Philosopher for a Day

In Douglas Adams’ 1979 sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe, a supercomputer named Deep Thought, after 7.5 million years of calculation, finally releases the answer to the Great Question. It declares that the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything” is 42. 


Look, I know some things, and after a few glasses of prosecco I apparently know a few more things, and after mmmf-some decades of pondering the same question I have a different answer. Mine is 5¼. This, admittedly, may take a bit of explaining, a little meandering, and possibly a glass of something bubbly, but hang in there with me if you are so inclined. 


For those of you who don’t know me personally, about two years ago I moved into a house on two acres with a lovely view of the James River. A few weeks into the move, a friend dropped in and I philosophically asked her if I would ever get tired of the sight. “Yep,” she replied immediately, "you won’t even notice it in a few months.” After pushing her over the deck railing to the rocks below, in my mind, the truth of what she said sank in. No matter how beautiful a view is, after a few days it just becomes background. What makes us do that?


With a little research, I found that this phenomenon is called hedonistic adaptation, and it's a concept that underscores the paradoxical nature of human contentment. As we go about our lives, we return to a baseline level of happiness despite significant positive or negative events. The good news is that when we hit a bad stretch, we are programmed to drift back up to our happier self. The paradox is that as we become happier in a moment, behind the scenes our subconscious releases the discontentment police who surround it with crime scene tape and start yelling “nothing to see here, move along,” and we drift back to our baseline.


At its core, hedonistic adaptation challenges the pursuit of happiness that dominates much of our human endeavors. It’s also why psychologists refer to it as the hedonic treadmill. The initial surge of joy from a new achievement, a material possession, or beautiful surroundings diminishes over time. This diminishing return implies that no matter how much one accumulates or experiences, the expected long-term increase in happiness remains elusive.  So what can we do to get off this treadmill if the pursuit of pleasure is inherently self-defeating?


I’ve noticed that philosophical points are like liquor, homemade never goes down as smoothly as something with a recognized name on the bottle, so let me reference the answer through a long dead, white, male, philosopher named Epicurus. He believed the cultivation of simple pleasures, particularly in nature, can effectively raise our happiness level. (I, brand X, believed if I made an extra effort to focus on the flora and fauna on the property, it might stave off the drift into the mundane.)


So I started paying closer attention to my surroundings. Bird feeders went up, corn was thrown on the beach twice a day for the Canada geese and ducks, and I downloaded the Merlin app so I could identify birds by their call. As if by magic I started noticing blue birds, pileated woodpeckers, and wood ducks. I learned there were different types of swallowtails, and cheered when I found pockets of milkweed seedlings, knowing they were the only food monarch butterflies would eat. An effort was made to view blacksnakes as elegant gliders instead of dangerous soul-sucking monsters (emphasis on effort was made). Deer did their thing, and the occasional red fox was treated like a celebrity sighting. 


To my surprise, two years into this little thought experiment I’m still enjoying the view almost as much as the first time I saw it. Lesson learned- if you make a conscious effort to hold on to a feeling of enjoyment, you have a greater chance of enjoying it longer. This, by the way, nicely fits into my five and a quarter philosophy of life, which I will attempt to explain thusly.


Our conscious mind represents 5% of our mental activity, while our subconscious mind handles 95% of our decisions, behaviors and emotions. Not that I want to start consciously regulating my own digestive system, but I think it’s ok to try to claw back a little of the territory my subconscious is hanging onto. Years ago I set the goal of increasing my consciousness by a measly quarter of one percent with a 5¼% goal. Admittedly it’s a somewhat arbitrary number, but I was looking for that balance of something small enough to achieve, but large enough to make an impact. I tried to make myself live just a little bit more in the moment, take a slightly more positive view, be a smidge more empathetic, and if I felt like my mind was overreacting to something, I asked it to dial it back a bit. Has it worked? Admittedly the empirical data is lacking, but I will say that if I consciously focus on making a slight improvement to my mood, my thoughts, the moment I’m in, things get better. 


So hedonistic adaptation be damned. It’s hard enough to get to your happy place, the last thing you need is your bossy brain convincing you something is not as nice as you think it is. Thoughts become things, choose the good ones.

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