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

The How-to-be-happy Formula

Despite our enjoyment of happy memories, there is both theory and evidence to suggest that dwelling on the Camelot moments from our past makes the present seem pretty pedestrian. If we use our happiest memories as our yardstick for assessing the present, we doom ourselves to disappointment. Although the memories themselves are pleasant, nostalgia breeds discontent.

Ecstasies remembered exact a price: They dull our ordinary pleasures. UCLA psychologist Allen Parducci explains why. Like our perceptual judgments, our assessments of current happiness are relative to the range of our prior experiences. If our current experience is near the top of our best-to-worst range of experience, we feel happy. Raise the top end of your range (by taking an idyllic vacation, earning twice the commission you’ve ever earned before, sharing sexual passion such as you’ve never experienced, receiving a Christmas basket break from grinding poverty) and what happens? You now find your everyday experience – your weekends, your regular commission, your normal lovemaking, your everyday macaroni – less enjoyable. Ergo, if superhigh points are rare, we’re better off without them. Better not to expose ourselves to luxury and excess, if their rarity only serves to diminish our daily quiet joys. Better to have our best experiences be something we experience fairly often.

It’s also better to experience an occasional reminder of how bad things can be – to provide a point of contrast with one’s comfortable daily experience. Given time to fully recover, people report greater happiness if they experienced a health problem requiring hospitalization. Indeed, contrasts define many of life’s pleasures. The pangs of hunger make food delicious. Tiredness makes the bed feel heavenly. Loneliness makes a friendship cherished.

If we seek greater serenity we can strive to restrain our unrealistic expectations, to go out of our way to experience reminders of our blessings, to make our goals short-term and sensible, to choose comparisons that will breed gratitude rather than envy.

- The Pursuit of Happiness