What Spongebob Can Teach Us about Binge Culture

“Yep, this is great. I might as well rename this town ‘Squidward’s Paradise,’ or perhaps, too much paradise.”

– Squidward Tentacles, Spongebob Squarepants

Have you ever discovered a song that sounded so catchy, you repeated it over and over until it became dull, boring, and perhaps annoying? If so, then you’re not alone.

The first time a catchy song is played on the radio, it sounds deep and rich, and you might convince yourself that it could never become boring. Listen to the same song one hundred more times, however, and I guarantee that it will no longer sound the same as when you first listened to it. Why does this always happen?

You know what they say, you can’t have too much of a good thing. This adage reflects both the physiological and practical limitations of prolonged indulgence in pleasurable activities, such as listening to music, playing video games, viewing Internet pornography, and eating fast food.

Physiologically, at some point the brain becomes less sensitive to previously arousing stimuli, operating under a “pleasure-adaptation” principle. This phenomenon is likely due to neural adaptation in the mesolimbic dopamine system and other key brain areas involved in generating feelings of reward. I’ll use the example of the inability of chronic drug users to re-achieve the same highs as before (“Wow, an article about Spongebob, and he brings up drugs.”). Unfortunately for them, their tolerance levels raise to the point where near-lethal doses are needed for them to induce a slight buzz, and as a result progress to harder substances, get sick from withdrawal, or even die. It’s the course that addiction runs.

More practically, it wouldn’t make sense for us to wipe our memories clean so that we could, for instance, listen to that catchy song forever without it becoming dull or boring. This is not only because it would waste a great deal of time, but because the mind was built for novelty. If anything, evolution wanted us to experience as many new things as possible to maximize the chances of discovery and survival, and by extension, sexual reproduction. Haven’t you ever wondered why over 50 percent of marriages end in divorce? The answer is that over half of once-happy and fulfilling marriages inevitably fail because couples stop being physically attracted to each other, causing them to cheat, argue, and eventually file for divorce. Simply put, the modern institution of marriage is counterproductive to spreading our genes as far as possible, so naturally we become bored after we’ve had sex with the same person for the past 20 years (note: this is not meant to be taken as an attack on marriage, however; I understand that it is a crucial component of adequate child rearing).

The human brain’s constant “scrapping the old” and “embracing the new” also conflicts with modern binge culture. Perhaps the best illustration of the conflict between the adaptation to pleasure and binging is the episode of Spongebob Squarepants where Squidward moves into the town of Tentacle Acres to get away from Spongebob and Patrick (see Season 2, Episode 6).

The basic premise of the episode “Squidville” is that Spongebob and Patrick draw the final straw with Squidward when they accidentally blow up his house. Thus, he moves away to the affluent town of Tentacle Acres that is exclusive to his kind.

At first, Squidward’s new residence seems like a dream come true. He takes up bike riding, shopping for canned bread, interpretive dancing, and playing the clarinet in a trio. However, he engages in these activities so much and so often that eventually he loses complete interest in them, and resorts to harassing the other residents with a reef blower to keep himself occupied.

I love this episode because it teaches kids that when things are taken in excess, they become repetitive and lose meaning. No other episode in a children’s television show can quite depict the consequences of empty binge behavior as accurately as Spongebob did. Furthermore, it poses an important question that we should all ask ourselves: how much “paradise” is considered “too much”? How long does it take before our finest indulgences become stale?

Most of the time, the reason we become bored or disinterested in previously interesting activities is because we chase nonexistent extremes, and thus manufacture ways to be miserable because we’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel good. It’s the same reason why the ecstasy of winning the lottery eventually evaporates, and you revert back to your original level of life satisfaction. Assuming you win $1,000,000, you’ll need to win $2,000,000 next time to feel profoundly ecstatic again. But even then, it won’t necessarily feel the same as that initial jackpot.

