Sarah Cotterill, PhD

The Science of Adversity

What My Cancer Remission Has Taught Me About the Human Mind

The highs in life are more short-lived than the lows.

Posted Sep 08, 2016

In my professional career, and more dramatically outside it, I’ve been struck by a remarkably robust, profoundly unfortunate phenomenon: the highs are far more short-lived than the lows. 

I’m 29. I’m admittedly still young. But I do feel somewhat uniquely qualified to speak to this point because my life the past few years has run the full affective gamut. An entirely bizarre mix of profound fortune and misfortune. 

I’m about to enter what is, on paper, the final year of my Ph.D. in psychology. But for me, graduate school has been lived not in semesters but in, on average, six-month increments. The time between my CT scans. At each of these bookends, doctors peer into my abdominal cavity to see whether the cancer I was diagnosed with three years ago this week has returned. 

It’s a strange new ritual that exists alongside the usual ones—the talks and the cheap food and the trips to IKEA. And I’ve been delivered medical verdicts in the middle of our lab’s weekly meetings. When I was stuck in traffic, on the way home for Thanksgiving. In my office, just prior to meeting with a student.

By John Marino (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By John Marino (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Each time I get good news, it’s like the air I breathe becomes its own kind of narcotic. And the thought that it will continue to flow in and out triggers gratitude so intense, I swear it won’t wear off.  

And, in a sense, it doesn’t. But the urgency of it—the way it can obliterate life’s noise—is frustratingly fleeting. In a week or so, it will be altogether drown out by the humming of mundane stressors. The harsh feedback I received from a colleague on a paper. Whether a certain professor thinks I’m an idiot. Whether I should get my dog the salmon or the chicken flavored food. 

That’s at once hard to admit and entirely remarkable. Somehow a paper rejection trumps finding out, for the latest time, that I’m not going to die. But irrational as it seems, it’s actually entirely predictable from the vantage point of science. 

In fact, the tendency to attend more to negative than positive information is so robust, evidence of it has been documented across domains. In a review piece on negativity bias, the term for this unfortunate phenomenon, the psychologists Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman note that we have more words to describe pain (burning, pinching, stinging, aching, etc.) than pleasure (sweet, electrifying). We are better at discerning people’s negative facial expressions than their positive ones. We learn more quickly when we are punished than when we are rewarded. And we are more sensitive to losses than we are to gains (a 5% hit to our salaries feels worse than a 5% bonus feels good).  

It all begs the question—why do we seem out to make ourselves miserable? Why is the joy and relief following good news so brief, so elusive? 

Part of the answer has to do with evolution: It was more costly for our ancestors to overlook negative, as compared to positive, information. Whereas bypassing berries in a tree might have cost them a meal, failing to notice a lion lurking in the bush could cost them their lives. But the strategies that helped our ancestors propagate their genes don’t always serve us well in the modern world: Negative feedback from our bosses is not, in fact, equivalent to getting mauled by a lion. 

An obsession with perfection might also be to blame here. Perfection, by definition, is one-dimensional. Falling short of it, Rozin and Royzman note, can occur in myriad ways—ways we’re sensitive to, when we hold ourselves to a high bar (Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”)

And anecdotally, I’d offer another, complementary perspective. I attend to the negative, at the expense of the positive, in some sort of misguided effort to protect myself. The idea that if I worry, or if I don’t let myself get carried away by good news, the disappointment at bad news won’t feel so unpleasant. 

From a neuroscience perspective, there is actually something to be said for that. Our brains respond not simply to the sheer amount of negativity or positivity wrapped up in any event, but the extent to which it comes as a surprise. You can protect yourself from the stinging pain of a bad outcome by worrying about it in advance. 

But the problem with that approach is that so often bad news doesn’t come. There have been many times in the past few years where I felt pain somewhere in my body— pain I was certain was the cancer, colonizing another organ. Except it wasn’t. I’m still here. Ignoring my breath's ebb and flow, in favor of whatever is going on in my brain, has yet to pay off.  

And so the mantra of my remission has become this: Reality is my friend

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Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and social psychology review, 5(4), 296-320.

(C) Sarah Cotterill. All rights reserved.

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