Last July, I found myself hungrily wandering around Denver’s Theatre District, trying to find a festival called the Big Eat. My trip was inspired months earlier by two women from our community who had gone on tour to share their experiences from Terra Madre (Earth Mother) in Turin, Italy. In the homeland of the international slow foods movement, Terra Madre brings together thousands of delegates from more than a hundred countries, and they unite to share and celebrate their respective food cultures.
The point that had struck some deep nerve in me and inspired my trip was that they described a movement in which the fundamental right to pleasure was as important as the fundamental right to food.
Until last July, a guiding principle of Slow Food USA had been “We believe in the universal right to pleasure.” Let that sink in. The universal right to pleasure. Back when I worked with free clinics, I had ruffled feathers by asserting that people had a fundamental right to the most basic health care services. The right to pleasure seems by comparison so lavish, and yet so important. When I learned that Slow Food USA would be hosting a summit in Denver, I had to go. I had to experience being in community with folks who believed pleasure was a right.
While there, I enjoyed the sensuous pleasures of food grown, raised and cured in connection to culture; I met and reconnected with movers and shakers of the food movement; and I learned that the right to pleasure as part of the Slow Food USA charter was on the chopping block. During the membership meeting at the summit, they removed it from their charter. My whole reason for being there had suddenly fallen flat. Why is pleasure so valued in other parts of the world, but not here, not in the U.S.?
On the heels of International Happiness Day, which has been celebrated internationally on March 20 since 2012, let’s begin to unpack our uniquely American aversion to pleasure and how that might be affecting our happiness. According to the Oxford Dictionary, pleasure is defined as “a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment,” or “enjoyment and entertainment, as opposed to necessity.” Given that suicide has ranked among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. every year since 2008, should we be asking ourselves this question: Have we been underestimating the importance of enjoyment, of pleasure? Is it possible that it really is a necessity?
The U.S. is unquestionably in the midst of an identity crisis and our citizenship is in no way united about what matters most to us. Our 18th-place ranking in the recently released World Happiness Report, having fallen four places in just one year, might be evidence that pleasure and happiness rank poorly in our cultural priorities. According to the scientists and sociologists who compiled the report, it was notable that greater wealth disparity as a result of the U.S.’s sociopolitical system is a key contributing factor in our declining happiness ranking.
Recent social movements in the U.S., like the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, the Black Lives Matter movement that surged in 2013 and remains highly mobilized, and the more recent #MeToo movement all point to a growing cultural intolerance for injustice. And to all those activists fighting for social justice, please remember: you deserve pleasure, too, even in an unjust world. If our liberation is bound up together, then perhaps so is our joy.
Written by Italian Folco Portinari nearly three decades ago, let us embrace the Slow Foods Manifesto: “May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.” There is no time like the present to cultivate those simple pleasurable habits that foster joy, both within and between people. The practice of welcoming simple pleasures into your life, recognizing what pleases you, and sharing enjoyment as often as you can will make you at least a little bit happier.
Katie Rains is a citizen of Olympia where she serves as executive director for the homegrown non-profit organization GRuB. She is a member of The Olympian’s 2018 Board of Contributors and can be reached at email@example.com.