by Max Sirak
I’m pretty crappy at taking my own advice.
Back in November of 2016 I wrote a column titled “What To Do With Our Expectations.” In it I wrote about the importance of not judging events by their outcomes and I outlined a strategy for doing so. But it turns out, surprising no one at all, it’s a lot easier to write about things from an abstracted distance than it is to put them into practice in real time.
This summer hasn’t exactly been breezy and light.
A very good friend of mine recently lost his father.
Some of my nearest and dearest had to bid farewell to their doggy-daughter.
As for me…
One of my closest friends and his family moved across the country. Another was killed by a drunk driver. And lastly, I had to let go of the primary source of love, joy, connection, affection, and touch in my life.
“Write about what you know,” they say. Right now, it seems, endings are all I know. So endings are what I’ll write.
The Mind’s Two-Pronged Attack
There are two simple features of the way our minds work which make endings exceptionally difficult. One is called loss aversion. The other may very well have a jargony label I’m not familiar with, either way I’m going to name it mnemonic salience.
Loss aversion is a term you’re possibly familiar with. Or, at the very least, you’ve experienced. Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein sum it up nicely in their book Nudge: “Roughly speaking, losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same thing makes you happy.”
Pretty simple, right?
Generally speaking, for most of us, losing feels twice as bad as winning feels good.
Working alongside our loss aversion is mnemonic salience. This is the term I’ve assigned to another feature of our minds, one that impacts what and how we remember.
Barry Schwartz, referencing research done by another, mentions mnemonic salience in his book, The Paradox of Choice: “Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues have shown that what we remember about the pleasurable quality of our past experiences is almost entirely determined by two things: how the experiences felt when they were at their peak (best or worst), and how they felt when they ended.”
Emotions strengthen memory. It is easier for us to recall the events and times of our past that carry an intense emotional charge. And, how we feel at the conclusion of an experience serves to color our opinions and judgment of the situation as a whole. Drastically reduced and simplified, mnemonic salience could be written as an equation that looks like this: Event + Strong Emotion = Easily Retrievable Memory.
We remember peaks and valleys. Whether good or bad, if it’s emotional, it’s memorable. We also remember results. If the ends are unsatisfying, it’s a lot harder to see all the good and joy of the entire experience.
It’s here, at the crossroads (so you won’t be lonely…) between loss aversion and mnemonic salience where we’re able to at least gain a little perspective on what makes unwanted endings so difficult.
Low Stakes Illustrations
Below are three examples from day-to-day life you may have had a brief brush with the effects of loss aversion and mnemonic salience.
– Let’s say you’re at the casino playing dice. The evening started great. You stepped up to the craps table, were handed the dice, and proceeded to hold onto them for a good long while making everyone a bunch of cash. (Except for that sociopath playing the Don’t Pass Line). Then, as luck would have it, because that’s how luck likes it, you proceed to lose all your winnings. You sulk back to the bar.
– Or, perhaps you’re a sports fan. You’re in the stands and it’s been going great. Your team has led the entire time, made some amazing plays, and you personally have high-fived your share of strangers. Then things take a turn. The other team storms back in a remarkable fashion and ends up winning at the last second. The stadium is silent when you leave.
– You’re a television fan. For the past five years of your life, every Tuesday night has been the same. Get home from work, cook dinner, and have it done in time to camp out in front of the TV to catch your favorite show. Now, to be fair, the last two seasons of your show haven’t been quite the storytelling powerhouse the first three were, but you’re still a dedicated fan. On the eve of the series finale, you stick to the script – home, dinner, watch – and as the credits role, you find yourself shaking your head. Half the storylines weren’t wrapped up. Those that were felt watered-down and hollow. Instead of a beautiful and impactful point of punctuation wrapping up a thrilling five year journey, what you got was garbage. You’re bitter and unsatisfied.
All three instances share a similar chain of events. Everything was going the way you wanted it until the end when it wasn’t. Along that path from satisfaction to frustration, you reached heights of joy and good feels. And, because how you feel about how things ended, the whole experience becomes shaded by a lens of loss.
Here’s the thing: a lens of loss has an incredibly dark tint. So dark, in fact, it strips away the color of all the other emotions you felt during the experience, like happiness, excitement, joy, etc. But, the tint isn’t dark enough to completely remove the geographical contrast. You’re still able to make out the peaks of those past emotions but not their “color.” Instead, looking through a lens of loss, you’re only acutely aware of the disparity between how you felt then and how you feel now.
I’m honestly not sure.
Grief is brutal. Loss hurts. And the more unwanted the ending was, the more grief and loss there is. Conciliatory and trite though it may be, the depths of the sadness you feel while mourning an end is related to the heights of pleasure you once enjoyed.
The better it was the more it hurts.
Typically, I like to include some sort of action element in my writing, something to be used to address the problem I bring up. However, this month I’m not so sure I’ve got any. I think I just needed to vent.
Besides, it’s not like I’d listen to my own advice anyway….
Max writes. One ending he didn’t mention is he finished ghostwriting his first book. Yea! You can see his work here.
Many thanks and much love to the Empress of Art – Rachel Skortch Bender – for her graveyard.