Shortly after turning thirty I received an email from a psychology research team at Harvard: “Ten years ago you participated in a study of health and eating patterns. At that time, you stated a willingness to be contacted in the future about this study. This study is now entering its fourth decade having collected information in 1982, 1992, 2002 and, now, 2012. We are asking you to inform us about your current health and eating habits.”
I laughed out loud. Ten years have passed but things are pretty much the same: I’m still more than willing to fill out a survey in exchange for a little cash.
One question asked whether I had ever taken laxatives as a way to lose weight. My first reaction was, what a brilliant idea! I had never even thought of doing this. Does it work? Is it unhealthy? But wait, wouldn’t doing this be far more uncomfortable than feeling full or guilty about overeating? And then it hit me. For as long as I can remember I’ve been making decisions based on how to be more comfortable. Why do I do this?
Turning 30 original thought number one: trying to be comfortable is the greatest fool’s errand on our genetic to-do list. Comfort is enchanting precisely because it’s so enigmatic, so shifting and so vague. In other words, comfort is a perfectly useless attachment. After a while, you forget that you’re sleeping on high thread-count sheets. And it turns out fancy kitchen equipment is annoying to clean. Owning nice things is a hassle. As the justification for major life commitments, being comfortable almost always leads to sub-optimal outcomes.
At the end of the survey they told me that they’d be in touch in 10 years. I started to marvel at the fact that these researchers could live on such a long, slow timeline for such seemingly low stakes. How do these people not forget to run the survey? Do they have a little sign in the lab next to the reminder for the last person to turn off the lights? I pictured an elderly, dying psychologist reminding a younger colleague on his deathbed, “Don’t forget to email Jeremy Philip Galen that questionnaire about anorexia and exercise, okay?” I fantasized about the eulogy. “Dearly Beloved, today we remember Professor so-and-so, he was an ambitious man. For instance, he once came up with this idea to ask undergraduates how many times a week they pull the trigger. Then he decided to ask these people the same questions a decade later. He lived a rich, full life.”
Turning 30 original thought number two: trying to be extraordinary is a huge waste of time. Looking back on things, it’s entirely likely that one of the most important things I’ve ever accomplished is contributing to this survey. This survey could change health policy for all I know. I haven’t become a millionaire or published a novel or saved any lives. But I’ve made it to survey #2, goddamn it!
Facetiousness aside, “success” is undergoing a massive revision these days and it’s worth noting that ordinariness, that villain of our internal drama, is starting to experience a renaissance. A bunch of bad checks were written by individualism-obsessed baby boomers and they’re finally bouncing.
There’s a health and eating habits email waiting for me in 2022. I’m almost positive I won’t start taking laxatives to lose weight before then, but I am hoping to make peace with the fact that devoting time or even the rest of my life to an ostensibly miniscule and perhaps uncomfortable goal isn’t a resignation of some sort, it’s a victory.