“It is simple and brutal: a person can get used to anything, even killing.” – Life of Pi by Yann Martel
When you break up it might feel like you’ve lost a part of you. It might feel extraordinarily painful. It can feel horribly sad. But it won’t be like this forever. You may not believe it but in time, you’ll start to feel good again.
Take for example people who have lost an arm or leg. Although it’s a bit dramatic, it’s similar to a difficult break up. Here are the symptoms:
Denial and isolation: “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Anger: “Why me?” “I can’t stand this.”
Bargaining: “If I do this, will I get well?”
Depression: “What’s the use?”
Acceptance: “Nothing I can do about it, may as well make the best of it.”
The crucial stage is acceptance. Although the other stages are necessary and important as well, the place where you’ll start seeing glipses of hope and joy is during acceptance.
A teenager named Jana lost one of her legs to cancer and experienced an incredible sense of loss. She felt incomplete and freaky, so much that she had a hard time looking in the mirror. After a few weeks, she realised she would never have two legs again and that acceptance allowed her to start taking action to better her life and find enjoyment in her life. “It was a big mind shift for me to say, ‘Okay, I’m a one-legged person, let’s get on with life.’ ” Still it wasn’t easy but it started her off in the right direction.
In the book Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, the author describes a type of adaptation. He draws from a famous study by Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978) that asked lottery winners and recent accident victoms to rate their happiness on a 5-point scale. The lottery winners had won between $50,000 and $1 million in state lotteries within the last year, while the accident victims had become paraplegic or disabled.
Not surprisingly, the lottery winners were happier than those who had become paralyzed. But the interesting part is several years after the event, when asked again, the lottery winners and accident victims reported roughly the same level of happiness. This means people get used to what they have whether it’s good or bad.
When you get something you want you’re happy for a while. Remember how happy you were when you got that toy on Christmas? How long did that last? Remember how happy you were when you got into college? Even if you reach your dream, that doesn’t mean you’ll be happy forever. Look at all the suicides by people who seemingly have everything.
Hedonic adaptation is the term for positive experiences becoming more disappointing over time. Given this inevitable disappointment, people will be driven to seek novelty, to seek out new experiences and things that can provide pleasure undiminished by repeated exposure. Yet even these new experiences will lose their intensity over time. Still people will keep chasing new pleasures like hamsters on a treadmill.
Likewise, the pain of losing someone will dissipate over time. In time, you’ll naturally be ready to start doing what you enjoy and feeling happy again, maybe even having grown a little bit stronger emotionally. All you have to do is keep breathing until that day.
This weekend, cycling home from a house party at 1AM I passed a man sleeping on a vent on the sidewalk. He was lying in a fetal position. A grown man, not old, middle aged, dressed in a grey jacket and khakis, he could be anyone but here he was. All alone in the dark night. My heart sank. Like a knife had stabbed it and it was weeping. Who was he? Why was he there? That could be me. How does someone end up like that? To not have a place to sleep at night, to not have a friend in the world, what a cruel world this is. I wanted to help him but I was scared. I imagined myself piling money at his back. I imagined him being startled. Instead I numbly got back on my bike and in a torpor started peddling.
I don’t know how he’d ever get his life on track. I was just grateful. Thankful I had a sane mind and at leas a few things going for me: A job, a place to live, a few friends, parents who love me, and relatively good health. That’s pretty good isn’t it?
Have faith you have a purpose in life. It probably isn’t to suck as much happiness out of life as possible. It’s probably bigger than yourself. Have faith you’ll find love. Hey even roaches have kids, right :) As long as you wake up another day, you’ll have another chance.
Sometimes life kicks you down. Calmly get up and say you hit like a bitch.