We love our belt-busting Thanksgiving dinners and our door-busting Black Fridays. We gorge on unending buffets and unlimited data. And these days, we refuse to wait even a minute— let alone a week—to watch the next episode of our favorite TV shows. There’s little apparent shame in such gluttony: We don’t hide our House of Cards Netflix benders; on the contrary, we broadcast them to the world.
But what should we make of our immoderate tendencies? How do they reveal who we are, and how can we harness our never-enough impulses once and for all?
We asked Denison professors and staff members to weigh in on the many ways we take things to the extreme, and what we can learn when we overdo it.
WHEN INSPIRATION STRIKES
The case for -- and against -- creative marathons.
Let us first be clear: The muse rarely keeps a 9-to-5 schedule. Many artists dash out the first versions of their work in a matter of days, even hours. Legend has it that Jack Kerouac drafted On the Road in three weeks. And it’s said that Walt Whitman cranked out a complete novel, Franklin Evans, in a week.
In some ways, says poet and English professor David Baker, that makes sense. Unlike many other activities—lifting weights, learning to knit—methodical practice in the arts does not necessarily lead to predictable improvements, so Baker doesn’t hold to a strict schedule. “Because there isn’t a pattern, when I have something right on the tip of my tongue, I’ll try to stay with it until I can’t do it anymore,” Baker says. “There are forms of excellence that aren’t moderate, like artistic creation and certain kinds of invention. You have to be open to the possibilities.”
But he adds that artists shouldn’t consider those all-night creative benders a burden, but a type of extravagance. The work may benefit from that compression and concentration, but everything else suffers. “It creates an anti-social frame of mind that makes you put off everything else and say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to be a father for a day, or grade these papers, or go to the store,’” he says.
Even with that focused effort, brilliance is no guarantee. That Whitman novel, Baker notes, wasn’t exactly a tale for the ages. And while a brilliant vision can sustain a creative spree, much of the real work happens later, through countless revisions and finetuning. “When you’re trying to make something fantastic, there’s no hurry,” says Baker. “A one-page poem might go through 50 drafts, but the real trick, the real work, is to make it so good that it looks like it was easy.”
BINGE BETTER READING
We asked Associate Professor of English Diana Mafe to suggest titles from an underappreciated author worth bingeing on. She recommended three detective novels by Malla Nunn: A Beautiful Place to Die, Let the Dead Lie, and Blessed Are the Dead. “Nunn’s novels are smart and addictive whodunits that keep you guessing right until the end,” says Mafe. “Set in apartheid South Africa, her novels also shine a spotlight on race relations and racial justice.”
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS TOO MUCH JOY?
True hedonism is tougher than you think.
In popular culture, hedonism has a reputation for sensual excess. (A Google image search of the term, for example, produces a clutter of photographs that are, well, pretty revealing.) But hedonism is a whole lot more than the pursuit of carnal pleasures, says Jonathan Maskit, visiting assistant professor of philosophy. “You’d be hard-pressed to find folks in the Western philosophical traditions who would endorse that view,” he says. “There’s a lot more nuance.”
For example, Maskit says, philosophers often distinguish between simple and refined pleasures. We might experience pleasure eating an icecream cone on a summer afternoon. But there are also deeper pleasures that arrive only after time, like the joy of playing a sport or learning a musical instrument. “These activities require a huge investment of time and work, an enormous amount of discipline, and sometimes, even physical pain,” Maskit says. “But we pursue these things because we find them fulfilling and worthwhile—we derive pleasure from them, despite the pain.”
That sense of deliberateness matters. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, temporarily gave up her job as a writer to labor at brutally difficult, low-paying jobs as research for a book about the working poor. It sounds like the exact opposite of hedonism. Yet hedonism might be the perfect description if she framed that working experience as something that gave her the larger pleasure of writing a book, Nickel and Dimed, that changed the conversation about the working poor in America.
Pleasure, Maskit says, doesn’t necessarily come from excess, but it often comes from intention. “We might want to remain agnostic on what things are worthwhile and what things are not worthwhile,” he says. “But a philosopher will want you to give some account of why you’ve chosen a specific way to spend your time.”
In the end, the pursuit of pleasure can be a noble goal—but it helps first to understand what true pleasure is.
BIOLOGY OF THE BINGE
When one is too many and a thousand is never enough, the problem isn’t our willpower, but our own biology.
Addiction takes many forms, but the neurobiology that underlies these dependencies looks strikingly similar in most cases.
Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology Susan Kennedy has been studying stimulant use for years, and she says that while we view alcoholics differently from shopaholics, the fundamental biology may be identical.
“What someone becomes addicted to may be determined by their personality or other factors,” she says. “But the neural pathways that are active when you’re engaged in something pleasurable, and repeated again and again, are no different for gambling, for sex, or for drugs.”
Our brain’s mesolimbic pathway—a so-called “reward pathway”—plays a major role in addiction. The pathway transmits dopamine, a pleasure neurotransmitter, whenever we engage in something pleasant, like eating food. And after we have a pleasant experience, it makes sense that we try to find ways to repeat what we’ve just done.
