“Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?”
— Albert Camus
There is a scene in the film Good Will Hunting that has confused me for years. It is sandwiched between two of the more memorable scenes in the movie: after Will dresses down the Harvard graduate student for making his friend look stupid, but before he finds the same student later and delivers the famous, “How do you like them apples?” line. In this scene, the story’s love interest, Skylar, approaches will and gives him her number. “Maybe we could go out for coffee sometime?”
Will replies, “Great, or maybe we could go somewhere and just eat a bunch of caramels. When you think about it, it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.”
For a while, this confused me because I didn’t know what the word “arbitrary” meant. Now I do. And I’m sorry, Will, but you’re mistaken on this point.
An interesting thing happens when you feel attraction for someone. Your brain releases norepinephrine – which causes your heart to race, your palms to sweat, and your pupils to dilate – and also dopamine, which heightens arousal, pleasure, and elevates your mood. Oddly enough, drinking coffee also stimulates the release of these two neurochemicals. Combining the two is like adding salt to a steak (or bacon to a steak, probably): it ramps up the intensity and makes everything more enjoyable.
Add to that the psychological effects of this combo: your adaptive unconscious picks up on the fact that your coffee date is physically aroused, his pupils are dilated, and has increased his emotional expressiveness. This, in turn, subtly improves your mood, making you feel both more confident and relaxed.
Before you object with a tale of a coffee date gone horribly wrong, remember I’m not saying that coffee guarantees success. You still need to feel attraction for each other. You still need to have something to talk about. And all dates require a feeling of comfort and ease in order to go well. Coffee isn’t magic. But it can help amplify feelings that are already in place. And that, Will Hunting, is anything but arbitrary. I guess you should have read your physiology textbooks more closely.