I grew up in southern California and, like most people there, I thought In-N-Out Burger made the best cheeseburgers in the universe. In-N-Out is legendary in SoCal, and I longed for their iconic burgers and shakes for years after leaving for college.
Even later as a blossoming foodist in my early years of graduate school, I gave In-N-Out the benefit of the doubt among fast food chains because of their commitment to “freshness”, and would occasionally stop there on the long drives home down the I-5.
But as the years went by and my dedication to real, fresh and insanely delicious food continued to develop, I noticed my taste for In-N-Out declined. Today it would take a substantial bribe (think 4-figures) to get me to even consider taking a single bite of a Double Double.
My disinclination to indulge today in something I loved in the past has nothing to do with health. As long time Summer Tomato readers know, I don’t approve of deprivation and believe there is room for anything in your healthstyle if it means enough to you. If I still wanted In-N-Out occasionally, I would eat it. But I don’t.
I realized the reason for this recently while reading Dan Gilbert’s excellent book, Stumbling on Happiness. In it Gilbert describes a phenomenon called experience stretching, in which your definition of happiness expands and changes relative to the breadth of your experiences. He says, “Once we have an experience, we are thereafter unable to see the world as we did before. Our innocence is lost and we cannot go home again.”
In the book, the experience-stretching hypothesis is used as a negative example of why we become snobs as grown ups and can no longer be happy with the simple things. I think Gilbert is right-on in this sense, and it explains why I’m still miserable after 16 years in the cold fog of San Francisco just because I grew up on the sunny beaches of Orange County. The weather here will never compare to the weather there, and I’m ruined for life because of it. Booooo.
But as a foodist, I think there can be an upside to experience stretching. While it is undoubtedly true that I’ve developed a taste for higher quality food and this puts pressure on me to spend more time and money meeting those standards, there’s also no denying that this makes it much easier for me to be healthy. Whenever I ask friends and readers what the hardest part of eating healthy is, the allure and convenience of fast food is one of the most common answers. But if you ask someone who is already a foodist, they’ll say the hardest parts are dealing with the social pressures from friends and family who haven’t yet learned to appreciate their healthstyle. Fast food doesn’t tempt them at all.
It’s normal to believe that you’ll always love fast food when it’s still a regular part of your daily life, but once healthy and delicious start working with each other instead of against each other, your tastes and standards will shift upward and fast food will lose its appeal. When you no longer crave the stuff that keeps you unhealthy, you win.
Although experience stretching can definitely breed snobbery, it is not inevitable. Appreciating a more broad range of experiences doesn’t automatically turn you into a jerk. You can develop a new set of standards for your own palate, but you aren’t a snob until you start judging others for not sharing the same opinions.
Gilbert argues that experience stretching is a barrier to happiness, because it leaves us constantly demanding nicer things for us to be satisfied. When it comes to food and health, however, higher quality standards are exactly what we need.
While experience stretching may leave you less happy with an In-N-Out burger, you will be just as happy (arguably more happy, but it’s all relative) with the new, delicious foods you’ve come to appreciate. More important, you’ll have the added contentment that comes from looking and feeling your best.
Has your palate changed because of experience stretching?
Originally published September 25, 2013.