Scientists theorize that those who become addicted to a substance or an activity may have lower levels of dopamine to start with, so a surge of the chemical might have a bigger impact— and lead to a greater chance of repeating dangerous behaviors.
Reducing and preventing binge behaviors is difficult, but the stakes are high. Binge drinking at colleges across the nation has led to hospitalizations and in some cases, deaths, and schools (including Denison) are facing rising expectations as they work to address the problem.
Of course, adds Kennedy, in some cases, our desire to binge goes beyond biology. In May of 2015, she and a student researcher reported results of their own study of explanations for binge drinking on campus. They believe those explanations may include nuanced stress-reduction and social components. “It’s complicated,” she says. “But it’s also really important.”
BINGE BETTER MUSIC
What’s that? You still have Taylor Swift’s most recent album on repeat? Hey, we won’t tell. But if you’re ready to shake it off for something weightier, Professor of Music Ching-chu Hu recommends The Complete Gustav Mahler Symphonies, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Sony). “I’ve come to love the richness of sound, the soaring melodies, and the ‘cinematic’ aspects of Mahler’s music,” says Hu. “Leonard Bernstein was the first to record all of Mahler’s symphonies, and this set is a digital remastering of his fantastic 1960s recordings with the New York Philharmonic. If you’re in the mood for a 14-hour binge, this is it.”
STEPPING OFF THE TREADMILL
A life of more doesn’t guarantee happiness. What about a life of less?
The you-only-live-once mentality may have infused our society so completely that it has its own acronym, but eventually, all that YOLO bingeing—on eating, drinking, calendar-packing activities—can get to be too much. Then what?
For Marci McCaulay, director of Denison’s Center for Women and Gender Action and one of the founders of the Blue Heron Sangha in Columbus, part of that do-everything detox is about becoming more mindful of what we’re doing from moment to moment. “It’s so easy to get caught up in just doing, doing, doing—it actually can end up feeling like something’s missing. It can affect your relationships with others, or even with yourself,” she says.
For years, McCaulay has been inspired by the teachings of Thích Nhâ‘t Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk whose work focuses, in part, on mindfulness. “Mindfulness can be something as simple as looking out the window and seeing—really seeing—the beautiful white snow,” she says. That slowing down to more fully experience the world can sound simplistic. But often, she says, refocusing our energy helps us see how much of our lives we’ve been living on autopilot. Mindfulness, she says, is about being fully attuned to our emotions, and not just the pleasant ones. Part of the power of mindfulness comes in experiencing and accepting those emotions with compassion and without judgment.
In the end, says McCaulay, mindfulness is getting away from the chaos of the binge in favor of zeroing in on the only thing we really have: this moment. “Mindfulness is about compassion, non-judgment, loving-kindness, empathy, and deep listening,” she says. “In the words of Thích Nhâ´t Ha.nh, it’s about finding peace in one’s self and peace in the world.”
Are charitable binges the next big thing?
Most of us take a pretty dim view of binges. But fundraisers are starting to see the benefits of harnessing the “go big or go home” ethos. Giving Tuesday (#GivingTuesday), for example, was launched by the United Nations Foundation and the 92nd Street Y to encourage people to give big to charities, not retailers, on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. The larger goal was to find a way to counteract the shopping excesses of the holiday season.
Denison, too, has found ways to crowdsource giving in a weeklong fundraising spree. This year, in celebration of the 10th annual “After Work with Denison… Everywhere!” events worldwide, a small group of donors issued a challenge: If Denison attracted 1,000 donors—at any level—over the course of a single week in January, the group would donate an additional $150,000 to the school’s coffers.
The goal was a stretch, says Director of the Annual Fund Makiva McIntosh ’02: The previous one-week record was 863 donors, a total that occurred during the final week of a fiscal year.
Still, the challenge offered joys that simply mailing a check couldn’t match, says Vice President for Institutional Advancement Julie Houpt ’75. “A lot of people are goal-oriented and competitive,” she says. “And I think there was energy and a sense of urgency because of the deadline.”
In the end, McIntosh watched her computer screen until the close of the campaign on Friday at midnight as the final donors sent in gifts that, added to the challenge grant, brought the total up to nearly $200,000. When the dust settled, 1,155 donors had contributed.
And while the challenge was massively successful, McIntosh admits it probably won’t become an annual event. The best binges, she says, are the ones that aren’t overdone.
Stuck in a Binge? BREAK THE VICIOUS CYCLE
Tired of staying up too late watching “one last episode” or trying to stay focused during an unwanted binge of back-to-back (to-back) meetings? Try these three ideas to stop a binge in its tracks.
TAKE A BREATH. Pay attention. “You don’t necessarily need to focus on breathing slowly, just be aware,” says Marci McCaulay. “Follow the breathing. Experience that connection of mind and body.”
CHANGE YOUR ENVIRONMENT. Want to prevent that Thin Mint binge? The simplest solution is to dump the cookies; just seeing them on the counter can be the cue that triggers a sleeve-sized serving. “Environmental stimuli can retrigger bad behaviors,” explains Susan Kennedy.
TAKE A WALK. Take your time. Use the movement to quiet your mind. “Just take in what’s around you,” says McCaulay.