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.

How to Take Advantage of Any Disadvantage

I have a genetic skin disease called rosacea. My grandmother passed it down to my father, who then passed it down to my brother and me. Rosacea is characterized by episodic, superficial dilation of blood vessels beneath the face. This usually occurs on or around the nose and cheeks, and just below the mouth. It can be quite irritating when, upon extended exposure to heat, my skin itches and flushes so much that I look as red as an apple.

Of course, I could lament and complain about my rosacea all I want, but that won’t change the fact that I will always be stuck with it—at least until they are able to come up with some long-awaited cure for it. The best thing I can do for now is attempt to manage the condition every day by applying skin cream that reduces flushing and inflammation. “Treatable, not curable” is my motto.

Using my skin rosacea as an example of how we can adapt to the circumstances that we are involuntarily thrust into, let’s put things into perspective. While I could let my rosacea get the best of me and never go outside again because I just cannot tolerate episodes of flushing and inflammation, I would miss out on so much in life if I stayed home all the time. In the same vein, the mere management of our physical and mental disabilities is infinitely preferable to giving up and admitting defeat by virtue of their unwanted existence.

Allow me to share with you a story that perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about.

Last week, I attended Michigan’s Adventure (an amusement park) with my father and brother. I was initially apprehensive about tagging along because I didn’t want to have to fight the 4th of July crowds. I tagged along anyway because my dad insisted that it would be the last time we’d ever go there. While I had a fair amount of fun, that old and familiar childlike excitement eluded me and was instead replaced by an almost melancholic desire to return to a simpler time.

In many respects, the trip didn’t go as planned: my dad rear-ended the driver in front of us, and wasted over $100 on fast passes that we barely used. What’s worse is that I arrived home with sunburn that itches at this very moment. Maybe I should’ve trusted my apprehension and persuaded my dad to stay home after all—I could’ve circumvented a damaged vehicle and saved $100. But I figured that if I hadn’t gone, then I wouldn’t have acquired the material to write this article.

The highlight of the trip was easily seeing a man with his girlfriend, who unfortunately couldn’t walk due to an unknown disability and thus needed to be pushed around in a wheelchair. We first encountered the couple at a water ride, and it was there the man picked up his girlfriend and carefully helped her into the canoe, leaving the wheelchair behind until they returned. We encountered the couple a second time at The Wolverine, and once again, the man picked up his girlfriend and helped her into the coaster. Most attendants felt inconvenienced from having to wait their turns for longer than usual, but I stood there in awe of this man’s enormous determination to show his girlfriend a good time.

Let’s face it, how many disabled people have you seen ride a roller coaster? Not very many I’d assume. You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to tell that this was a man of initiative. He could’ve easily told his girlfriend, “Sorry honey, but I don’t want to risk aggravating your disability just so that you can ride a few roller coasters. It’s too dangerous.” The fact remains that her disability wasn’t a factor in her enjoyment. And so, whereas most men wouldn’t let their disabled girlfriends see the light of day because it’s “too risky,” this man took charge. It spoke volumes of his character and was a testament to how far he is willing to go to express the love he feels for his girlfriend.

More people need to be like this man. Stop making excuses already and take charge of your fate, or else let it get the best of you and spend the rest of your life feeling like a victim.

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.