The second Mars Bar problem

Have you ever eaten a Mars bar when really, really hungry? I once got to the shaking with cold sweat stage of hungry, because I had forgotten my wallet at work. I eventually asked a colleague for £1 for the vending machine, because I didn’t want to admit that I was so ditsy I didn’t have any money for lunch. It was therefore already 2 pm, and I am not a breakfast eater. I had consumed white coffee in copious quantities. So I went, or teetered, over to the vending machine, praying it wasn’t out of order. It was flashing green. It took actual money (this was years ago). And there it was, in the middle of the middle row, inviting me to press E5, its red writing sticking out at me.

That first bite was surely better than every other high of my life (which it might be indelicate to detail). Restoring one’s blood sugar to a normal level, and doing so with pure sugar, is impossibly perfect. Life returns to my veins, calm returns to my desperate brain. The crunch of the slightly cold shell, the softness of the caramel, and the fluffy stuff at the bottom – which I sometimes reserve for a separate bite, by breaking off the chocolate and caramel first, once the bar is open.

So naturally, I went back for another one the next day. I wanted to recreate this amazingness, and experience the satisfaction of my senses. Only I had just had my normal lunch. So it was just an overly sweet chocolate bar that enveloped me in guilt, and coated the roof of my mouth in cheap fat.

And that is the second Mars bar problem, which applies to virtually everything in life, and is a lesson I have to remember all the time. I buy a nice skirt, it makes me feel good about myself. So I feel bad about myself a few days later, and start browsing other skirts. They arrive, they deplete my bank balance, and they do not have any novelty value. This makes me feel like a shallow moron. I want a newer car, but then belatedly realise how much my old car meant to me, all the trips it has been on, the people who have sat in it, the life I led at the time, ridiculously crystallised in some lump of rusting metal.

Only things you truly need are satisfying. It is however also true that life satisfaction, particularly life at the moment, is composed of a series of very trivial, small pleasures, and nearly all of them are food, a nice hot drink or a glass of wine. There is in my life none of that joy I grew up with, of landing in a different country and taking in the same-but-different tarmac as you step off the plane. I used to love that, when you go to a small airport in a hot country, and there was no passenger tunnel. You just walked off the steps of the plane, and sometimes straight into some dusty arrivals lounge, savouring the heat and the light of the sun at a different angle.

Or even, when I was young, some crazy night out in London with friends. It was the thrill of the unknown, which was almost never realised, and mostly ended up with shambling off home alone, too drunk. But just occasionally, everything would come together, the conversation seemed thrilling, the music perfect, the dancing a perfect expression of my personality. I would sparkle away, or so I felt, and then happily hail a passing taxi, followed by delicious brunch in Raoul’s the next day, where my friend would rip my terrible dancing to shreds, and I would laugh.

But I am too old for that now. And so until a few weeks ago, my days passed in a succession of cups of tea or coffee that gave me pleasure, and sometimes a glass of wine in front of the TV. Then I decided to get Invisalign, which is probably a subject for another day, but it certainly removes another source of spontaneous pleasure. Fortunately, I got a new job at the same time, which is proving very hard to learn – so that keeps my brain busy with the present, and reduces my ability to reminisce about the past, which is sort of the opposite of the second Mars bar problem. It’s the problem of every Mars bar you never actually had, but think you did, and think it must have been better than every future Mars bar.

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