The rantings of a beautiful mind

On life, society, and computer technology.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I live in the Fortress of Solitude. I drive the Silver Beast. My obsession is justice. I used to be a Windows software developer. I retired in 2000 when my stock options helped me achieve financial security.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Happiness is Relative to Our Prior Experience

This first principle reaches from ancient philosophy to contemporary experiments, which show that we judge various experiences relative to our previous experiences. From our recent experience we calibrate “adaptation levels” - neutral points at which sounds seem neither loud nor soft, lights neither bright nor dim, experiences neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

If we get a pay raise, receive an improved test grade, bring home a promotion, or get asked out, we feel an initial surge of pleasure. But if these new realities continue, we adapt. Black-and-white television, once a thrill, began to seem ordinary until we got that exciting nineteen-inch color set, which itself will be replaced by a bigger fix – a twenty-seven-inch set or maybe even high-definition television. So it happens that luxuries become necessities.

Indeed, as our experience changes, relative luxury may even begin to feel like poverty. Thus in 1990 psychiatrist Lewis Judd resigned as director of the National Institute of Mental Health because “simply put, I found family and I can no longer afford to remain in government service” - on a mere $103,600-per-year salary. William Bennett must have sympathized. In spurning a $125,000 offer to become chair of the Republican National Committee he remarked, “I didn’t take a vow of poverty” - which apparently is what $125,000 feels like after making $240,000 in speaking fees during the preceding four months. But even double $240,000 doesn’t feel like wealth to some professional athletes. “People think we make $3 million or $4 million a year,” explained Texas Ranger outfielder Pete Incaviglia. “They don’t realize that most of us only make $500,000.”

I roll my eyes at such insensitivity to those hungry or homeless. But are any of us immune to adaptation?

- The Pursuit of Happiness