It all comes back to this idea of neural adaptation in that when you indulge in any activity that gives you pleasure, you set a new standard by which all other subsequent pleasurable activities are measured up to. In other words, when you find something that brings you joy, that becomes the new norm, and from there you’ll constantly attempt to emulate or even outmatch the joy that you once felt—to “one-up” it, so to speak.

Here are a couple of examples from my life: I am a huge fan of open-world RPGs. I’ve played Destiny (2013), Skyrim (2011), and Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) for hundreds of hours, but nowadays, whenever I revisit these games, they just don’t feel the same as when I first played them. I hate to say it, but they’ve become boring. On the other hand, when I take long-term breaks and play other games (or maybe read a book), they feel fresh again and I can at least derive some enjoyment from them. Obviously not as much enjoyment as when I played them for the first time, but just enough to keep me reasonably entertained. In addition, I enjoy drinking whiskey. I love its taste and aroma, and how it only takes me a few sips to get a nice buzz going. However, I’m aware that if I drank it every single night, day by day, not only would I suffer severe health consequences, but the quality of that “buzzed” feeling would drop exponentially. One drink would become two, two drinks would become four, and four drinks would become eight just so I could re-achieve or outmatch that buzz.

Just like “Squidville,” my takeaway message for you is to always moderate your leisure activities. Because binging, while indeed fun, can only get you so far before you start feeling a little empty inside.

Are You Only 20 Percent Effective?

Self-discrepancy theory states that our selves, or the core understandings of our identities, are split according to three components: the ideal, ought, and actual self. The ideal-self is the person we aspire to be, the ought-self is the person we want others to be and the person others want us to be, and the actual-self is the person we actually are. The theory was developed by Edward Tory Higgins in 1987, and since then much research has been aimed at identifying the three selves’ existence relative to one another and which of them is the most predominate. Not surprisingly, the actual-self dominates the other two.

Self-discrepancy represents a conflict that wages inside our own heads—and between our partners—every day. My spouse wants me to stop smoking, but cigarettes are the only things that remedy my stress. I know I should lose weight, but food tastes too damn good. My father wants me to become a doctor, but I’d rather be a pilot. I want to do well on that exam, but I’m too lazy to study for it. The list goes on. Do any of these conflicts sound familiar to you?

I am a classic example of a self-discrepant person. Need proof? I know that I should completely cut alcohol out of my life because it’s hazardous to my organs, but I still enjoy the occasional drink after a long day at work, or with a good friend. I know that I should revamp my diet because I consume too much grease and am probably clogging my arteries, but I can’t stop eating hamburgers, pizza, and pasta. I know that I should stop playing video games so often and start devoting more time to pursuing a career in psychology and expanding my reservoir of knowledge for the sake of it, but I love grinding my character in Destiny. And finally, I know that I should advertise my YouTube videos to stimulate viewership and conduct research on the stock market to make informed decisions on my investments, but I don’t care enough to do either of those things, so why even bother?

And yet, by sitting around and waiting to take initiative, I am actually doing more harm than good to myself. By continuing to drink alcohol, I am further eroding my organs. By continuing to consume greasy foods, I am routinely putting myself at risk for heart disease. By continuing to play too many video games and not pursuing a career and expanding my base of knowledge, I am setting myself up to live with my parents until I’m 40 and making myself stupider. And by not advertising my YouTube videos and investing in the stock market, I am wasting my time producing the videos in the first place and losing money.

If I was a truly self-sufficient person, I would write 5 of these articles a week instead of just 1 every other week. I would market my YouTube channel 8 hours a day to maximize audience retention and engagement, and I would release at least two, high-quality, 30-minute long video essays a month. I would quit my weekend job at the local supermarket and find a better one. I would practice meditation to more effectively manage my emotions. I would go to the bar to talk to women and get out of my shell. I would address every single criticism that I’ve ever had, or currently have, of myself—and then some.

The fact remains that I’m not 100% self-sufficient. Most of the time, I’m 10-15% self-sufficient, and 20% self-sufficient on a good day. That’s not very… sufficient of myself.

