constantly for ways to realize that future self, look up recipes and diet tricks and skincare products. This, I suspect, is the great source of our overly complex lives.
But worst of all, it devalues the present moment. It makes the now feel somehow shabbier, a little unfinished, and from this all manner of discontentments flow.
Can we fix this? Can we avoid forever shifting between memory and reverie? I think so. But doing so will mean abandoning something so core to us, so entangled in our identities, that it will feel like losing a part of who we are.
We must learn to surrender ambition.