Our favorite things are favorites for lots of reasons. Most of the time we don’t think about why they’re our favorites… they just are. But when we do stop to think about them, it’s interesting what we find.
Think of your favorite sweater, for example.
How would you describe it to someone?
Well, what is a sweater?
Everybody knows sweaters are garments. They’re knitted from different kinds of yarns using different knitting methods. They’re a particular color. Or maybe, colors. They come in different patterns, shapes, styles.
What makes this sweater your favorite?
The yarn? The color? The style?
Those are the characteristics of the sweater-as-object that can be readily described to other people. If you took a picture of it, those characteristics would be right there for another person to see.
But, this is your favorite sweater. Where’s the “favorite” in that picture?
I don’t think favorite is in the picture. Favorite is invisible.
That must mean favorite is in your head, right? Favorite must be something that we create in our minds.
Somehow, that doesn’t feel right to me either.
Objects that are our favorites feel different. They feel special. They feel like we are drawn to them. Almost like gravity.
Like gravity, favorite feels like relationship that exists between us and objects.
One of Einstein’s breakthrough insights in his general theory of relativity was that gravity is not a force, but a dynamic “spacetime interaction” between all things having mass or energy. “Dynamic” means that things are in always in motion and their spacetime relationships are constantly interacting.
Most of us scratch our heads a bit trying to understand what that means, but if we go back to the relationship you have with your favorite sweater, we see that both you and the sweater are dynamic-objects-in-relationship-to-one-another. You both have a history in space and time, a history that began independently of one another and then became intertwined.
What does that mean? Well, you had a life history before you had this sweater. The sweater had a history, too; it was made by others, elsewhere. At some point in spacetime, those two histories intersected and you acquired the sweater. Your two gravitational fields influenced each other, like the Earth and the satellite in the Wikipedia image.
How did that intersection take place?
Either you chose the sweater or someone else chose it for you, with you in mind. Either way, this was an active selection based upon the sweater’s level of attraction (a gravitational term) for you. That attraction…let’s call it desire…is a key form of human energy, establishing a relationship…a gravitational field…between you and an object.
Your initial desire (attraction) for the sweater was likely based on the appeal, or “weights” (mass) you placed on the characteristics that would show up if you took a picture of the sweater: yarn, color, style. You prefer cashmere black V-necks, for example. But, over time (shorter or longer, depending on a broad range of factors that we’ll take up in a future essay), the sweater became a favorite, gained significance. It became more important. It gained weight (mass). It became more strongly desirable (energy). It started to matter more to you than your other sweaters. You and the sweater entered into a more intimate relationship. You drew it closer into your spacetime world.
This might all sound pretty esoteric! But, think about it. When you’re looking into your closet…picking out a sweater to wear…your eyes are drawn to your favorites. Our favorites seem to pull us toward them. You want to bring it even closer to you. You want to look, feel, and act the way you do when you wear it.
Some favorites are like the sun, or large planets. Their gravitational field is large and strong. They pull us toward them powerfully and persistently. (Anyone who’s been around a small child knows the raw power of the gravitational pull of a favorite object, like a blanket or stuffed animal.) Other favorites create weaker spacetime relationships and are easily replaced by other things after a much shorter time. So, while some objects become lifelong favorites that we couldn’t imagine replacing, others burn intensely and brightly for a while and then drift away, losing energy and fading into the background (sometimes abruptly).
Regardless of the power and duration of the gravitational field that exists between ourselves and a favorite, we can now see that the key to our connection is not in the physical characteristics of the object themselves. The key is the unique, invisible intertwining of ourselves and those characteristics-as-dynamic-spacetime-means-of-fulfillment-of-desires. (As I said, more on those dynamics in future essays.)
Favorites, then, become part of our life story for some domain of spacetime. We share part of our life history with them. Sometimes, our entire life history. Likewise, the object’s history includes chapters recounting its “life” before-and-after-becoming-my-favorite. In a sense, favorites are like major or minor characters in our life stories.
This line of thinking was inspired by a single line of poetry I came across about a dozen years ago. It was written by Muriel Rukeyser in her 1968 poem, The Speed of Darkness:
The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
I don’t think the poet meant to say that the sweater’s atoms are not important. Yarn, color, and style are a function of the atoms that make up the sweater’s physicality. Thinking about the appeal of the favorite sweater’s yarn, style, and color is worthwhile. But, studying the atoms alone is an incomplete way to understand the universe in which we live our lives. Physics and chemistry will never yield a rich appreciation for the gravitational field that exists between you and your favorite sweater. It is only through exploring the dynamically intertwining spacetime gravitational attraction that constitutes the story of this-sweater-as-my-favorite that we can come to fully understand its role in an individual’s life.
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.