The realization of how relative happiness is became very apparent to me some years ago when I was in the burn department.
One day a new patient came to the burn department — Miri, a teenage girl. Miri was 17 and her boyfriend just informed her that he was leaving her for someone else. As passionate as only teenagers can be, she went to the bathroom, slashed her wrists and poured bleach on them. As luck had it, when she was brought into the emergency room, Dr. Batya Yafe was there, an amazing woman and specialist in both plastic surgery and microsurgery who was able to reconstruct Miri’s blood vessels and take care of the damaged skin on her wrists.
A few weeks later Miri was a functional teenager again, but with second degree burns on her wrists. Relative to the rest of us, this was a relatively minor injury, but I am sure it was still very painful. The first few weeks were a serious adjustment for her – switching from being an active teenager in love to a patient in the burn department surrounded by these awful smells and many people in tremendous agony is not easy for anyone and particularly not for an idealistic teenager. The amazing thing was to see her a few weeks later and in the months to follow when she would come back to visit us. She seemed like a new and altogether person. She was happy, energetic, and with an appetite for life.
The scars that Miri carried on her wrists must have made her feel immensely different in the world outside the burn department, a constant reminder of her time spent in the burn department and the events that brought her there. I also suspect that these scars acted as a permanent reminder of what could have been, and her relative fortune in life. Was her newfound happiness related to the negative experience in the burn department? I imagine that Miri’s injury and her weeks in the burn department adjusted her perspective on life. Both the struggle she had with her burns, and the comparison to the other people in the burn department must have dwarfed her perceptions of her romantic trouble in comparison.
The burns on her wrists really helped Miri, and more generally I think that injuries that “work best” in giving people a new perspective on life are those that continuously act as a reminder of their relative happiness — even once the initial injury is over. Miri’s wrists, or losing a leg, for example, are promising on these grounds because the loss can act as a permanent reminder. And so are deep burns (the superficial ones are not as good because they can disappear with time). Lets be clear — I am not advocating burning people who are not very happy with their lives and letting them struggle with the pain and agony of burns, the slow recovery, and the comparison to other less fortunate individuals — but I do think that ironically such negative experiences can actually improve the outlook people have on life and their motivation for living.
So, as we plan for 2011 maybe we can find ways to be happy without any serious injuries.
Happy new year
One of the most general principles of human decision making is that we use relativity as a way to figure out how much we value things. We see a sale sign and the comparison of the current price to a more expensive past price makes us think that we are standing in front of a good deal. We see a modestly prices sweater next to a much more expensive one and we reason that is it a better deal for the money. And so on.
Relativity is not always the right strategy for figuring out how much to value things (very often it is not), but it gives us a quick and handy tool for going about the world making decisions.
Over the years the same type of relative decision making has been shown in monkeys, birds, and bees, but now it has been shown even with very simple lifeforms — the slime mould, Physarum polycephalum
Latty and Beekman did one such test using two food sources – one containing 3% oatmeal and covered in darkness (known as 3D), and another with 5% oatmeal that was brightly lit (5L). Bright light easily damages the slime mould, so it had to choose between a heftier but more irritating food source, and a smaller but more pleasant one. With no clear winner, it’s not surprising that the slime mould had no preference – it oozed towards each option just as often as the other.
But things changed when the researchers added a third option into the mix – a food source containing 1% oatmeal and shrouded in shadow (1D). This third alternative is clearly the inferior one, and the slime mould had little time for it. However, its presence changed the mould’s attitude toward the previous two options. Now, 80% of the slime mould headed towards the 3D source, while around 20% chose the brightly-lit 5L one. Even for slime mould relativity matters, suggesting that it is a very basic form of decision making!