September 29, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 36: The adaptation principle, shortness of life, and gratitude

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I.  The adaptation principle

“If I gave you ten seconds to name the very best and very worst things that could ever happen to you, you might well come up with these: winning a 20-million-dollar lottery jackpot and becoming paralyzed from the neck down. Winning the lottery would bring freedom from so many cares and limitations; it would enable you to pursue your dreams, help others, and live in comfort, so it ought to bring long-lasting happiness rather than one serving of dopamine. Losing the use of your body, on the other hand, would bring more limitations than life in prison. You’d have to give up on nearly all your goals and dreams, forget about sex, and depend on other people for help with eating and bathroom functions.

“Many people think they would rather be dead than paraplegic. But they are mistaken. Of course, it’s better to win the lottery than to break your neck, but not by as much as you’d think. Because whatever happens, you’re likely to adapt to it, but you don’t realize up front that you will. We are bad at ‘affective forecasting,’ that is, predicting how we’ll feel in the future. We grossly overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions.

“Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.

“The lottery winner buys a new house and a new car, quits her boring job, and eats better food. She gets a kick out of the contrast with her former life, but within a few months the contrast blurs and the pleasure fades. The human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels. The winner’s pleasure comes from rising in wealth, not from standing still at a high level, and after a few months the new comforts have become the new baseline of daily life. The winner takes them for granted and has no way to rise any further.

“At the other extreme, the quadriplegic takes a huge happiness loss up front. He thinks his life is over, and it hurts to give up everything he once hoped for. But like the lottery winner, his mind is sensitive more to changes than to absolute levels, so after a few months he has begun adapting to his new situation and is setting more modest goals. He discovers that physical therapy can expand his abilities. He has nowhere to go but up, and each step gives him the pleasure of the progress principle.

"The physicist Stephen Hawking [was] trapped in a shell of a body since his early twenties, when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Yet he went on to solve major problems in cosmology, win many prizes, and write the best-selling science book of all time. During a [2004] interview in the New York Times, he was asked how he keeps his spirits up. He replied: ‘My expectations were reduced to zero when I was twenty-one. Everything since then has been a bonus.’

“This is the adaptation principle at work: People’s judgments about their present state are based on whether it is better or worse than the state to which they have become accustomed.” — From The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

The lottery winners and paraplegics example refers to a study from 1978 by a trio of researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts.

Harvard professor and social scientist Arthur C. Brooks supports Haidt's interpretation of the study, as he told the crowd at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival (paraphrased):

Six months after their accident, the paraplegic's happiness had almost returned to where it was the day before the accident. Six months later, those who won the lottery are less happy about everyday life than they were the day before winning. Not radically lower, but they permanently enjoyed life less than the day before they won. It's as if this big experience has blown out their circuits, and nothing gives them full flavor again.

Watch the above clip here or the full ‘A Formula for Happiness’ talk here.

The adaptation principle reminds me of a quote from the American journalist Sebastian Junger, whose work includes reporting from the front lines of combat and studying war veterans:

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

In addition to reminding us of this resilience, the adaptation principle indicates that external desires will never tip the balance toward lasting happiness.

II. On the shortness of life

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.” — From On The Shortness of Life by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Read my three takeaways)

Developed countries have an average life expectancy from birth of 80 years, which means if we are fortunate, we will live for 4000 weeks or 700,000 hours. In his book, Four Thousand Weeks, British writer Oliver Burkeman explores the predicament we face in mindfully managing our time. We might imagine time as currency to dispel the abstractness of our future, with attention being the medium through which we spend it:

"At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been. So when you pay attention to something you don't especially value, it's not an exaggeration to say that you're paying with your life."

In, On The Shortness of Life, Seneca goes on to compare our treatment of time, to that of money:

“Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives – why, they themselves even invite in those who will take over their lives. You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

Quotes to Ponder

I. Sam Harris on a reason for gratitude:

“There are at least a billion people in this world, who'll consider their prayers answered if they could switch places with you.”

II. Seneca on how we approach fear with caution and desire with reckless need:

“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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