Not awful enough
Imagine your boss pulls you aside one day and breaks the news that your company is in financial trouble. Word has come down from management that spending must be reduced and jobs are going to be eliminated.
You’ve been a model employee, so you’re given a choice: keep your job and take a 15% pay cut, or pack your things and leave with a one-month severance package.
Which would you choose?
One perfectly reasonable option would be to accept the pay cut, while resolving to immediately start looking for a new job.
You don’t love this job, but the idea of being unemployed is terrifying and the 15% pay cut won’t hurt that much. This path, while not ideal, buys you time without upending your life.
There’s just one problem—odds are you’ll never seriously look for a new job until you lose the one you have.
The reason has to do with something Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls the region-beta paradox.
In a paper titled The Peculiar Longevity of Things Not So Bad (it seems he’s way better at naming papers than paradoxes), Gilbert and his fellow researchers suggest that we bounce back more quickly from highly distressing situations than from less distressing ones.
This happens because our minds have a built-in safety system that springs into action when we face intense emotions or events, deploying a range of psychological defense mechanisms to shield us from potential harm. These defenses, such as cognitive reappraisal and dissociation can mitigate our distress and facilitate more efficient processing of the experience. They can also increase our energy and mental capacity to act in ways that will remedy the stressful situation.
In contrast, our minds don't trigger these defense processes as strongly when facing less intense situations, making our recovery slower—or not at all.
This is why nagging injuries are often more troublesome than those that require surgery and why a lengthy daily commute can weigh on us more than a car accident.
Unfortunately, we are mostly unaware of our psychological powers, so we tend to overestimate the duration and impact of intense emotional states compared to mild ones. This overestimation leads to extreme avoidance of situations we think will be highly stressful.
This paradox stems from our uniquely human capacity to mentally project ourselves into the future.
Unlike animals, humans can envision different futures, contemplate their psychological impacts, and take steps to enact the one we predict will be most desirable. We are the only species that can imagine the consequences of an event without experiencing it.
But we aren’t highly skilled at this.
Research consistently reveals that people often overestimate how bad they will feel about future negative events, like going through a breakup, facing a serious illness, or losing a job.
For a very long time this was a feature, not a bug.
During the millions of years that we humans developed our unprecedented cognitive abilities, it made sense for our brains to “trick” us into avoiding distressing situations. Overestimating the stress of a sabertooth tiger attack will keep you out of sabertooth tiger attacks.
Today this system is far less useful.
We falsely assume there's a direct line between the intensity of a situation and the time it takes to bounce back from it. This illusion leads us to choose options that are initially less distressing, but ultimately less satisfying.
As with most paradoxes though, once you are aware of its ubiquity it can be an invitation, rather than a limitation.
This isn't to say you need to relentlessly pursue the most daunting and stressful options out there. Instead, it's about finding comfort and courage in the fact that the seemingly tougher road is often smoother than our minds make it out to be.
And as you increasingly confront these challenging experiences head-on, you not only cultivate resilience, but also uncover the most captivating and gratifying experiences that life has to offer.
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