Hedonic Adaptation

Paintings over table in PhillyMy reflections here were prompted by an article in today’s New York Times entitled “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.” The article, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is about how the euphoria associated with the first phase of romantic relationships tends to wear off relatively quickly. I’d initially planned to write a piece on relationships, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the problem Lyubomirsky describes isn’t restricted to relationships. Lyubomirsky charges that romantic relationships are subject to the same dynamic of what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” as are other thrilling experiences. That is, euphoria, she observes, tends to be short lived, whether it is associated with “a new job, a new home, a new coat,” or a new love.

The first thing that annoyed me about the article was its purely speculative character, or more correctly, the fact that it was mere speculation paraded in front of the reader as scientific fact. “[A]lthough we may not realize it,” asserts Lyubomirsky, “we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety.” Says who? Where is the scientific evidence to support such a claim? We like variety in some things, to be sure, but we like uniformity in others. We appear, in fact, to crave uniformity at least as much as we crave variety. We need, for example, to be able to assume that the future will resemble the past in crucial respects if we are going to be able to function at all and are notorious for being unable to appreciate variety when the variety in question would tend to discredit the worldview to which we have become comfortably wedded.

My point is not that Lyubomirsky is mistaken, or that she has no right to indulge in such speculations. My point is that they are speculations and should not be presented as if they were facts. One reader, Joseph Badler, made the point beautifully. “The ‘we are biologically hardwired’” he wrote, “is just too cheap. It can be used to justify anything. Evo psych post-hoc explanations are making everybody intellectually lazy.”

“Evo psych” refers to evolutionary psychology, which, if you ask me, is a completely bogus discipline that purports to provide evolutionary explanations for traits of human psychology. Why do people appear to crave variety in their sexual partners? Well, the evolutionary psychologist responds (and here I am paraphrasing Lyubomirsky) , because it guarantees a more robust gene pool. That makes sense, of course, but so does the observation that infidelity can be corrosive of social bonds and that promiscuity could thus threaten both the immediate family and the long-term survival of the entire community.

So which is it? Are people hard-wired to crave variety to ensure a more robust gene pool, or are they hard-wired to crave uniformity to be better able to survive to the age of reproduction? Or could they be hard-wired, as seems the most likely, to crave both things relative to particular environments and situations? But if this is the case, then evolutionary “explanations” for psychological traits are obviously speculative because of the seemingly limitless variables one would have to take into account when calculating in what sense natural selection might lie behind a particular psychological tendency.

The situation of the evolutionary psychologist becomes almost unmanageably complex even if we assume that all human beings exhibit the same psychological tendencies. Once we acknowledge that all human beings do not exhibit the same psychological tendencies, then evolutionary psychology, becomes, I would argue, a mere parody of an academic discipline. That is, I’d go further even than Badler. I don’t think it’s simply making people intellectually lazy. I think it’s making them stupid. That it continues to be respected as an academic discipline suggests that the academy is egalitarian to a fault in that even the criterion that one ought to be able to think clearly in order to be admitted to it appears to have been judged unfairly discriminatory.

A number of readers took exception to the comparison of a new love with new material possessions such as a “home” or “coat.” (I almost always enjoy reading the comments readers post to articles such as this one. They confirm my faith that the average person is neither so simple minded nor so superficial as the authors of the articles appear to assume). “Didn’t know love was material,” observes Anna from Ontario wryly.

It’s true that our relationships with people are importantly different from our relationships with things. They may not be so different, though, as some of the opponents of Lyubomirsky’s apparent materialism assume. Another reader points out that Lyubomirsky and those who agree with her “do not consider how the disposable and planned obsolescent qualities of consumer capitalism also ‘program’ us to always desire the new.”

I wouldn’t put all the fault, though, on consumer capitalism. Consumer capitalism, after all, is an expression of something in human nature. Unfortunately, it is the expression, I would argue, of one of the less appealing tendencies in human nature–impatience.

The thrill of the new is something with respect to which we are largely, if not entirely, passive. It wears off though. To continue to be thrilled by the same thing requires diligent effort. The problem with consumer capitalism is that what it parades for our approval is primarily the cheap and tawdry, things that glitter but which are not gold. Such things thrill us before we are fully aware of what they are. Once we learn what they are, they cease to thrill because there is nothing inherently thrilling about them.

Of course even things that are inherently valuable and which thus ought to be inherently thrilling are subject to the same dialectic. We are thrilled with the initial acquisition of them, but that thrill eventually wears off, or at least quiets down. It doesn’t take a great deal of intellectual effort, however, to appreciate that the thrill that dies down in this way is the thrill of acquisition rather than of possession. We are thrilled to have acquired a thing, but then we get used to having it. If it is truly something worth having, though, and we are capable of appreciating it as such, then the initial euphoria of acquisition should be replaced by the more enduring thrill of possession, or more correctly, of appreciation. The problem is, such appreciation requires effort. It requires that we look at the thing again, look at it long and carefully, that we actively search for what is good and valuable in it, rather than simply surrender ourselves to a passive thrill.

