The Human Condition
It’s fascinating how we get so accustomed to our condition that we become blind to it. I was microwaving some water a few days ago and thought, “wow, I’m using an appliance that’s the result of years of research using concepts and discoveries which themselves took years to develop. The whole process has been slowly building on itself for hundreds of years (or longer, depending on how you look at it), and most of the time I just walk up to the thing, stick in my food, and still wish it was faster.” Why don’t I walk up to it and think, “this thing is amazing! It would have taken me so much longer to gather sticks and start a fire.”
What would life be like if we could see and appreciate our condition in the way a person living a hundred years ago would? The real question is, why don’t we?
I think the answer has to do with the way the brain processes information. When we first come across a new environmental stimulus our attention is automatically drawn to it. As conclusions are drawn and patterns established, the mind no longer needs to focus on it, and the stimulus slowly fades from conscious experience. I would imagine the cause of this is an evolutionarily-induced cost savings for the brain. We don’t have the mental resources to consciously process all of the information in our environment, so we have a mechanism – learning – for focusing only on the new or unique stimuli and handling the rest with subconscious routines. There’s at least circumstantial evidence for this in the fact that something as major as a new job is always a stressor for people, even if the new job is less “stressful” than the old one. There’s just so much new information that needs to be consciously processed that the mind is overwhelmed until subconscious routines are built to handle the regular stuff.
I think this explains why we don’t notice how great our lives are. American culture basically holds that one’s happiness is determined by one’s environment; if you’re living the “good life” you’ll be happy. But happiness and well-being aren’t caused by our external environment; they’re caused by our internal appraisal of it. When a person achieves something that makes them happy – a new car, a better job – the immediate experience is positive. We think it will last, but as we grow accustomed to the new thing, our mind stops focusing on it and we slowly lose the positive feelings that come with the conscious experience. I think we’re mistaking a singular and transitory experience for a lasting condition; you feel happy about the change to the new condition and not the new condition itself because your mind is only drawn naturally to it while it’s still fresh.
The real challenge is to figure out how to raise the base level of our happiness so we don’t need positive, transitory environmental experiences to feel satisfied.
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