When I think about My Favorite Things, I discover that they come from different parts of “me.”
Here’s what I mean.
What’s your favorite ice cream?
What’s your favorite music album?
What’s your favorite sweater?
For me: Chocolate, Steely Dan’s Aja, and a black cashmere V-neck pullover from Barney’s.
They’re all “my” favorites, but I think their “favoriteness” stems from different parts of “me.”
Here’s what I mean.
If you asked 100 people those three questions, how many would give the same answers as me?
Chocolate ice cream? America’s #1 favorite. About 17% prefer it to any other flavor. Good chance at least 15 people would say chocolate is their favorite. All hundred of us (presumably) share the same neurophysiological bodily equipment. That equipment has been shaped by billions of years of evolution to not only experience the physical pleasures of sweet foods, but also the emotional reaction that accompanies that pleasure. Let’s call it enjoyment— joy for short. We (almost) all share that part of “me” that enjoys sweets. That’s what makes ice cream so popular.
How about the album? We already know that there’s going to be a much wider variety here than in ice creams. The chances of even 2 of that 100 others choosing a Steely Dan album, not to mention Aja, are very remote. I share that part of “me” with a much smaller fraction of my contemporaries. The pleasure I experience comes from a much more limited spacetime context (let’s call it “cultural”) than ice cream’s. Besides the neurophysiological effects of Steely Dan’s music, I have to take its (personal-cultural) context in my life into account when considering its favor.
Aja was released in 1977, so it couldn’t have been my favorite earlier than that. Before then, I probably would have said The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, although I can’t be certain. When did Aja become my favorite? Hard to say, exactly. I was in graduate school when the album came out. Its complex melodies, rich harmonies, and enigmatic lyrics, sung by Donald Fagen and other unique voices, grabbed me quickly. I played it a lot, both when alone, and for anyone I could. I thought it was the epitome of cool, sophisticated musicianship.
Cool? Sophisticated? Not terms I’d use to describe chocolate ice cream. “Cool” and “sophisticated” are social judgments that I’m imagining others making about my Aja favoritism, because they’re judgments I make of others who feel the same as I do. Being thought to be “cool” or “sophisticated” are very different emotional reactions from the enjoyment I get from ice cream.
To be honest, I’m not certain that someone else didn’t tell me about Aja or play it for me the first time I heard it. In fact, I may have chosen it because it was that person’s favorite. Often, our favorites become favorites because they’re favorites of someone we know, or look up to (“all the cool people are listening to Steely Dan…”), or even (consciously or not) emulate/imitate. We’re sometimes a bit sheepish about admitting that. For some reason, we like to think we make things our favorites solely on our own, without being influenced by others. It’s why “jumping on the bandwagon” is such a pejorative term. So the “me” that favors Aja is a more deeply socially contextual (cultural) part than the one that prefers ice cream.
The sweater? Of those 100, I’d be willing to bet that not a single one would say their favorite is the same as mine. Of course, many people could choose a cashmere sweater as their favorite. Its tactile qualities are widely experienced as pleasurable. In addition, people are likely to make (mostly unconscious) judgments about others who wear cashmere sweaters. So, a cashmere sweater presents social signals, like Aja does. But there’s a difference. Social signals are particularly “strong” for favorite clothes. The things we wear in public are (intentionally or not) strong statements about who we are: “this is ‘me,’ a person who chooses to wear this sweater.”
But, unlike chocolate ice cream, the pleasure we derive from each sweater is unique. Every sweater becomes a favorite thing in a unique context; a very specific spacetime moment. While the social pleasure we derive from wearing the sweater is not insignificant, the deeper source of pleasure we are likely to experience is from the sweater’s biographical integration: the when/where/how/who of acquiring it. When did I acquire it? Was it a gift? From whom?
This sweater became a favorite of mine in the mid-90s. Before then, I had others (vertically-wide-striped wool knit cardigans were a big deal in the Bronx when I was growing up), but they were nothing like the Barney’s cashmere V-neck. It was the most expensive sweater I’d ever bought; it might still be! Before I bought it, I could never afford a sweater like this one, and didn’t appreciate the sensual experience of great cashmere. And it was from Barney’s, not a place where I’d ever shopped in the past! The sweater was a personal emblem, a marker of a transition to a new period in my life. No other person will ever experience the unique pleasure I experience when wearing this sweater, no matter where it goes after I’m gone. My emotional attachment to it as an object can’t be compared with my attachment to ice cream or Aja. Nor can it be replicated.
Aja and the sweater are social objects. Their selection as favorites was “influenced” by broader cultural forces (music styles; fashion), which undoubtedly played a role in me finding them desirable. The “messages” they convey about “me” are much more specific (“personal”) than the chocolate ice cream’s. Their meaning (to me and to others) is very different.
Each object tells a slightly different story about slightly different facets of “me” at various points in spacetime. Moving from the general, incarnate, embodied (timeless?), pleasure of ice cream to the more cultural-contextual (mark of an era?) pleasure of the album, to the sweater’s unique biographical (moment-in-time?) pleasure is a journey into deeper, more personal dimensions of “me.”
In a way, our favorites provide different pleasures, in different ways, to different parts of “me”:
Ice cream—>the parts of “me” I share with billions (embodied/forever)
Aja—>the parts of “me” I share with millions (culture/bygone era)
Sweater—>the parts of “me” I share with no one else (individual history/unique psychological moments)
What about your favorites? What can you learn about your parts of “me” when you think about them? What about the new ones you established today?
Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.