A Case For (and Against) Everyday Joy


This summer, I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. The air was tepidly held by the hills enveloping the Hollywood Bowl, the stage was iconically arched, and the Hollywood sign gawked back at every wine and cheese board seated before it. I sat through all 149 minutes in a trance of raspberry-tart red wine and the steady hum of mosquitos smugly tucking in at my exposed ankles. The cinematography indulged shamelessly in the color wheel, the score was so iconic it was trite, and I actually believed I was enjoying this so-called seminal work. My engagement lasted until approximately the moment when the chimp threw the bone and it cut to the spacecraft, a scene I had already parsed in my high school film class. I scoffed at the hoots and hollers, but also fleetingly feeling like I got it, I braced myself to enjoy what I knew I should. But then the rest of the film happened, and I was like: okay, and? 

I make decisions of preference almost immediately. Call me presumptuous, but every single thing I hold nearest to my heart was decided upon within my first moments with it. The converse was true of 2001, no matter how hard I tried resisting the instinct to detest it. 

In the opening sequence of what might just be the antithesis to 2001, the film Amélie’s leading lady is characterized by the things that she enjoys: dipping her hand into barrels of dry grains, cracking into glazed surfaces of crème brulée with tiny spoons, and skipping stones at St. Martin’s Canal while “cultivating a taste for simple pleasures.” Amélie’s pursuit of ordinary joy is the catalyst for the adventures that follow, made shockingly simple by the childlike optimism that colors her pursuit of the unknown. It is through her unbiased joy that Amélie teaches us the potential for invaluable, plain loveliness within the quotidian.  

If I were to dilute my conservative upbringing into one surviving aphorism, it might be that being a good person means not giving into any of the various impulses that are part of being human. In response, I developed a range of internal habits rather strange for a young child: for example, deliberately seeking extra indulgences was gluttonous (see: stash of Hershey’s kiss wrappers in my bookcase), and I never (ever) woke up past nine a.m. on a Saturday. 

Growing up and out of my rigid, juvenile hyper-self-awareness has meant flowering into the pleasant discovery of the joy that is in my own hands. It took me this long to realize that I am not always obligated to find the closest parking spot, to take four freeways on the fastest route home, or to follow my grocery list to the T. I can, if I want to, just buy a slice of cake. I can also switch what book I am reading should I develop a sudden hankering for a completely different one. Grappling with why exactly I am suddenly open to my own cultivation of pleasure, I resign to the simple fact that life is simply too short. (At least I didn’t have to see my life flash before my eyes to come to such a revolutionary conclusion.)

I was shocked to realize that this epiphany was not about the discovery of such simple pleasures as much as it was about the recognition of my own free will. I learn a lot from my younger sister, who frequently stays home from events, avoids impending deadlines, and makes plain buttered noodles for dinner in the name of “protecting her peace.” I take a page from the book of the people who would walk into the ice cream shop I once worked at, presumably without occasion. I frequently catch my friend Talia purchasing ribbon in assorted colors for the sake of spontaneous adornment and take notes. 

My own freakish self-regulation, symptomatic of long-term neuroticism, has until recently stopped me from diverting from utilitarian habits. Inadvertently, this has meant regulating pleasure for the sake of keeping it special and sweet. Pleasure in moderation. When comparing subconscious differences between an anxious being like myself and my aforementioned younger sibling who would never give up a good time because of an inconvenient commute, or worse, wasting gas, I come up with one thing: self-awareness.

Why do we so seldom choose to devote free will to simple pleasure? I can’t imagine I am the only person like this. My mother, after all, honestly prefers fluorescent lights in our house for their illuminating abilities (i.e. pleasantness is secondary to visibility). What exactly moves us to believe we can’t include sweetness in our everyday lives? What defines the difference between a day where we do everything in the name of productivity and one where at each corner there is a different barrel of grain at which we do not think twice before stopping and plunging our hands? 

I remember the Goethe quote I read in a footnote of my senior year copy of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, “Nothing is harder to bear than a succession of good days.” I think about this a lot—in the case of overly lucid dreams, forgotten assignments I swore I wouldn’t neglect, oranges gone bad in anticipation of a mythological peak ripeness. But as I try to understand why exactly we aren’t all, naturally, Amélies in our own right, I think of that quote too. I think of self-preservation that is also second nature and rooted in a generalized anxiety about things potentially being too good to be true. 

When I was in high school I was obsessed with the idea that nothing is “completely good.” I thought myself profound to come to this conclusion while my friends were taking long drives with no objective but to “go for a drive” and wasting their gas. Now that just reeks of jaded adolescent drama. Obviously, nothing is completely good, and certainly nothing is good all the time. 

There are so many things that have the potential to bring us great joy which are simultaneously completely no-stakes. The French phrase “metro, boulot, dodo” onomatopoetically summarizes the experience of the human “rat race,” and when we learned it in my freshman year French class, my teacher paused to remind us that there is always opportunity to choose to enjoy the monotonous days the phrase composes. Was I crazy for finding both sides of the concept equally overwhelming? Maybe it’s easier to choose that droning three-beat tune than to consider entertaining every possibility of self-determined joy that is out there. To me, figuring out how to formulate the perfect balance between indulging in sweet things and avoiding drowning amongst all those good days was a riddle. 

The truth is that I have never actually finished Amélie. Frankly, I don’t care. I rapidly grow bored of most movies, regardless of charm. I have also finished many films I was conditioned to adore (see one multicolored Kubrick quote, unquote masterpiece) and remain unchanged. 

The truth is also that gas expenditure makes me uneasy. I don’t enjoy going for drives, nor 2001: A Space Odyssey, nor sleeping in. I am grateful for rejecting pleasure in the process of learning it. Amélie encounters her favorite things and takes them in stride, so through trial and error I ardently pick up the things that do bring me joy—spontaneous glasses of juice, walking out of a movie, taking my time—and they are all the more special for it. Life is not a riddle if you remember that each day you can either go knuckles-deep into the grains or you can rush past them, and both are equally important. 

The story of our pleasures is one of growth. I acknowledge and embrace my human compulsion for restriction. I grasp the novelty of pleasure by recognizing my history of self-regulation and how I am now pleased to resist it. I discover joy not just in the feeling or the acts that render it, but also the ways it surprises me. As Wendy Cope writes about her orange, which I assume is perfectly ripe because I do want to believe in that sweet place, “it made me so happy, / as ordinary things often do /… The shopping. A walk in the park. / This is peace and contentment… I love you. I’m glad I exist.”