Changing Endings 

I like New Year’s; turning the page in my calendar, start new with 2016 and over again with 1 January. During the holidays I read The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz and finished Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Both authors made me reflect as they touched on our resistance to change. I share these thoughts ahead of New Year; when we put something behind for something unknown.

‘We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one.’ (Grosz)

Making small changes is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation.  Grosz tells the unusual (real) story of a women who survived the plane crash of the World Trade Center on 9/11. She left the building immediately after she saw the plane hit the tower next to hers, while her colleagues unfortunately did what most others did, stayed until it was too late. Research shows that when a fire alarm rings, we do not act immediately. Instead of leaving a building we wait; for more clues, smell of smoke, or advice from someone we trust. We don’t even trust emergency exists, and almost always try to exit the same way we entered.

I don’t know about you, but shamefully I recognised the many times the fire alarm went off at my office I continued working, thinking exactly as Grosz described, either ‘it’s probably nothing’ or ‘someone will tell me if it’s serious…’. Another reminder that we should confront our fears, and question our thoughtless habits and routines more often.

Our emotional response to loss is stronger than to gain; we fight harder to prevent losses, than to achieve gains. Kahneman describes how we feel pain when we have to give something up and pleasure when we receive. Owning a good increases its value and we are only willing to sell it (if at all) for more than we bought it for, or its value. While ‘90% survival’ sounds encouraging, ‘10% mortality’ is rather frightening. Kahneman does not offer an antidote, he simply describes our response for us to be more attentive to our perception of loss.

In terms of human rights it can perhaps translate into the need to not only fight against violation of rights (loss) but to be more ambitions and setting the bar higher; to promote the enjoyment of rights (gain). The same ambition should apply for the personal goals we set for ourselves.

We need a happy ending and plenty of good memories to defeat a bad one. Our brains are designed to priorities bad news and threats, as well as memories of them. While an angry face ‘pops out’ of a crowd of happy faces, a single happy face does not stand out in an angry crowd. The recipe to successful relationships Kahneman’s say, is to make sure positive interaction outnumbers negative ones by at least five to one, put differently: avoiding bad above seeking good. We compose our stories and design our memories based on the peak and the end of a moment, and not the duration itself. People prefer a long period of mild unpleasantness if they know that the end will be better, in front of the opportunity for a long happy period if it is likely to have a poor ending. As an example, Kahneman proposes to lower the peak intensity during a hospital procedure to reduce the patient’s memory of pain, instead of minimising the duration.

These observations made me think about the Facebook Experiment showing that the ‘non stop great news channel’ creates envy as many perceive others as more amazing, happy and successful. Staying off Facebook for a week proved people less stressed and more present in the moment. Maybe these FB posts and photos is a way for people to transform their peak moments into lasting memories, and defeating the duration of the bad ones. Does our online profile change the ending of our story?

Both the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index and the Happiness Research Institute  provides interesting reading about what makes us feel good. While getting out of poverty and having a decent salary is a determinator, getting rich does not makes us happier. Similarly, having leisure time is essential but the more you have, the less worth is each added day than the one before.

With those words l wish you a Happy New Year, and I look forward to the challenges and adventures 2016 will offer!

Read also my previous posts about Kahneman’s theories; Too Slow for Fast Populism and Taking  Fear Seriously.

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