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Study: You'll Be Happier Throwing Out That Bucket List Than Chasing It
In my motley career I have had long conversations with heads of state and Nobel Prize winners. I have hiked north of the Arctic Circle and watched humpback whales amble by while snorkeling in the tropics. I've published a book and watched the birth of my son. And it has not escaped my notice that compared to these (and other) peak experiences, most of my days are rather mousy and glum, when not twisted in anxieties as cutting as they are trivial. Such is life, as many have noted (here's just one fine example of the sentiment). So of course we chase adventure, excitement and glamor. They're a bulwark against sadness. Right? Wrong, says this paper. The emotional cost of such adventures is greater than their rewards, write the authors. Peak experiences will make you feel worse in the long run than you would have if you had stayed home.
The kind of peak experience that interests the buzz-killing authors (Gus Cooney, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson, whose paper will appear soon in the journal Psychological Science) is the kind that is rare: going into orbit, for example, or dining with the President. (They thus excuse themselves from addressing peak experiences that aren't rare, like the birth of a child, about which more later.) If you've spent time in orbit, for instance, you are unlike almost everyone else on earth, and the object of envy for millions of people. And, Cooney et al. write, "being both alien and enviable is an unlikely recipe for popularity." You say you don't care about being popular? Cooney et al. decided to see if that was really true.
Unable to take their undergraduate volunteers to the Clooney wedding or into orbit or into the Titanic, the authors simulated a "peak experience" as best they could. They had people watch short videos.
Each watching session involved 4 participants. They were told they'd be experiencing one of two videos, one highly rated and the other not so great. Before the experiment, each person answered the question "how do you feel right now?" by marking where s/he felt on a 100 point scale from "not very good" to "very good." Then s/he sat alone in a cubicle and watched a video. One of the four would get the fun video (an engaging scene in which a street magician entertains a happy crowd) ; the other three got the meh one (some low-budget animation).
Afterwards, the four were brought back together for a brief conversation at a table near their cubicles. Then each went back to the cubicle and answered some more questions: "how do you feel right now?" (again); and "In general, how did you feel during the interaction that took place?"; and how excluded did you feel during the conversation with the others? The experiment put 17 of these four-member panels through the process.
Who felt worse after their conversation with the others in their group? It turned out to be the people who'd had the better video (on the 100-point scale, their answer to "how do you feel right now?" averaged 53.26, where the blah-video-viewers averaged at 64.37). Moreover, the "lucky" viewers felt far more excluded (average just over 80 on the 100-point scale, versus 51 for the "ordinary experiencers"). A statistical analysis of the before and after results stongly suggests that the feeling of exclusion was in fact the reason those people felt worse.
In a second experiment, Cooney et al. repeated the procedure but also asked their volunteers to predict ahead of time how they would feel. People expected to feel better if they got the superior video, both before and after the conversation with others. In other words, people had unrealistic expectations: They didn't understand that they'd feel worse after having the better experience. Finally, a third experiment asked volunteers to make predictions about how others would feel. (The idea was to eliminate the possibility that people are realistic in general but delusional about themselves—"the general rule is disappointment but I will be the exception.") Again, they found the same pattern of false expectation. Their volunteers expected that having a better experience would leave the lucky people feeling better than the peons who had to watch the dull video. But the reality was that, again, those who had had the "better" experience felt worse, after their conversation with others.
In all three experiments, it seems, the volunteers were subject to the same delusion that Cass Sunstein describes in this amusing column about bragging. When we brag, according to this paper, which Sunstein quotes, we fail to anticipate that other people will not share our emotions. Similarly, the people in Cooney et al.'s study didn't anticipate that people who didn't share their experience would feel differently about it—and then leave them out in the cold because of that difference.
The point here, Cooney et al. say, is that there is a tension between two kinds of rush. One kind —"the cool tingle of Dom Pérignon or the hot snarl of a new Maserati"—is fun in and of itself (at least until we get used to it, as we quickly do). The other sort of pleasure (like, I'd say, attending a wedding, watching sports, throwing a dinner party) is inherently social. The whole point of doing it is doing it with others.
The quest for the first kind of experience demands that you do something few others have ever done; the other demands that you be like everyone else. If you've kayaked all the way around Iceland you really don't want Carnival Lines setting up stations everywhere so that any nincompoop can do it. On the other hand, at your high school graduation you are devoutly hoping for an experience that is much like everyone else's. By failing to distinguish between these two types of pleasure, we mistakenly think that the first type of experience is the same as the second. And we'll be surprised when people who haven't driven the Maserati make us feel bad about that experience.
A couple of caveats need to be caveated here. The first is that watching a neat video (versus watching a dull one) is really not the same contrast as going into orbit (versus riding the F train to your office). The authors neatly finesse this by writing "experiences need not be all that extraordinary to have unfortunate consequence" that they describe. OK, but it may be that the impact of a really extraordinary experience on the peasants is more positive. Yes, if you tell your inane story about meeting Harrison Ford, I'll be annoyed. But if you tell me you have been in orbit around the Earth, I am more inclined to ask about what that was like than I am to hate you. I think. Maybe. Moreover, many peaks of experience don't involve the sort of recreational fooling around that the authors describe. We ordinary lunkheads may well resent someone who has gone into orbit as a lark. I doubt we'd feel that way about a professional astronaut and her adventures.
Secondly, I wonder about the way the authors have neatly separated peak experiences from social ones, and insisted that "peak" means "rare." I don't know about you, but it seems to me many of my life's most amazing experiences were amazing because they happened to me, not because they were objectively rare. The birth of my son tops my list, which would also include getting married, surviving a potentially fatal accident, winning some competitions, and assorted other adventures. Even the social events on this list had an intensely personal, just-for-me aspect. Being the point of the wedding is not the same as being a guest at the wedding. Even lying around in the park with a girlfriend or boyfriend is a tremendous peak experience if you happen to be 14.
How do these common-for-the-population-but-special-for-the-individual events fit into the researchers' taxonomy? At first blush you would think they fall into the "mundane and social" category, but they don't—some (like childbirth) are not social events, and others (like a wedding or graduation) are mundane only to those outside the experience. True, we tend to get surly if we hear that someone has tried to make a mundane event into a super-rare one (didn't you cringe when you heard Jay-Z and Beyoncé had taken over an entire hospital floor for one newborn?). But there's still an unexplored realm, it seems to me, of experiences that are both ordinary (for the population) but peak (for the individual).
In any event, these experiments do seem to offer an explanation for a common and seemingly inexplicable fact: Much of what people post on social networks is extremely banal. Why do people flood Facebook with pictures of dinner, cats, kids, neighbors? Why don't they save social media for announcements that they're running for Congress or are spending October at the summit of Mount McKinley or something? Perhaps they have an instinctive feel for the contrast that Cooney et al. have explored here—a social hunch that says it's better to talk up the kind of day we all share rather than the kind the rest of us can never hope to see.
Cooney, G., Gilbert, D., & Wilson, T. (2014). The Unforeseen Costs of Extraordinary Experience Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797614551372
Illustration: God speaks to Moses through a burning bush. Painting from Saint Isaac's Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, via Wikimedia. About Moses' next day, occupied with the usual problems of headgear maintenance and missing sheep, the scriptures are silent.
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Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>