Can you imagine where humanity would be today if it utilized 100% of its potential? We probably would have cured every known disease, colonized the galaxy, and transcended space and time itself. But we know that human beings are not THAT perfect. How could they be? They’re notoriously flawed creatures. We’ve accomplished many great things, but only to a certain degree. We still quibble amongst, and go to war with, each other, we still haven’t cured some of the most deadly diseases, and we still haven’t traversed and uncovered the secrets of the far reaches of the galaxy. At least we invented the fidget spinner and sliced bread.

Perhaps our aggressive laziness could result from our propensity to favor pleasure over self-improvement. The human brain is largely rewarded through instant gratification, and not through evaluation of long-term consequences. Given the proper time and training, it can learn to delay gratification in the interest of its longer-term goals, but for the most part, it demands to be rewarded instantaneously and without obstructions. It explains why there are alcoholics, pornography addicts, and obese people—if they really wanted to improve themselves, they would’ve done so a while ago.

Self-discrepancy seems to be a conflict that arises from incessant instant gratification. In essence, we weigh the amount of pleasure we can derive from any given activity (i.e.: playing a video game, partying, or reading a text book) relative to whether or not such activity is befit to our well-being, and almost always, our hedonistic instincts kick into overdrive.

So what can YOU do to reach your potential? Close the gaps between your ideal, ought, and actual selves as much as you can. I’m not saying that I’ve done it already because it’s a conflict I struggle with every day, but I have become more aware of it.

It’s true that while you’ll never reach your full potential, you can come as close to your full potential as absolutely possible. And that’s about the best you can do for your short (and sometimes miserable) time on this God-forsaken floating rock.

The Secret to a Happy Life

In case you don’t already know, I am a strong advocate of the biology of human behavior. I believe that every psychological experience can be understood in physiological terms. Unfortunately, technology has restricted us in our capacity to identify where complex emotions such as anger, surprise, or joy occur in the brain. What’s even more restrictive is that it’s made it difficult for us to define this thing we call “happiness” in terms of something that we can readily feel, posing the question, is happiness also a complex emotion? In other words, does happiness come and go, or does it stay with us?

How you answer this question depends on a number of factors, including your past experiences, religious beliefs, values, and how you derive meaning from your existence. Personally, I define happiness as the sum of subjectively pleasurable experiences that a person accumulates in his or her lifetime, but even this definition isn’t enough to do the word sufficient justice because to many, happiness means so much more than that. Without happiness, what’s the point of even living? For reasons that I will discuss, I’m quick to treat happiness as more of a state-of-mind and less of a fleeting emotion.

You’ve probably been taught that happiness is meant to be pursued, and that it could later be obtained if you make all the right decisions. According to this logic, after you attend school, work for an X number of years, get married, have children, make millions of dollars, then and only then will you be textbook happy. The problem is that it places too much of an emphasis on waiting for happiness and hardly any emphasis on choosing to be happy right now.

I can tell you with confidence that, by virtue that I have clothes on my back and air in my lungs, I am happy. But alas, I don’t have a million dollars in the bank, so I’m not as happy as I could be. Have you noticed a contradiction yet? I complained about how I haven’t made enough money, yet at the same time negated the things that enabled me to make the money in the first place.

Such contradictory logic could be the result of erroneously mixing happiness with hedonism, which are not the same thing. They don’t even fall under the same category. Happiness has to do with the state or quality of being subjectively contented over an extended period of time. Alternatively, hedonism has to do with superficially indulging one’s self in pleasurable activities in a fixed period of time, like getting wasted at the bar, eating large quantities of Taco Bell, or playing a match of Call of Duty. These activities are indeed fun, but they are too short-lived to foster a conventionally happy life.

The question remains as to how happiness can be reconciled with hedonism. How do you will your mind into being happy when pleasure is so finite and intermittent? It’s simple: enjoy the high points in life as much as you can, but don’t be so discouraged by the low points. Because they, too, can be pretty special.