Where are you getting your pleasures these days? I know it’s our patriotic duty to have (economically productive) fun now, but I’m struggling. Perhaps it’s time for a dopamine fast. In this dubious biohack, you avoid anything that might give you a bump of hormonal satisfaction for a while in the hope of “resetting” your jaded brain. The Silicone Valley tech bros were excited about it for five minutes last year before they moved on to, I don’t know, microdosing with horse semen or something. Dopamine’s role is vastly more complicated than this implies – and if pleasure “fasting” works at all, it may not be strictly for dopamine-related reasons – but abstaining from what you crave for a limited time is ancient and uncontroversial.
Arguably the pandemic era is an all-you-can-eat dopamine buffet: we’re sucking every speck of stimulation from food, sex and screens. But – and bear with me here as I contort the facts to fit my argument – it also feels like we’ve been through a patch of dopamine fasting already. March and April brought a sharp paring-down of pleasures: there was nowhere to go, almost nothing to do and we couldn’t get a Tunnock’s Teacake for love nor money.
Letting our floor get exceptionally dusty then hoovering the filthy corners is an intense sensual pleasure
It definitely “worked” on some level: I was genuinely elated when we found an apple pie in the Co-op. Observing this spring unfurling day by beautiful day was dizzying and I remember watching birds for full half-hours without feeling compelled to post “My mealworms bring all the birds to the yard” and a fuzzy picture of a dunnock. Our first takeaway was a sensual overload: poppadoms, wondrous crispy orbs! It was an oddly wholesome time, despite, or because of, the dread and the grief.
But now, as we enter a grisly “new normal” of the government gaily reopening anything that might conceivably pay business rates, leaving us to conduct individual risk assessments for a trip to Lakeland for a spatula, I’m as jaded as any tech billionaire. Mouth-bored and screen-addled, I’m sick of the things I can have and maddened with longing for those I can’t. I don’t want to visit a model village: I want to plan ahead, visit my sister in Paris, or just give my sons some hope of getting their lives back on track.
None of that is happening, so I’m resorting to ever more esoteric pleasures: I have become a discount Jean des Esseintes, the hero of Huysman’s Against Nature. In Against Nature, the definitive text of fin-de-siècle decadence, an ennui-sodden aristocratic aesthete tries to pique himself into feeling something, anything, with elaborate sensory experiments: I’m the same now. It would probably be healthier to take a day or two away from the dopamine roller coaster, but where’s the fun in that? I don’t have the budget to bejazzle (shelljazzle?) the tortoise like des Esseintes, but this is what worked this week.
Housework is terrible and endlessly necessary: like Linda in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, I am indignant it is not rewarded with eggs for tea and being “made to rest for hours”. However, it does deliver one intense sensual pleasure: letting our tiled floor get exceptionally dusty over several weeks then hoovering the filthy corners with the powerful vacuum cleaner nozzle. The perfect effort-reward ratio delivers a powerful high that lasts for hours.
Related but distinct is the gleeful process of unclogging the slow-draining bathroom sink. I have scaled up through several grades of chemical witchcraft to a multi-potion solution strong enough to dissolve bones that has to be mixed in a specific order (possibly under the full moon). The thrill at finally getting a lazy glug and backwash of black unspeakableness as it did its work was indescribable. I might clog another one just to do it again.
I’m also deriving a perverse kick from saying something provocative and bad-tempered just loud enough that the person at whom it is directed might hear. Usually deployed in a domestic setting, for an extra frisson, I’m now trying it outdoors. “Why don’t you just lick my face, you’re close enough,” I mutter as someone brushes past. Will it degenerate into a pavement rage incident or will I get away with it? It’s neither healthy nor advisable, but delivers a pulse-quickening buzz.
When the municipal dump is more over-subscribed than Glastonbury, securing a slot to dispose of a mountain of packaging and a deceased printer this week was a heady rush. Sadly, the timed entry was so efficient the whole experience was over in minutes, leaving me with a fistful of printer cartridges (refused), my memories and an adrenalin hangover.
Friends are reporting similar highs from wallpaper stripping, bin maintenance, tracking the recycling truck and “pretending to run a plant spa”. This is what happens when you make people stay home for three months: we have become a nation in thrall to our weirdest impulses. I’m not sure “the pub” is going to cut it now.
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