When I wrote this in 2013, I’d had a nasty head cold for the past few days. Then one day I felt better (though not yet well) and it was so wonderful it reminded me of something important:
Most of the time I feel pretty good, and all I can think about are the aches and pains and deficiencies that keep me from feeling perfect. I am well housed and well fed and well loved and well paid (well, pretty well) but my attention is rarely drawn to these good fortunes – only when I get caught out in the cold rain without an umbrella, or I miss a meal, or I’m away from my loved ones, or I get a bill I can’t pay right away.
This is a trite lesson, I know, but I think some reflection might help me devise a better strategy for maximizing the joy in my life. Bear with me for a moment.
We are creatures driven by gradients, not absolutes. Our sense of well-being is extremely sensitive to how much better things are today than yesterday, and not very sensitive to how good they actually are now. The wealthy cannot really appreciate their wealth, they only get satisfaction from accumulating more. The poor are not really different; if they become wealthy, after the initial delight their static wealth becomes just as hollow. This is perfectly understandable in this model. So is the wayward eye of the person with an attractive, loving spouse. The stranger’s approval means more than the lover’s, because we already have the latter.
Is there any way this understanding can be anything but depressing and discouraging? I think so. Arrange to lose what means most – your health, your family, your home, your wealth – just so you can enjoy getting it back? That’s no solution, though many people resort to it.
But at any given time you there are some things you lack, and hunger for, while other hungers are satisfied. You can maximize your appreciation of life by what I call “Gradient Hopping“: quit seeking what you already have; refocus your attention on your unsatisfied needs and take action to gratify them without compromising those which are currently in good shape. Later on you can (and will probably need to) return to service the currently satisfied needs, since most of them recur periodically. In this endeavor you are unlikely to accumulate unappreciated excesses of any needs – which will benefit others with whom those resources should be shared.