Adversity Versus Misery

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Psychiatrist Scott Alexander undertakes the interesting task of figuring out whether his personal experience (that very few people are really miserable) more-accurately captures modern life than his professional experience (that a great many people are miserable):

This is part of why I get enraged whenever somebody on Tumblr says “People in Group X need to realize they have it really good”, or “You’re a Group X member, so stop pretending like you have real problems.” The town where I practice psychiatry is mostly white and mostly wealthy. That doesn’t save it. And whenever some online thinkpiece writer laughs about how good people in Group X have it and how hilarious it is that they sometimes complain about their lives, it never fails that I have just gotten home from treating a member of Group X who attempted suicide.

This is also why I am wary whenever people start boasting about how much better we’re doing than back in the bad old days. That precise statement seems to in fact be true. But people have a bad tendency to follow it up with “And so now most people have it pretty good”. I don’t think we have any idea how many people do or don’t have it pretty good. Nobody who hasn’t read polls would intuitively guess that 40-something percent of Americans are young-Earth creationists. How should they know how many people have it pretty good or not?

I think Alexander misses something important that must be considered when tackling any claim that a group “has it pretty good.”  To quantify his two perspectives, he picks 20 indicators of misery that he can easily put numbers on, but experiencing any one of the circumstance — or even many or most of them — needn’t make one miserable.  This is true for reasons that might make one cynical; the 20% of people who (he says) are on food stamps probably don’t see any reason to be miserable about it these days.  But it’s also true for reasons of positive outlook; I might be among the 20% of people who (he says) experience chronic pain, but even when it’s bad, it’s a challenge to overcome.

We seem to believe, these days, that things like being abused as children (20%) and especially being sexually abused (10%) are scarred-for-life atrocities that one can never release from the psyche, but that isn’t so.  Without making light of the difficulty of doing so, such events can be overcome or even transformed into net-positive learning experiences.

Especially compared across time and generations, it may be that Group X has it good in ways that Group Y believes (or believed) would solve all of its problems, but that Group Y has (or had) perspective that more than makes (or made) up the difference — indeed, perspective that may have resulted from the hardships in some respects.  Alexander mentions patients who believe there’s some pill that can make all of their problems go away, and although he presents the notion as a joke, I can’t help but think of Matthew 11:30, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”



  • ShannonEntropy

    My personal theory is that every person has a Happiness ‘Thermostat’

    Your own level of Happiness is sort of “pre-set” … and life’s circumstances only very temporarily ‘move the needle’

    If you are a basically miserable un·happy sort then winning the PowerBall jackpot will make you happy … for a while. But you will soon drift back to your original level of misery

    And if you are a basically happy person ,, then you will soon be happy even after life throws you the most tremendous burdens

    This observation is purely anecdotal … and personal. No matter what good or bad happens in my own life I soon end up back where I started … like a full-keeled sailboat righting itself after being broached

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