Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

An Hour Later You're Hungry Again Not Just With Chinese Food

Stimulation relativity, expectation inertia and the happiness treadmill
Jeremy Sherman
This post is a response to Opportunity Cost: Social Science's Biggest Idea Ever by Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D.

Yes, I’m addicted to checking my mail, article hits, and Facebook likes, but my addiction isn’t always to the same degree.  I check most intensely just after a surge of attention. When the surge subsides, I check a lot.

I’m also addicted to rich food and again, my addiction isn’t always to the same degree.  It’s most intense after a lusty binge.  If I had French fries yesterday, I crave them today. 

This correlation between the stimulation you’ve had and the stimulation you crave has been hot news in diet science over the past five years.  Scientists have discovered that eating rich foods raises our stimulation thresholds. After bingeing on fat, sugar and salt it takes more of them all to get us off.  It’s as though our pleasure centers cry “Hey mouth. Where’d the stimulation go? Why boiled cabbage today when I got cream pie yesterday? Pleasure me to the manner to which I’m accustomed or I won’t stop screaming for more.”

Our greatest concern about vibrators and pornography is similar.  For those of us who find such things stimulating, they raise the pleasure bar, our pleasure centers later crying, “Hey, what happened to the stimulus? You expect me to get off on this?!”

Psychologists generalize about stimulation relativity by talking about the “happiness treadmill,” our effort to run toward a goal that never arrives.  We strive for happiness as though it was a goal we could achieve, but it isn’t.  Our happiness is relative to happiness we’ve had or see others having. If you had $5k yesterday and $10k today you’re happy.  If you had $100k yesterday and $10k today you’re not. 

If you have $10k and your neighbor has $5k you’re happy, but if your neighbor has $100k you’re not. We’re on a treadmill trying to keep up, delighted whenever we can raise the bar; disappointed whenever we fall short of the bar we just raised.  And it’s not just money. It’s status and fame and anything we find stimulating.

The Tao To Ching reflects on stimulation relativity too, with lines like:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other. 

Economists get it too.  The field didn’t really take off until economists stopped thinking about value as fixed, but relative.  They don’t think things have intrinsic but relative value and are constantly asking, “compared to what?” They measure demand on “utility curves,” which, for example measure your demand for hot dogs relative to your demand for hamburgers. They attend to “opportunity costs” the cost to you of doing what you’re doing, compared to what else you could be doing.  If instead of having sex with your partner you could be having it with more stimulating porn or vibrators, the opportunity cost of sex with your partner goes up, and by definition the benefit of sex with your partner goes down. With stimulation it’s all relative.

Developmental psychologists are concerned about stimulation relativity when they worry about early childhood use of movies, computers, TV and cell phones. These high stimulus things are like cream pies for the mind. Compared to them, a classroom is bound to be dull.

I noticed this effect even in my early childhood long, long ago, before the stimulus was very stimulating. I’d get excited when a teacher declared that she was going to show us a filmstrip or 1960’s documentary.  Compared to her dull lectures these modestly stimulating alternatives we’re ecstasy.

But back home after school, no way would I flip to those dull shows, not when I could watch Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Laugh In instead. And now I wouldn’t want to watch those shows except for a sentimental moment--just not stimulating enough when I can take in a Jason Statham action movie instead.  As the song from even before my childhood asks, “How are you going to get them back on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” 

Relative value explains the Monday Blues.  Monday isn’t a bad day, except compared to Saturday and Sunday. The party’s over; the grind is only a grind compared to the party. 

And it wouldn’t be a grind compared to a worse job than yours. After a month scrounging for food at a Pakistani garbage dump, your current work grind would be a party.

And other blues too, most vividly, over lost love.  Partnering is like floating hand in hand to higher heights with your beloved, like tandem air balloons rising together. Breaking up, you’re likely to compare your happiness to your ex’s.  If floating free, he or she rises, you’re bound to feel as though your balloon is sinking even if it isn’t. If yours rises compared to your ex’s your breakup could even feel like a party.

Compared to youth, aging is no party either. In our response to aging you hear our ways of dealing with the disappointment.

One way is to keep the stimulus coming. You’re only as old as you feel. In midlife by a red sports car, party like there’s no tomorrow or more to the point like its still yesterday. Miss yesterday’s cream pie? Find another one to eat today.

Another is inconsolable grief over the youth you’ve lost. Another is sentimentality and gratitude. You had your day in the sun, and fair’s fair, it’s time for younger folks to have it. I’ll just sit here in my rocking chair looking at old photo albums of the good times I had.

Another is striving toward neutrality, off the Ferris wheel altogether, the up and down relative to other seats.  Also from the Tao:

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is a dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
you position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

Or

Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don't realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.

I employ all four ways of dealing with stimulation relativity. I keep the stimulation binge happening, I grieve the lost stimululation, I reminisce, and I try to step out of it to “realize the source,” so when death comes, as it does bit by bit, little deaths with every eventual loss off stimulation, I’m ready.

And I try to realize the source which we might call “Expectation Inertia,” inertia here meaning the habit of all habits to persist. We have habits of expectation, and when they’re not met the expectation persists, crying, “Hey, where’d you go? I expect to be maintained in the manner to which I’m accustomed.”

I also work modestly at the edges of my asceticism, committing to low stimulation so I can tolerate more of it.  You’ve probably heard the Nietzsche quote, “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Unpack it and you get stimulation relativity. That which doesn’t kill you makes you more tolerant of hard work.  And conversely, that which thrills you makes you weaker, less tolerant of hard work. 

I believe in the yoga of “expectation management” trying to keep my highs somewhat in line with the highs I can count on, or at least to try to remember as I’m biting into that cream pie that it’s going to cost me, not just in weight tomorrow but the weight of expectation whereby boiled cabbage loses its appeal.

Post Script

Last night we ordered Chinese take-out. Someone (alright, it was me) ordered sweet and sour chicken, basically donuts in syrup served as a main course. 

Just now, between writing and editing this I dished out some leftovers, and remembered that old saying that the problem with Chinese food is that an hour later your hungry again.  Maybe because it’s not filling enough—that’s what I always thought it meant, but more likely because it’s such gloriously lusty food, it raises the pleasure bar. And an hour later, after your stomach contracts, you rush back for another donut.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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