Years ago, when I first became engaged, my sister caught me admiring my engagement ring. “You’ll stop doing that after a while,” she said. I found that remark disturbing. I didn’t want to cease to see my ring as beautiful any more than I wanted to cease to love the man who had given it to me. It will happen to you though, her words suggested, independently of what you want. It will happen to you. Kierkegaard talks about that dynamic in the first volume of his two-volume work Either-Or. Everything disappoints, he, or at least one of his pseudonyms, says there.

But does everything have to disappoint? I have never ceased to see my engagement ring as beautiful, just as I have never ceased to love the man who gave it to me. I’m a very materialistic person, in a way. I have lots of things, lots of nice things in which I take enormous pleasure that does not diminish with time. I collect paintings and fountain pens and antiques of various sorts, and each one of these possessions adds immeasurably to the quality of my life.

I love to sit at my table in the morning and sip my coffee (I love coffee!) and look at the two paintings I’ve hung on the wall on the far side of the table. One is a landscape I found in an antique store and the other is a still life I did myself. They are not great masterpieces, but they are very nice and I derive enormous pleasure from looking at them. I look at them in the morning when I am having my coffee and in the evening when I am having dinner. I often work at that table in the afternoon and I’ll glance admiringly up at them periodically even then.

I don’t know what it is exactly that I like so much about them. Each is rough, and yet each is the product of some person’s vision. I like people. They are endlessly fascinating to me. I love handiwork because you can see the humanity in it. I like things because I like creation. I value it as something beautiful and moving. One reader of Lyubomirsky’s article observed that the reason her marriage had been happy until her husband’s death was that they had “had God.” Another reader pointed out, however, that that approach to keeping love alive won’t work for everyone because not everyone is religious. He (she?) went on to point out, however, that “looking beyond oneself and working toward the greater good (of one’s spouse, family, community, world) may be an essential element in the pursuit of lifelong happiness.” I’d agree with that. I’d argue, however, that unless you think that creation, or the universe, or whatever, is good, then even the “greater good” of one’s spouse, family, community, and even the world, will ultimately fall flat.

The challenge, I’d argue, to achieving an enduring happiness is that we’ve programmed ourselves, in a sense, to believe that happiness is inherently fleeting. That the thrill of acquisition is the only thrill there is. Whether that is the fault of consumer capitalism alone or whether it is an expression of something inherent in human nature, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.

On Parenting

OK, I do not have children and there are those who would charge that this disqualifies me from saying anything meaningful about parenting. I would respond to such a charge, however, with the observation that not being a parent myself means I occupy a disinterested perspective relative to the issue of parenting and that what I lack in practical experience I perhaps make up for in objectivity. I just finished reading Lori Gottlieb’s article “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” in The Atlantic and that prompted a number of reflections I would like to record here in the hope that they may help give some peace of mind to what it appears are increasing numbers of parents who fear they are doing irreparable damage to their children by, of all things, being too attentive.

I, like Gottlieb, am a fan of Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse,” which I will quote at greater length than she does because, well, I am a fan of it.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some new ones just for you.

….

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as quickly as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

I don’t actually think that people ought not to have children, but I do believe that man hands on misery to man and this recent spate of blaming parents for being too attentive to their children seems to be to be a case in point. The problem with parenting, throughout most of human history, has been inattentiveness. That’s no surprise. Life is hard. Parenting is hard. I don’t have children, at least in part, because I find being sufficiently attentive to my cats taxing. I’m not insensitive, at least not if I am to judge from what family and friends and close acquaintances say about me. On the contrary, I am considered to be relatively sensitive. I acquired a stray cat many years ago and was somewhat put out by its habit of walking across the papers I was trying to grade. It would jump up on my desk and walk back and forth in front of me as I was trying to work. As frustrated as I was, it was clear to me that the poor thing needed attention. It was a living being crying out for affection, and that cry was obviously more immediately important that was my need to grade another paper just then. So I would stop and pet it and play with it until its need for affection was satisfied and I could get back to work.

Needless to say, this dragged out the process of grading papers. The good part of it was that I learned then and there that I should not have children. A cat, after all, is much more self-sufficient than a human child, which is notorious for having the longest period of dependency of any offspring in the animal kingdom. If I found it difficult to attend to the needs of a cat, how much more difficult, I realized, would I find it to attend to the needs of a child.

