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The Happiness of Minor Inconveniences

Plastic bags, seasonal recipes, and how little experiences of friction contribute to a larger sense of well-being.
July 7, 2022
The Happiness of Minor Inconveniences

Back in April, I took a drive west on U.S. 29 out to Gainesville, Virginia. It’s an area that was rural until quite recently, but it is now quickly becoming exurban thanks to both a major expansion of Interstate 66, which links Gainesville to Washington, D.C., and skyrocketing prices in communities closer to the capital.

I was there to explore a recent mixed-use development, but on my way home, I stopped at a Wegmans along the highway to get some groceries. When I went to the self-checkout, I noticed plastic grocery bags sitting there, waiting to be filled up. In confusion, I looked around furtively—I didn’t see anywhere on the terminal to pay for bags—but then remembered I was no longer in Fairfax County, which placed a five-cent tax on plastic grocery bags earlier this year. The extra charge has prompted many retailers to retire them.

I felt a little rush of enthusiasm similar to that feeling in college of waking up to an email that your morning class is canceled. I didn’t have to feel that frustration in the checkout line that comes on every time I forget my reusable bags in the car and face the inevitable choice: Get literally nickel and dimed for a bag, or attempt to carry the groceries out in an unwieldy freehand jumble. If the price of gas weren’t so high, I’d do all my shopping in the free county of Prince William!

Or would I?

I saw a tweet back around Christmastime. The gist of it was, Imagine having the self-control to only make certain special recipes for the holidays. I mentally replied: Imagine not having the self-control to only make certain special recipes for the holidays. I enjoy the idea of those recipes being off-limits in ordinary times. I don’t make them normally because that would dilute the specialness, the sense of ritual. Rice stuffing is for Thanksgiving, prime rib is for Christmas, salami bread is for Easter: If these foods crossed my plate outside their appointed seasons, I would mourn the loss of that specialness more than I would enjoy eating them with greater frequency.

It’s this dilution of specialness I feel when I see eggnog coming out for Halloween, as it did in 2021, or those strained riffs on Neapolitan ice cream that have recently popped up: triple chocolate, triple vanilla, ice cream cake, apple pie. I liked the fact that until recently you could only find eggnog a couple months each year. Or that if you wanted three ice cream flavors in one carton, Neapolitan’s classic strawberry-vanilla-chocolate trifecta was your only option. My mother always said much the same about the advent of VCRs, which had a similarly diluting effect: In her childhood, if you missed the Rudolph or Frosty Christmas special on TV, that was it, and you waited another year. There’s something deflating and a little depressing about having anything you could possibly want, and at any time.

Under the surface of our languid discontent today, I think there’s an inchoate desire for a little bit of friction, a little bit of inconvenience, a sense of seasonality and cyclicality—something like the church calendar’s ordering of the medieval year. There’s a sort of ratcheting effect where little losses of self-control become permanent; we can never get it back—individually, or as a culture. I think of something profound one of my professors once said: It’s easier to do something 100 percent of the time than 99 percent of the time. Once you lose that one percent, you lose the opportunity for wonder, excitement, and expectation.

But I was talking about plastic bags.

How do plastic bags relate to the dilution of specialness? I find that once the free, disposable plastic bags are taken away, some dulled part of my character comes alive. Suddenly, I’m more organized, making sure my reusable bags are clean, folded, stored on the back seat, and ready to go. I’m more attentive, making sure I remember to bring them in. I’m more resourceful, taping over a small hole in a disposable bag so I can use it in the trash can or to carry out the cat litter instead of just throwing it away. I see disposable things as resources. I’ll pay five cents for that.

I enjoy the need to do more with less, in a low-stakes way. And I dislike the fact that as long as the bags are free, the ease and the habit of using them will overwhelm the rewarding task of doing a little without, and blunt that sense of taking charge of the little responsibilities that bags make even smaller.

You could argue, I suppose, that I have the time and the money to view the end of free plastic grocery bags as a novelty. My pleasant little character-building inconvenience could be a serious liability for, say, a working family with four kids trying to make a weekly grocery run.

Most critiques of bag tax/removal schemes either run this way, or they run in a libertarian direction: Bag loss illustrates the nanny state’s death by a thousand cuts as it constantly chips away at things that make everyday life smooth and easy, and slowly makes everything a little bit worse instead. In this view, bag taxes are like plastic straw bans or water-efficient toilets or compact-fluorescent lightbulbs: an augur of socially engineered mediocracy.

But I think bag loss can be seen differently, or that we can at least make the most of it. You might think I’m a little odd, seeing as I enjoy paying money for inconvenience. But that’s not quite it.

Rather, the appeal for me lies in the idea of pricing valuable things more accurately (nothing is free, and plastic bags are especially not free), of curtailing the throwaway culture just a little bit, and of restoring the specialness of ordinary things. This mindset is all about cultivating contentment, of “kissing the joy as it flies”—whether that fleeting happiness comes from seasonally appropriate eggnog, a prime rib, or even a reusable grocery bag you had to run out to your car to retrieve.

Addison Del Mastro

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. Find him on Substack (The Deleted Scenes) and Twitter (@ad_mastro).