I fly enough that it became sensible about a decade ago to buy an ongoing membership in my preferred airline’s “club”, which offers peace, quiet and free coffee away from the crush in the terminal. At one of the airline’s hubs, the club was remodelled a few years ago, bringing in very nice furniture, more space, high-quality computer terminals and wi-fi throughout. Travel through the hub became very pleasant for me, and I would sometimes even leave early for the airport to have an extra half hour in the club before a flight. I was perfectly satisfied. But then…

On a coach ticket before a long international flight, I was to my surprise given a free upgrade to business class as a reward for ruining my life by flying on the airline so much. I entered the airline club in my usual fashion, and was presented at check-in with a plastic card imprinted, for no obvious reason, with an arrow. I looked at desk attendant quizzically. “To get into the club”, she said. “This is the club” I responded. She shook her head and pointed to what looked like a glass wall. I walked over and noticed a small box with a slot in it, above which was an engraving similar to the mysterious arrow on the card. Feeling as if I had stumbled into a post-modernized film production of Alice in Wonderland, I put the magic card arrow first into the slot, and the glass wall slid silently aside. I walked through and was greeted by a second desk attendant, at the club inside of the club.

A mile long cornocopia of food and beverages awaited in this sumptious inner sanctum. Premium liquors and high-end wines were on offer at no charge. Solicitious staff members hovered over me, thanking me for flying and asking how they could make me even happier. I sipped a gobsmackingly fine champagne and reclined in a leather chair that cost more than my car, basking in luxury, exclusivity and the sense of having made it. Surely, life could get no better. Indeed, how could I ever have been so easily satisfied before in the crappy, third-rate regular club outside? I became a student of frequent flier programs, and upgraded to international business class on every flight.

And then one day at the club inside the club, the creeping anxiety came. The seed had been planted long ago, when the receipt of that very first magic card had undermined my faith that my own sense of satisfaction was a worthy guide to how happy I could become and what the world could offer to increase my joy. I set down my champagne, suddenly pensive, as the awful, unavoidable question came into my mind:

“Is there a better club inside the club that is inside the club, and why haven’t they let me in?”

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys