We respond to differences, not absolutes

Pixabay Alexas_Fotos


Excerpt from “The Sweet Spot” the pleasures of suffering and the search for meaning

We respond to differences, not absolutes, and this means that something can become pleasurable not because of any stand-alone properties it has, but rather in contrast to the experience of the past.

As one neuroscientist put it, “Because the brain grades on a curve, endlessly comparing the present with what came just before, the secret to happiness may be unhappiness . . .

the transient chill that lets us feel warmth, the sensation of hunger that makes satiety so welcome, the period of near despair that catapults us into the astonishing experience of triumph.”

If this all seems vague, consider the research of my colleague Robb Rutledge and his collaborators.

In laboratory studies, they asked people to go through a series of financial choices that were either certain or risky, and every few trials they were asked,

“How happy are you right now?”

The main predictor of reported short-term happiness wasn’t how much the subjects were making;

it was how much they were making relative to their expectations.

Momentary pleasure and pain are, at least in part, relative experiences.



2 responses to this post.

  1. I can see this. Crisis seems to make me happy. After hitting an elk, an accident that could have killed me, I was in such a good mood getting checked out at the hospital they didn’t take me seriously. If they had seen the car they would have. My childhood was one crisis after another. It feels familiar and comfortable.

  2. We get mixed up more having abusive childhood

    Pain pleasure survival mode fear anxiety isolation are mixed in our ptsd soup

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