“When a per­son can’t find a deep sense of mean­ing, they dis­tract them­selves with plea­sure.” ~Viktor Frankl

When Izzie was a baby, she loved to be rocked and sung to. She was espe­cial­ly fond of James Taylor, Dolly Parton, and The Beatles (all the things she now strums on her gui­tar). She would gaze at me, blue eyes wide, enrap­tured. It was clear when she had had her fill; first, a slow blink, then a shift­ing of her gaze over my shoul­der instead of into my eyes. 

When humans are oper­at­ing from a healthy ner­vous sys­tem, they cycle nat­u­ral­ly between being con­nect­ed and then dis­con­nect­ing. Babies are real­ly good at lis­ten­ing to the sig­nals of their brains and bod­ies, intu­itive­ly know­ing when to be engaged with their world and when to turn away and process.

Charles Darwin called this our aes­thet­ic instinct. The idea that com­pe­ti­tion is our most instinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tic of life is a myth and actu­al­ly only half of what Charles Darwin wrote about in regard to the ori­gin of species. We have a dri­ve to sur­vive, yes. But we also have a long­ing for con­nec­tion, beau­ty, and plea­sure. After all, if sex weren’t plea­sur­able, our species would move toward extinc­tion pret­ty quickly.

So we cycle through a nat­ur­al rhythm of con­nec­tion and dis­con­nec­tion, of fast­ing and feast­ing. We binge and then digest, show up in the world and then retreat to our beds.

It has been a sea­son of feast­ing for me. After two long years of chal­lenge and strug­gle, my fam­i­ly shift­ed bless­ed­ly into a sea­son of rel­a­tive calm. As we had abstained so long from true plea­sure, I dove eager­ly into a time of hedo­nis­tic feast­ing. My friends dubbed this my Gatsby Summer, by which they mean it’s been a sea­son of trav­el, par­ties, and self-indul­gent plea­sure-seek­ing. Sleeping in, stay­ing up late, scream­ing at loud con­certs and all-night dance par­ties, read­ing for­get­table “beach books” in the ham­mock while sip­ping pros­ec­co, whiling away entire week­ends in the pool, sun­burned and shift­less. My aes­thet­ic instinct has been on point, find­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for lazy deca­dence every­where I look. I’ve been lit­er­al­ly drown­ing myself in dopamine, moji­tos, and sour­dough bread (that is itself drown­ing in tru­ly egre­gious amounts of salt­ed butter). 

But life ebbs and flows. Let’s not for­get that it was the end of the Great War that gave rise to the “Roaring 20s” that Jay Gatsby so enjoyed, and that time cul­mi­nat­ed in the Great Depression. Life is hard, and then it’s momen­tar­i­ly beau­ti­ful. And then hard again. Rinse and repeat.

I find myself grow­ing weary and bored of con­stant enter­tain­ment, am feel­ing a pull back towards rou­tine and duty, more struc­ture and pur­pose. Carefree and cod­dled was nec­es­sary, but it’s time to get back to the work of liv­ing (and it would be nice to fit back into my jeans again). When we’re con­stant­ly exposed to plea­sure-pro­duc­ing stim­uli, our brains adjust and, even­tu­al­ly, we need more and more plea­sure just to feel “nor­mal.” This so-called dopamine deficit state even­tu­al­ly leads to a gen­er­al sense of ennui. Like a brood­ing, age-old vam­pire who has seen and done it all until there are no sur­pris­es left, we feel gen­er­al­ly dis­sat­is­fied with our existence. 

We have been encul­tured to equate feel­ing good with feel­ing con­tent. But the first is fleet­ing, while the lat­ter is the back­bone of a good life.

For me, get­ting the wheels back on my men­tal and phys­i­cal wag­on means more med­i­ta­tion and few­er mar­gar­i­tas. More inten­tion­al move­ment and less idle loung­ing. Picking up a book that chal­lenges me instead of read­ing anoth­er total­ly for­get­table thriller. More ser­vice to oth­ers and short­er peri­ods of time indulging my every whim. 

My Gatsby Summer was a beau­ti­ful dis­trac­tion, but not a tru­ly mean­ing­ful one. Most of our great­est growth in this life­time is born of pain. I’m cer­tain­ly not say­ing I want to return to the stress and heartache of my last few years, but I also do not want an exis­tence that is devot­ed sole­ly to plea­sure seek­ing. Because humans – of which I am one – are eas­i­ly bored and will start seek­ing out that plea­sur­able dis­trac­tion in all the wrong places. 

So we cycle through a nat­ur­al rhythm of con­nec­tion and dis­con­nec­tion, of fast­ing and feast­ing. We binge and then digest, show up in the world and then retreat to our beds. Looking for­ward to now digest­ing my Gatsby Summer.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.