Managing Extremes

Humans seem to have a roughly fixed average level of contentedness. That is not to say that we have a fixed level of contentedness, because we don't.

Sometimes we feel so incredible it's like we're a fireworks show - glowing, energetic, tremendous, expansive, colorful. Sometimes we feel so low it's like we're like a clogged drain - gross, broken, slimy, cold, stuck.

Sometimes we stand on a mountain, our hands spread out wide and feet planted, watching the clouds below, and feel like gods. Sometimes we lie on our side in a ditch, clutching our knees to our chest, shivering, and feel like crying or throwing up.

Sometimes the one happens right after the other. It is from the greatest height that we fall the farthest, and from the deepest vale that we climb the tallest peak.

Yet, if you average those peaks and troughs of emotion, they don't change drastically from month to month or year to year. The best years of my life were only marginally better than the years that preceded or followed them. Our emotions may or may not swing wildly, but our overall level of contentedness stays roughly the same.

There is a perennial debate in the different disciplines whether the peaks are worth the troughs or whether, knowing that the higher we climb, the farther we fall, it makes more sense to try to regulate the cycle. Or, put another way: "Is getting drunk worth the hangover?"

I don't think there's any denying that alcohol feels really good the night you drink it and really bad the next day. Take it as given that the good is roughly cancelled out by the bad. So if you just look at averages, it would have the same net benefit as not drinking alcohol at all. That doesn't mean it's as if you didn't have it, though. You did. You felt great all night and terrible all day. That's a totally different experience than feeling okay all night and whatever all day.

The psychological phenomenon of negativity bias suggests that humans weight negatives more heavily than we weight positives. So it takes less bad to make us feel bad than good to make us feel good. I'm not sure that's relevant here, though, because I'm taking it as given that you feel equally good and bad in succession, not receive an equal quantity of good and bad things.

Keynesian economists say we should regulate the economy to "stabilize output over the business cycle". I'm reluctant to give the same advice to individuals, though, because I think that policy is relevant only to the emergent properties of large economics systems.

Personally, I'm not sure I could say goodbye to those peak experiences, even if sacrificing them meant having a better overall life. That being said, I do try to manage the troughs by giving myself time and space to process the pain, nibbling on high quality chocolate, and listening to Side B of Abbey Road.