"Are you not entertained?" roars Maximus after killing yet another opponent in the African stadium. The crowd of poor plebeians wildly cheers. It is undeniably clear that the bloodthirsty denizens of the ancient Roman Empire were getting their sesterces' worth in the movie Gladiator.
Your life probably is not as exciting as those depicted in the movie, but take a moment to ask yourself what you were doing the last time you fulfilled your own personal desire for enjoyment. Perhaps you ate a tasty burrito at lunch or watched an episode of your favorite TV show on Hulu last night. Maybe you cracked up during a hilarious conversation with a friend. But did you feel thrilled by fear or novelty? Probably not.
These small pleasures do make the day tolerable by splitting up our torrent of work into swallowable chunks. But short of the rare adrenaline junkie, the modern life could probably do with some more fulfilling sources of pleasure. Don't take this in the wrong way, as it certainly is a good thing that public fights to the death are no longer a source of enjoyment for most people. But it is worth asking ourselves if our standards of pleasure may have become rather low these days, and if so, how to fix the situation. The developers of Facebook have compiled a graph of the “Gross National Happiness Index,” put together from data compiled by people’s status updates. Those living in the United States tend to hover around the apathetic happiness level of zero, unless it’s a holiday like Halloween or July 4. This lack of any particularly strong feelings of pleasure may be explainable if we take a look at our ancestors.
Let us imagine the leisure of an earlier time and take the aristocratic Victorian woman of the late 1800s, who, at the end of a long week of social engagements, finally gets the time to read Charles Dickens' latest installment of Oliver Twist. She only gets to read material like this when she has no more dinners to organize or social gatherings to attend, and her husband is out smoking with friends on a Saturday night. A novel such as this would have allowed a woman to escape to the considerably foreign world of an orphan on the streets of London. Those tight corsets of the Victorian period held in a lot of repressed desire, and fulfilling such a forbidden pleasure as reading the mix of escapism and social criticism embedded in such novels would have been exhilarating for a well to-do woman at the time.
Yes, a temporary escape from economic poverty and emotional repression definitely played into the joy a Roman plebian or Victorian socialite gets from fulfilling their desires. But equally important to them was the thrill of trying out something new, unpredictable and quite possibly dangerous. Lord Layard, an economics professor at the London School of Economics recently mentioned how “in the past 50 years, average happiness has not increased at all in Britain or in the United States—despite massive increases in living standards.” This means that what causes happiness must be something more than an increase in comfort or luxury. Perhaps true human pleasure is a feeling of liberation that only comes with a clean break from the humdrum daily experience we are accustomed to and can only be attained through something completely incomparable to our previous experience.
In the 21st century, mild enjoyment is easily available in the form of fast food, libraries and the Internet. But the trade-off of this ease is the strong temptation to continue enjoying the same old things, at the risk of being amused so mildly it barely releases a single endorphin. Our minds become starved of those new experiences that build neural networks and open up new vistas to the imagination. So let's go skydiving and BASE jumping and maybe, if we are lucky, our hearts will be racing with a dizzy feeling of freedom.
Nikhil R. Mulani ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Pennypacker Hall.