Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I'm A First-Derivative Sort Of Girl, And Maybe You Are Too

Here's what it's like to be me.

Suppose I start at a 0 baseline.  I'm not sure what we're measuring but maybe something like pleasure.  I don't know what 0 is but it doesn't matter.  Just say 0 is now.

Now imagine I have a glass of wine, and as I start drinking, I experience an increase in pleasure.  The whole time I'm drinking pleasure is going up.  This makes me happy and content.  In fact, as long as the pleasure is going up, I'm happy and content.

If the pleasure starts to go down, because I'm sobering up, I experience unhappiness and discontent.  Not, I think, because the pleasure isn't there -- it is -- but because it is going down.

This inclines me to say:  for me, it's the first-derivative that counts.

Remember the first-derivative? It's the rate of change of a function, or if you're looking at a graph, it's the slope of the line tangent to the function.  Like in this cute picture,

 the first-derivative is negative on the left hand side, gets closer to zero toward the middle and gets positive and higher as you go along the right hand side. 

So the way it is for me, my happiness and contentment correlate not with the pleasure -- in this case the parabola -- but with it's derivative -- whether it's going up or down.

It's not just pleasure it's everything.  It doesn't matter how much money I have; what I want is to be increasing.  It doesn't matter how fit I am, what I want is to be becoming more fit.  What I don't want it to be becoming less rich and less fit; even if the static measure of these is high, it doesn't help.  I'm a first-derivative sort of girl.

I guess you could say, too, that I'm a future-oriented sort of person.  It matters less where I am than where I'm going. 

This way of being has obvious and immediate problems, and you can probably see what they are right away.  You can't increase pleasure forever -- indeed, you can't even increase it much in any given day.  No matter how high your levels of wealth and achievement, there are going to be plenty of days when they're static or decreasing.  Indeed, it is often when these things are at their highest that they start to waver or go down a bit, meaning that negative happiness and contentment result from high levels of actual well-being.  What a pain in the ass.

When I get discouraged about it though, I always remind myself that at least I'm not a second derivative sort of girl.  Because think about what that would mean.  To feel happy and content, you'd have to not only experience your pleasure and well-being going up, you'd have to feel that the rate at which they were going up was increasing.  And you'd feel bad as soon as that increase started to slow down.

It must be really hard to be a second-derivative sort of person.  It's not only like you have to keep drinking and not sober up to feel OK (as the first-derivative person does); it's that you have to keep drinking more and more quickly.  Maybe this is what it's like for Robert Downey Junior, who just couldn't stop taking more and more drugs.  It sounds horrible.

So overall, I'm grateful for being a first-derivative sort of girl.  It's not so bad, and I bet if people were honest most of them would turn out to be first-derivative people too.  So at least there's a lot of company around here.


robert said...

Interesting. I was wondering if anybody else feels the way i do. So i googled the words 'first derivative' and 'happiness'. Only 2 related website showed up. this is one of those. I like using math to find suitable models for real life scenarios. If your happiness is the first derivative of another function of tima, say, your current status; then this means that you (I) get easily bored. New stimuli are needed to get you excited. Stasis is boredom, and unhappiness. It's not easy to live a life full of excitement and novelty. I think psychologist might call you a novelty-seeker. For a genetic explanation of this phenomenon, you might find this interesting: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014162
best regards

Patricia said...

Hi Robert,
I like using math to find suitable models for real life scenarios too. It's like a different and more precise language -- with math, you can cut right to the chase.

I am indeed easily bored, but I think novelty is complicated. I'm almost never bored doing my intellectual work, which on the face of it is hours of quiet (statis?) in the library. I'm not bored by math. But I find playing organized sports incredibly boring.

Clearly one person's "excitement" is another person's "get me the hell out of here."

Anonymous said...

I've had this same idea for so long, yet there aren't many people who know what I'm talking about when I explain it. People are happy due to relative gains or loses and not the absolute. I've seen rich men upset over having less money than their previous millions, and poor men happy to have a meal for the night. I've learned to force pain onto myself in the form of work and school so that I will have more room to appreciate and maintain a rising slope when I need it. You are not alone! I just wish there was a larger population that really understood and appreciated the massive amount of knowledge and control over your own life that this concept can offer.

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for the comment! Even though I know the concept well, I myself have trouble putting it to use in making myself happier. You mention forcing a certain amount of pain on yourself to appreciate a rising slope when you need it -- that sounds like such an excellent idea, but it is not easy, at least for me!