I’ve done a whole lot of non-fiction reading over the past eight months. Some of it has been psychology-related, books like Stumbling on Happiness and The Paradox of Choice.
(Incidentally, I categorically recommend that you read Stumbling on Happiness. Not only is the material fascinating and highly relevant to basically everyone who happens to be human, but the man is funny! I’ve read many fine nonfiction books but I can’t recall the last one that had me chuckling on nearly every page.)
Humans have a universal tendency to adapt to new situations by — I call it ‘resetting the baseline.’ Circumstances change, and very quickly we accept — whatever it is — as the new normal. Doesn’t matter whether things got better or worse, it very soon ceases to make any emotional difference. Among other things, this is why — within a few months after their respective life-changing events — paraplegics and lottery winners are about equally happy overall.
Part of this process involves something called ‘anchoring’: the tendency to adjust our expectations and reactions based on something we’ve already got in mind. (Putting a ‘retail’ and a ‘sale’ price on a tag makes use of anchoring.) So the paraplegic anchors on the accident, next to which comparatively simple pleasures — like talking to a friend, or eating a nice meal — seem that much better. Meanwhile the lottery winners compare everything to … well, winning the lottery.
The result is what psychologists call a ‘hedonic treadmill’ — the unending search for happiness, which because of our tendency to acclimate, requires more and more extreme efforts.
There’s more in that vein — if you’re interested, go read the books! — but the reason I mention all this here is that I’m curious whether I can use these tendencies to my advantage, emotionally speaking. If advertisers and psychology grad students can manipulate our expectations — and thereby our emotions — by changing our anchors, why can’t we do it for ourselves?
I’m going to try an experiment through the month of January. First, I’m going to limit what I allow myself in an attempt to keep certain ‘treats’ from becoming ordinary. This won’t be a huge change, as I’ve already done this work on a lot of fronts, especially after my income drop last year. But in the areas of food and drink I will have to be extra-mindful, as that’s where I’m personally most likely to hop on the hedonic treadmill.
Second, each day I will make note of at least three things that I’m pleased with or happy about. They can be small things, but they do have to be specific to that day — no general platitudes like ‘I’m glad to have enough food to eat.’ And I’m going to do it via Twitter so I don’t slack. So when you see me start to number certain tweets, you know what’s up.
Too long for Twitter, too short for their own entries:
• • •
I’m reading about the cost of living in Tokyo and I make some strangled “omigod” kind of noise. Jak inquires, and I read him the bit about “$15 for a watermelon and $25 for a mango”.
Jak yelps, “$25 for a MANGO?!? We need to sell to Japan but live here! It would be the same as outsourcing to India or China, but in reverse.”
I start laughing, and he continues, as though he’s just solved all our problems in one stroke: “That’s it, we should write in Japanese!” A beat, then mock-crestfallen, “… oh wait.”
We look at each other for half a second, and then in unison cry “Michaela!” (The teenlet chose Japanese for her foreign language and is two years into a four-year program.)
While I continue to crack up, Jak elaborates, “Michaela could go to Japan and we could write it off as a business expense!” (This in reference to the class trip next summer for which she needs $2K.)
I roll my eyes, still chortling, and he grins at me. “I’m so glad you laughed. I like it when you laugh.”
• • •
I was up most of Tuesday night, prevented from sleep by one of my various medical conditions. In the early morning, shortly before falling into bed for a nap, I read about Google’s plans for a new operating system and, like half the Internet, mentioned it on Twitter. (Sorry, I can’t bring myself to use ‘tweet’ as a verb. I just can’t.)
When I awoke about three hours later, I had been dreaming that about mid-afternoon I realized that today was April 1, and I suddenly feared that the whole announcement was one of Google’s elaborate jokes. I pulled up Twitter and searched for any mention of Google in conjunction with April Fool’s, but got nothing. I couldn’t imagine that I was the first person to figure this out, but the date hardly seemed like a coincidence. I posted a note to the effect that I hoped it wasn’t just a gag …
A couple of minutes passed, and then my Twitter page refreshed, changing colors and layout. I had been pulled into a sort of parallel Twitter, where people who’d copped to the joke were chatting, sequestered from those who hadn’t, so as not to give anything away.
• • •
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t read a lot of fiction these days because I’ve gotten so damned hard to please. This is doubly true for short fiction, for some reason. So when I hit a rare, rare exception, it’s worth mentioning.
I recently did some freelance editing and layout on an iPhone version of the anthology Seeds of Change, which meant that I ended up reading the whole thing. The first story in that book — “N-words” by Ted Kosmatka — really impressed me. Besides the original anthology, it looks like “N-words” will also appear in both the Dozois and the Hartwell Year’s Best collections for 2009, so I guess I wasn’t alone.
I’ve been reading Philip Brewer’s personal finance posts for over a year now while failing to notice that he’s also a Clarion graduate and skiffy author. His short story “An Education of Scars” is available online and free to read. It’s worth the time, and then some.
The library continues to provide us with a rotating stack of very solid fantasy hardcovers. Doorstops, the lot of them. Huge books, and heavy — just ask poor Jak, who decided to get some exercise by making the last library trek on foot, and had to lug five of the buggers home.
And then there’s this one shabby trade paperback, pages bent and battered, cover barely attached. Poor thing won’t make it through another three pairs of hands before falling utterly to shreds. The one series out of dozens thus far that didn’t rate the more expensive hardcover treatment from its publisher, which turns out to be the newcomer Pyr, rather than one of the usual suspects.
I’m sure you can guess where this is going, because we all enjoy irony here, yes? That trade paperback series is the only one thus far that I’d consider worthy of a hardcover printing.
Like GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire, Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series eschews absolute good and evil for a cast of complex, morally grey characters. It’s fantasy-of-the-trenches, eased along by wry humor, with nary a cliché in sight.
I am at present only halfway through the second book of three, so there’s always the possibility that the author’s talents don’t extend to crafting a satisfactory conclusion … but I’d be surprised. The Blade Itself is the first book, if you’re inclined to chance it. I’ll let you know when I get to the end.