It happened on the 28th of March, 1757. The French prepared in anticipation for the big day. Cheese plates were assembled and chairs erected. It was all for one man – Robert-François Damiens. Everything was coming together, and soon, Damiens would be taken apart.
His last words
“Please, Maria, forgive me for my affairs.”
King Louis the XV uttered these words to his wife as he lay dying, stabbed through the chest with a pen knife. Only, he wasn’t dying. Sleeping on the couch, yes. But dying, no. The wound was half an inch deep.
Robert-François Damiens was arrested. The date was set, invites delivered, and posters plastered. This was going to be an execution for the ages.
Weeks passed, and the day was here. The executioners took Damiens to the stage.
“La journée sera rude” (The day will be hard), he uttered as he walked out to meet his fate amongst the hungry crowd.
First, they burnt his flesh, twisting the metal tongs until it tore off. No one knew what they were doing, and it showed. Everyone who takes a life up close says the same thing – it’s harder than it looks. When the clawing was over, four horses were sent out in four directions, each with a limb following close behind. His ordeal ended at the stake when they set fire to his torso.
“O death, why art thou so long in coming?” Were Robert-François Damiens’s last words before the flames snuffed out his life. The crowds erupted with cheers as they dined, laughed and made love throughout the streets.
A different world
Today I opened the paper to see people chaining themselves to trees and laying down their own lives for animals. How did we go from cheese plates and torture to Greenpeace and protest?
We still have crime, and we still need punishment. So what happens to the deplorable of our own society? We give them every right to justice, and when the time comes, we feed them well before they are put to sleep for the last time. Soon, even execution will die.
What happened? How has our world undergone this transformation in only three complete lifetimes? At first, I didn’t have an answer, so the question stuck in my head without a solution. That was until I came across a paper. It didn’t just give me an answer but also provided me with a life lesson I find myself using every day.
An experiment with many faces
“See these faces? Click when you think they’re angry, neutral, happy or sad,” said the scientist.
The participants did as they were told while their brains did something else. It didn’t take long for the researchers to find out what this was.
What the participants weren’t told was the frequency of the faces they were shown. Sometimes they were bombarded with additional angry faces, and other times, additional happy ones.
Here’s what the researchers found. The more time participants were exposed to cheerful faces, the more sensitized they became to the angry ones. Eventually, their brains saw anger in the neutral – anger that didn’t exist.
What do you think happened when our participants were flashed with a concentrated dose of nasty faces? The opposite. Their response to anger dulled. They didn’t mistake the neutral faces for angry like the other group.
The hedonic treadmill
The hedonic treadmill is what you’re walking on right now, except this one doesn’t burn any calories. The faster you go, the more resistance it applies; the slower you go, the less. In the end, you always end up maintaining about the same speed.
So what’s the dial that controls the resistance? It’s happiness. Our body strived to maintain our happiness setpoint.
You might be familiar with a well-known study comparing the change in the happiness of lotto winners to newly paraplegic patients. After two years, the results were in. The happiness of each group had essentially returned to their baseline.
All of the lottery winners did experience a surge in happiness, especially in the first six months. The group of paraplegic patients went in the opposite direction, reporting much less happiness. That’s when their treadmill turned on. The resistance lowered, and they slowly returned to their usual happiness. What goes up must come down, and that’s what happened for the lottery winners. In the end, both groups of people found their way back to their own genetically determined happiness levels. That’s how the hedonic treadmill works. We adjust to our environment and circumstances.
Why does evolution have us running on the treadmill?
When you’re starving for food, you might think your body would slow down and conserve energy. Instead, it does the opposite and injects a healthy dose of adrenaline and cortisol to spike your energy. Your body knows it has a much higher chance of survival by finding food than starving to death at a slower rate.
Imagine a world where everyone was happy. This world might suit us, but it would never do for evolution. We now understand that the early hunter-gathers, on average, experienced a comparatively better life than most of our recent ancestors. Their days were shorter than ours and filled with leisure, stories, naps and play. That all changed when they threw down the spear and picked up the hoe. Immediately life became much harder.
What if our ancestors were content with their nomadic lives? For all the pain they endured, we wouldn’t be here today if they didn’t have a desire for more. It’s dissatisfaction and a desire for more that pushed our ancestors to colonize the globe.
Think about your own life. Imagine your biggest mistakes or embarrassments. As much as these hurt, they spurred you on and pulled you from your comfort zone. Happiness is better thought of as an emotion. To experience it all the time would deprive us of our ingenuity and drive for constant improvement.
While too much happiness would slow us down, not enough would stop us from ever getting up. This is why the paraplegic patient’s happiness returns to normality. Evolution doesn’t care how we feel but how we survive.
The problem with modern life
You might be aware that this is the best time in history for those of us living in developed nations. In only a century, our life expectancies have almost doubled. Not long ago, it was considered a good innings to have half your children survive and make it to your mid-thirties before childbirth or infection killed you. If you did see your children grow up, most of that would have been working slave labour twelve hours a day.
The life above is one we don’t see today. Instead, we are showered with images of wealth, happiness and prosperity in every form of media. One of the biggest shames of our generation is we have so much yet see so little. What we have is a perspective problem.
The perspective problem
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”Epictetus
When we tune into the news, we only see the bad. When we scroll through social media, we see everything we don’t have. Even advertising reminds us of our deficiencies.
We find ourselves with more than we’ve ever had in a world that’s the best it’s ever been. But all our brains see are the things we don’t have and everything that’s wrong with the world.
The study of faces holds the solution
The more happy faces the study participants saw, the more likely they were to see anger. The more angry faces they saw, the less likely they were to see anger. In developed societies, all we see are happy faces. We have running water and electricity. People aren’t dying in the streets, and children don’t starve to death. We joke about first-world problems – the wifi signal is weak, our card declined, or the cafe burnt our coffee. But, the reality is that our brains begin responding to these problems as if they were problems, not minor inconveniences. The better our world gets, the more we see that’s wrong with it.
This doesn’t have to be our story. A better world doesn’t need to soften our character. (Add a paragraph about being grateful)
All we need to do is take time to look at some of those angry faces. To go out of our comfort zone and see parts of the world that scare us and expose ourselves to the elements of life that challenge us. Just as looking at the sky makes all our problems feel small, seeing the tragedy in life makes us appreciate how good we have it.
Parting words from a soldier
I remember when an interviewer sat down with a special forces soldier. He was working in finance and rose rapidly through the ranks. Apparently, his success came from his ability to operate under stress. Millions of dollars would be lost, people screaming at him, gruelling 90-hour weeks. Yet, not one of his colleagues had ever seen him remotely stressed. “He looked bored with it all” were the words his boss used to describe him. Towards the end of the interview, he was asked how he kept so calm during all the stress of his finance job.
“When you see your mate’s guts on the outside of their body, or little kids dead on the street, losing a bit of money, or someone raising their voice at you is something to be grateful for. Because at the end of the day, I get to go home alive to a family I love and go to sleep with a full stomach in a safe home. When you see the other side of life, you realize all these problems aren’t really problems at all.”
The world is still dangerous, but it’s the safest it has ever been. Life can be hard and filled with challenges, but it’s the best time to be alive. When we look around, it might not seem like we have much, but it’s the most we’ve ever had. Whenever you find yourself focusing on what’s wrong with the world, take a step back. Perspective solves most problems. Better yet, read a history book.Published in