The Grass is Always Greener: Adaptation and Emergencies


"It's never as good as it looks and it's never as bad as it seems."


-Tom Pollack


Sitting in my cubicle, I'm rehearsing my spiel. I have to talk about all the things I've done this year. I hate bragging. My palms are sweaty and my heart is racing. I have my annual review in five minutes. I hoping for something close to the raise I got last year. They gave me a 20% raise last year. That's huge; at least in my experience, it is.


It's now time. I walk in sit down and my boss and I get to talking. 30 minutes later he tells me that I am getting raise this year. My heart rate goes up a little in anticipation. I'm having a conversation in my head with myself, "Is it going to be like last year? It can't be, right? 20% is a lot." He gives me the details and I get close to a 30% raise this year! I'm happier than a puppy dog with two tails!

I wish that level of happiness would have lasted forever. I'm elated for the rest of the day, and even over the weekend. By a month later, though, it's just normal. I'm back to my same old routines.


Elevated happiness doesn't last.


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Waiting for the elevator so we can go to lunch, I tell my work colleagues about my plans for the evening. They include going to the gym to work out before going to the library to study for an exam I'm registered for. They seem to think that my gym is below them. They work out at a more expensive gym and start talking about how nice the facilities are. I don't know about those experiences. I go to a discount gym. It has everything that I need and is open when I need it to be. It's close enough to where I live that the commute is good. Yet I feel envious of the fancier gym.


Later on, at lunch, the conversation turns to a story about one colleague's experience with the train, taking him to his apartment just outside of downtown. Another colleague lives in a cool condo on the other side of downtown, walkable to work. That sounds so cool. I'm jealous of their living situations. I live in an apartment that I used to think was cool, but I don't anymore. I was so happy after getting my raise and moving, but now a large part of me wants the experience of living downtown.


The grass always seems greener, even if you already have green grass.


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I'm nervous to ask, but I want to have lunch with my boss. It's a year later and I had my review last week. In my first review, I got a 20% raise and last year I got close to a 30% raise. This year I got just over a 10% raise. It's a good raise, but the drastic reduction feels like a slap in the face. I'm far more productive than I have been. I'm saving them time and money. Because of me and my good friend and colleague, they don't have to hire two employees - we've automated two roles. They reward me with half the raise (in dollars) I got last year. I'm not happy.


It gets worse for me. Recently they brought in a trader (a person to buys and sells investments for the company) to help them with their trading processes. Recently, though, it's looking like they are grooming him to be the head of the entire department, both his department and the department in which I work. This is unsettling because I (along with most of my colleagues) thought that I would soon be the head of my department.


At lunch, I tell my boss that I was unhappy with some new guy being groomed for the job that made sense for me to have. He assured me that they had no plans of doing that.


Days later they gave the official announcement that I was right. It's almost like I gave him the idea. I'm furious. I'm sad. I'm frustrated. This is the worst.


A couple of months later I'm used to it. I'm used to the new routines. I'm able to get over my despair. This "emergency" was a lesson. That lesson led to many other experiences that I wouldn't have had if I ran that department.


Emergencies don't last.



Grass is always greener



Becoming Is Different From Being


Our minds are fascinating. When we think about the future, we have the ability to make very quick simulations about how the future might look. When we face a decision, there are many ways the world can play out. If we choose A, that could be the correct choice or not, it could have unintended consequences, or it could open up new doors for us. It's the same thing when we consider option B. Pretty soon the number of potential futures goes way up. Our brains quickly simulate all those potential futures for us, which helps us make better choices.


We are creatures of habit, though, and we get used to our environments. We get uncomfortable deviating from the status quo. That's important when we consider how we evaluate the future.





It's when we think about changing from the status quo that we run through our simulations of the future. We know that status quo; we like the status quo, but we have to make some guesses about the change we need to make.



We make our guesses about the future through our brains quick simulations. But in exchange for that quick simulation, our brains skip over details, and those details matter.


Think about two situations that represent what most people would consider an amazing event and a devastating event - winning the lottery and losing the use of our legs. We are really good at focusing on the change in the status quo. We believe that winning the lottery will make us incredibly happy. We think losing our ability to walk and run will make us miserable.


That is, we focus on the change; we focus on becoming rich or becoming disabled.



We underestimate how good we are at getting used to things, or adapting. While our simulations are good at imaging the change we will face, they skip over details. We struggle to imagine being something new. We don't imagine being rich or being disabled. The details we miss include our day-to-day activities. We get new routines. Being wealthy becomes the new norm. New financial challenges replace our existing challenges. We get a new status quo. The same is true of becoming disabled. We develop new routines, new hobbies, and develop a new status quo.



Baseline Happiness