robert_provine's picture
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Author, Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond
Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author, Laughter

Things Could Always Be Worse

Things could always be worse. Is this a cause for optimism? And if so, is this a form of optimism worth having — a wimpy, agnostic, non-committal, damn-with-faint-praise kind of optimism?  Quite the contrary.  It’s a rough-and-ready, rustic kind of optimism.  This optimism is suited for everyday life and doesn’t fold under pressure. We have all heard of the "grass is greener" syndrome. This is its "grass is browner" counterpart, the achievable anecdote for broken dreams, and bolster of the status quo. 

Psychophysics — the study of the psychological impact of physical events — indicates that more is not always better, and that greener grass, once acquired, quickly starts to yellow. We keep order in our lives because two inches always seem twice as long as one inch, but unlike length, other sensations do not grow in a linear manner.  A tone, for example, must be much more than twice as powerful as a standard to sound twice as loud. As with tones, the quirks of our brain doom a path to happiness based on the accumulation of stuff. The second million dollars, like the second Ferrari, does not equal the satisfaction provided by the first, and a second Nobel is pretty much out of the question, a dilemma of past laureates. Goals once obtained become the new standard, to which we adapt, before continuing our race up the escalating, slippery slope of acquisitiveness and fame. Philosophers and scientists from antiquity to the present generally agree that life is a marathon, not a sprint, and the formula for happiness and well-being is the journey — not achievement of the goal — and the comfort of friends and family.

This brings me back to my proposal, "things could always be worse." It finesses our biologically determined law of diminishing returns and the impossibility of keeping up with the Joneses. Lacking the understated nobility of "we have nothing to fear, but fear itself," my slogan would not lift the spirits of a depression-era nation, serve a candidate seeking political office, nor provide a philosophy of life, but it does help me to slog on. Best of all, my modest proposal is unconditionally true for anyone healthy enough to understand it.  When things take a nasty turn, as they often do, celebrate the present and recite my slogan —"things could always be worse."