Friday, June 23, 2006

Bored in Paradise

That there is my favorite picture I took from Kauai, looking down the valley to the Na'Pali coast. I don't think I've ever had a view so striking. And yet, there in the midst of paradise, as in many areas of America, there is apparently a large and growing chrystal meth problem. Why can't they just get high on nature, with great hikes like this to enjoy on the island? The answer comes from the book I mentioned yesterday - Stumbling on Happiness - which I actually read on the way to Kauai. Habituation. That is the psychological term for diminishing marginal utility - if you see views like this everyday, you quickly become jaded - maybe it takes a little longer to become jaded, but you get there nonetheless.

I remember seeing a group of teenagers on a prior trip to Hawaii who looked bored out of their skulls - people from all over the world flocking to their island to steal a piece of paradise - and like most any teenager from most any place, these kids couldn't escape that island fast enough.

Anyway, there were two concepts from the book I plan to file in my little rolledex of erudite cocktail party converstation tidbits. The first was what the author called "language squishing." The idea is basically that we all are equipped to describe, and more importantly to feel, the highs and lows of life in much the same way, but the language we attach to certain experiences is a function of the range of experiences we have. Someone with limited experience might attach the same language of joy to the simple eating of a piece of cake as I might to the view of the coast depicted in the picture - we'd both identify these two very different experiences as being the same on the old happiness meter. The cake eater has to make the same rankings of happiness over a much smaller range of experiences, and so the language gets squished - what he merits to be fantastic the worldly man rates as mildly pleasant.

The opposite of the "language squishing" concept is "experience stretching" - once you experience something new, you have to stretch the language out from its previous bounds - eating cake may no longer be the greatest earthly experience. Your previous range of experience is now found rather wanting, and so eating cake will never deliver the punch it once did. This of course implies that experience stretching is not necessarily a good thing for your overall happiness, unless you can maintain the ability to experience those things at the top end of your scale.

The concepts I think provide the basis for explaining things that otherwise seem inexplicable. In India, for example, extremely poor people look like they are quite happy, and somilar observations are made by Westerners who travel or live among those in Third World countries. They seem no less happy than wealthy westerners, and quite a bit more happy than poor westerners. For the poor in the US, for example, the standard of living is such that they can afford TVs, and so they have a glimpse of what a richer life is like, but not the ability to experience the fruits of that life directly. So their experience scale is stretched through what they can see, but at the same time they can't afford to experience the things they desire directly. Poor people in India generally don't have cable.

I think it also provides a cautionery tail for child-rearing: expose your kid to too much of your own wealth, and you stretch his experience to a level he probably won't be able to achieve through a good portion of his early adult years. He becomes spoiled for good reason. That is why when we left them behind on our way to Hawaii, we were doing them a huge favor. That is the kind of selfless parenting we are all about.

Finally, back to bored chrystal meth using teens in Hawaii - people have different levels of preference for experience stretching in and of itself. Some are content with the range of experiences they've already had; others not so much. Those who aren't, and who cannot afford to stretch it in beneficent ways, probably seek to stretch any way they can, including with drugs. Or Chartreuse, whatever the case may be. Still others may be content at some level of experience beyond their current level; whereas others will constantly need to upgrade. If you constantly need to upgrade, I think you again run into trouble.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll just be content with my bottle of Chartreuse, thank you.

6:46 AM  
Blogger MajTJKingKong said...

Is Chartreuse floridated? Just curious if it will help me maintain my purity of essence.


9:37 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

Rest assured, Chartreuse will not harm your precious bodily fluids.

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hatcher, New post please. My life is not complete without your bi-weekly dose of wisdom.

4:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hatch, Please post.

4:19 AM  

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