Where Honey Meets The Halo Effect
Untangling the conflated joy of anticipation & memory to more fully savor the present moment
“What do you like doing best in the world, Pooh?”
“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best — ” and then he had to stop and think. Because although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”
It’s been three months in my Brooklyn sublet, and the colder it gets the more I melt into life among someone else’s things. I’ve found the spots on the floor that don’t creak, but I still read underlined passages to books I didn’t annotate, and write with chewed pens that never touched my teeth.
I wonder if part of the reason this home feels so good is because I know it’s not mine, or if I’d wake up an hour earlier than usual to drink coffee with the tree outside my window if the leaves weren’t falling by the minute. Summer felt more vibrant knowing winter was coming, especially while loving a guy I knew was leaving.
For the most part, joy seems to live in the space between the rewards. The satisfaction of a pee is relative to the time you spend holding it. Each second of reluctant stillness before a first kiss makes the moment all that much sweeter. The fact that something worth cherishing is coming as quickly as it leaves seems more central to the experience of joy than that something itself.
In an episode of Full Comp, a hospitality industry podcast, author and “Aesthetic Maven” Pauline Brown argues that half the joy of a restaurant experience lies in anticipation and memory rather than the actual time spent within its four walls. She marks the success of a restaurant or brand by its ability to tap into both simultaneously, creating a feeling of longing and enthusiasm that precedes an experience and lingers long after it’s gone.
This framework assumes that joy is reflective of our personal and dynamic definition of value, which Brown attributes to The Halo Effect: “a cognitive bias that affects our perceptions, leading us to base our overall judgments on a selective amount of information.” The Halo Effect is the reason we assume that a good looking person is trustworthy, that a skilled public speaker is a good politician, or that a restaurant with a longer wait time is fundamentally better. In the latter example, we correlate scarcity with high demand, and high demand with greater value. It’s one of many simple equations coded deep in our psyche that dominate our value judgements without even realizing it.
These flash judgements are critical to making quick decisions with little information, but it’s clear that the cognitive survival mechanism has been hijacked when we excessively rely on it to make blanket judgments even when we do have the time and space to consider the bigger picture. If I didn’t rush to put men on a pedestal for their presumed intelligence and wisdom, perhaps I could also notice their character flaws and see them for who they are in their entirety. If I didn’t assume that a more expensive wine with a sexier label was higher quality, then maybe I’d have a clearer sense of the flavors and traits that really resonate with my individual palette. If I didn’t believe that the transience of experience meant I would lose the feelings they conjure, then maybe I could allow each moment to flow through me, enjoying them with more presence and free attention. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t resist change because I’d have no doubt that the next moment will be just as good as the last in its own way.
I don’t say this to mean that the basis of appreciation lies solely in an error of judgement, rather that joy is less about the object itself and more about our personal process of making meaning of experience. Regardless of what we perceive as valuable and why, the core feeling of joy that we unlock before, during, or after a coveted moment can be simply described as awareness — as in, deliberately feeling appreciation and gratitude for something… could be anything. The moment before the honey, then, is not just when we become happy, but when we actually realize it, if only for an instant.
As much as I attempt to wrap my head around the mechanics of experience, my primary existential challenge remains coming to terms with its ephemerality. Even writing is an attempt to pin down those peak moments. Capturing their evanescent on paper, giving them texture, and a physical body outside of myself is an attempt at preservation, making the abstract concrete, and integrating new beliefs. Even if no one reads them, they keep me company and make me feel grounded just by virtue of existing.
That being said, drawing conclusions feels so much easier on paper. I can use words and anecdotes and connections to convince us both that the joy of experience doesn’t rely so much on its physicality, but what I truly want is to believe it deep down in my gut, enough to feel safe letting go.
Ephemerality is a fact, but how much sweeter would life be if we honored ourselves as the constant and didn’t assume that the joy of flavor was the honey itself?