That’s the thing. Children need an enormous amount of attention and, thankfully, there are people who seem able to give it to them without resentment. I’m not entirely without qualification to speak on the issue of the state of today’s youth. I teach at a university, so while I don’t have children myself, I have lots of experience with young people. My impression of them is, in fact, very positive. Gottlieb is a psychotherapist, and she’s concerned because she sees increasing numbers of young people who’ve had happy childhoods but who are “just not happy” as adults. But should that be a surprise? It’s not easy to be an adult, particularly a young adult. Life is hard, and young people, no matter how happy or unhappy their childhoods, have relatively little experience navigating the stormy waters of maturity. All of a sudden they are expected to make important decisions on their own, to choose a career, a job at which they will spend the majority of their waking hours for the rest of their lives, answering to someone who, unlike their parents, is not tied to them by bonds of deep affection.

Just writing that sends cold shivers down my spine. Life is hard. It’s full of frustrations and disappointments. No amount of good parenting can change that fact. No amount of good parenting can guarantee that a child will grow up to be a perfectly happy and well-adjusted adult. There is no such thing, and to suggest that there is and that parents who have failed to fashion it from the raw clay of their children is to add insult to the injury of having, finally, to release those children into the cold, cruel world.

Of course people who’ve had happy childhoods are less happy as young adults. Duh? Do baby birds look happy when their parents push them out of the nest? Have the people who are now blaming parents for having been too attentive to their children ever watched nature shows? College is hard work, and it gets harder every day in that it gets more competitive. And, fun, fun, real work is harder than college. Your boss probably won’t give you an extension on an important assignment, or allow you to redo it to improve your “grade”. Kids know this. They know that however hard college is, it is still a picnic compared to what comes after it, and that is what they are looking at as young adults. Happy, why should they be happy? Gottlieb got one thing right. “The American dream and the pursuit of happiness,” she observes, “have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way.” She doesn’t seem to see the implications of that observation though. There is nothing necessarily wrong with legions of people who’ve had happy childhoods being less happy as young adults. Being an adult is harder than being a child; most people struggle at it, even the ones, such as myself, who are really, really fortunate to find careers that are personally fulfilling, to say nothing of the multitudes who do not.

Rates of anxiety and depression, Gottlieb reports, have “risen in tandem with self esteem.” I’m willing to accept that rates of self-esteem among young people have risen because I have many friends with beautiful and apparently well-adjusted children, children who seem more even tempered, sympathetic and tolerant than I was as a child, or indeed than were any of my childhood friends. I’m optimistic, actually, about the future of humanity because of all the wonderful young people I see, including not just children , but also my students.

Ok, so much for rates of self-esteem. But have rates of anxiety and depression actually gone up? How does one measure such a thing? Presumably the measurements are made on the basis of the numbers of people seeking treatment for these conditions. But aren’t people with healthy self-esteem more likely to seek treatment than people with low self-esteem? There are many people my age or older who simply will not seek psychotherapeutic treatment for any reason because they see it as shameful. People with higher self-esteem are less concerned about things like that, and hence are more likely to seek treatment, thus skewing the numbers. That more people are seeking treatment for anxiety and depression does not thus necessarily mean more people are suffering from it. (It is interesting to note in this connection that neither Gottlieb nor anyone else she cites appears to acknowledge how these numbers may also be skewed by the increasingly aggressive marketing of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs by the pharmaceutical industry which appears designed to encourage pretty much everyone to seek treatment for anxiety and depression).

I don’t mean to suggest that children can’t be spoiled. They can, but there’s a difference between giving a child love and giving in to his or her every whim or desire. You can’t give a child too much love. So I say go ahead and pamper your children. Shelter them, protect them from as many of life’s hard knocks as you can for as long as you can. Reassure them that they are brilliant and beautiful. Comfort them when they fall, console them when they fail, etc., because there is no way in hell that you can be there for them all the time, even when they are children. Gottlieb observes naively, that “[k]ids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems.” But no parent can solve all a child’s problems, and the example she gives shows this. “I know of one kid,” she observes, “who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves.” By the time such kid are teenagers, she observes, “they have no experience with hardship.” Yeah, right. So the other kids are not going to make fun of the one kid who can’t be part of the carpool but whose parents have to drive him to school themselves. There is no way, no way any parent can keep a child from experiencing hardships. Kids are going to experience hardships, and they are going to learn, finally, to take care of themselves no matter how much parents may want to take care of them forever. One would think that if anyone understood this, it would be psychotherapists.

Perhaps what people in the psychotherapeutic professions should concentrate on is the hostility of the environment into which we are sending today’s youth. It’s never been easy to be an adult, but we’ve made it unnecessarily harder by creating a nasty punitive culture that is based on a negative view of human nature that we know now from biological and neurological research is demonstrably false. That is, people are not motivated by nothing but self interest, they are naturally sympathetic and empathetic. Perhaps the transition to adulthood would be less traumatic if our society were not based on the view it is “a war of all against all.” That is, perhaps our focus should not be on how this generation of parents, like every generation before it, is once again failing its children, but on how we are failing as a culture to create an environment that will maximize the potential for human happiness on an individual and a collective level.