Remember The Bad

Vlad Dolezal, ca. 2008

by Vlad Dolezal on September 30, 2011

You’re amazing at adapting to change.

I know that for a fact, because you’re human.

If I were to ask you which would make you happier – winning the lottery, or becoming disabled in the lower half of your body, you’d probably pick winning the lottery without hesitation. Yet in 1973, Brickman and Campbell did a fascinating study where they compared exactly that, and found that, on average, lottery winners and quadriplegics are equally happy a year after the incident.[1]

You’re also amazing at remembering the good things in life.

It turns out that when asked to remember things from relatively distant past (several years to dozens of years), over 90% of people report mostly positive experiences.[2]

This tendency gives you a rose-tinted-glasses view of your past.

All this would be all bright and skippy, except we humans don’t think in absolute terms. We always think in relative terms. If I showed you a tarantula and asked you if it’s big, you would almost certainly say yes, as it’s pretty damn big for a spider. But it’s way smaller than a human, a dog, or even a mouse.

large dot small dotJust like in the famous optical illusion on the right, your frame of reference completely changes your evaluation of the size of the middle dot. (Or the size of a spider.)

Where am I going with all this? Well – your natural human tendency is to adapt to change and take it for granted. You also remember mostly the good things from your past, and when evaluating your current situation, you’re likely to compare to the things you think about. (So – either good stuff from your past, or the stuff you’re still working towards.)

All in all, a great recipe for unhappiness!

All this sounds a little gloomy, until you realize that we humans can change our natural predispositions by conscious effort. From potty training to meditation, conscious effort makes one hell of a difference.

So I’m going to go against everything you might expect from a blog called Fun Life Development, and ask you to think about bad things.

Namely, things from your past where you were worse off than you are now.

I’ll go first. Here are some bad things from my past that have changed considerably:

  • I used to suck at making friends until around the second year of university.
  • High school was annoying and often a complete waste of time.
  • I used to have no clue as to how to talk to women.
  • Dial-up internet. *shudder*

(Funnily enough, I haven’t thought about any of those things in ages, until I started writing this post.)

Anyway, it’s your turn now. What are some bad things from your past that you have since surpassed?

(Yes, that’s a photo of me up there, from my last year of high school. Don’t ask.)

References:

  1. Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?, P. Brickman, D. Coates and R. Janoff-Bulman; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 36(8), Aug 1978, 917-927.
  2.  Thanks!: How The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Robert A. Emmons, 2007

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

IntegralWhole October 5, 2011 at 18:19

Great perspective! At nearly every point in my life, I’ve felt that my life was getting better and better, so this is one tool I don’t really need (yet!), but it’s an interesting exercise.

Here’s one of mine: I recently realized that I don’t get embarrassed nearly so easily as I used to, which is a huge improvement in my overall happiness, as well as in my willingness to take on new challenges. Whereas I used to feel that life was one long test (each episode having one Right Answer and many wrong answers), now I feel more like it’s a series of little experiments, each episode being an opportunity to try something a little different and see what I learn, or what novel thing I can experience. After each episode I still get to be as hopelessly analytical as ever, but I’ve stopped “grading” myself as Right or Wrong. Life is sure more fun and relaxed this way!

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Vlad Dolezal October 5, 2011 at 19:44

That sounds like a sweet discovery!

Adding to your point, I personally found that most of the time, doing SOMETHING ends up a lot better than consistently doing nothing. Embracing mistakes instead of being afraid of them.

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