Thursday, July 25, 2013

reference dependent life satisfaction

When I was a kid, I heard people say that college was the best time of their lives and I should look forward to it. I always thought that was a little sad. Seems like an early time to peak.

But now that I can look back on childhood, high school, college, the real world, and grad school, comparing the happiness of my memories of those phases indicates to me that I was misinterpreting what all those people meant by happiness.

I'm about to go to my 10 year high school reunion, so the tiny, very special math and science public boarding school I went to has been on my mind a lot, and I have such great memories of it. I remember being almost ecstatically happy for two whole years there, despite being catastrophically sleep deprived and working very hard, all the time, and having every minute of my day dictated by a draconian staff (seriously, no other school I've ever talked to anyone about, anywhere in the world, had as many crazy and strict rules as this place) that also made several infuriatingly awful decisions that luckily didn't impact me directly. Objectively speaking, I've had a much better quality of life at almost any point since then. So why do I remember it as the happiest time of my life?

Reference dependence. I left home and left my purely-average school system to go live with a bunch of nerds and take tons of really interesting and challenging science and math classes. I got to take three physics classes simultaneously! I had friends I could really relate to for the first time, and lived with my best friend in the world, who I was constantly involved in miscellaneous antics with. The adults around me understood what I wanted from life and how I was getting there and how to help. After six weeks or so, I had a sudden epiphany about what seemed so weird about my new life: no one ever screamed at each other. I got to skip half of those awful teenage years when my parents would have been trying to stop me from having any control over my life. It was amazing.

College was maybe objectively better, and grad school objectively better still, but neither was such an unexpected and huge increase in quality of life as OSSM was. Most people have this experience when they go to college, and they remember it as the best time of their life. I got that a couple years early, so I remember OSSM in that light.

1 comment:

JohnRaymond said...

Reference dependent satisfaction is powerful indeed! You went to a far more controlling environment and loved it anyways. ;-)