Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The stamp on the letter

So coming home on the train today I saw two old men that I would swear could be Richard Nixon impersonators. Really, got on the train and thought "that guy looks just like Nixon" and thought "how often does that happen?"... I kept walking through the car and sat down across from another old man and thought "look at those jowls...and the cross-legged slouching... you could ski jump down that nose!" Can't make this stuff up.

Unrelated but last year Christine gave me a self help book, David Burn's "Feeling Good"
In the early pages it talked about how the expected satisfaction one gets from a task is often quite different from the actual satisfaction. The example he gives is that he asks, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much of a sense of accomplishment and well being one would get from the parts of writing a manuscript (foggy memory, so apologies if it's not the actual example). 

How much joy for preparing the first drafts? Some enjoyment perhaps, 6. In revising and editing? That's probably not fun, 3. Getting an envelope and putting a stamp on it? Maybe thrilling if you're in to stamps, 2? And what a hassle to go to the post office. 

But when someone goes through the process and records their satisfaction as events occur, people often have a different reaction than they'd expect, e.g. in editing, one can get a certain enjoyment from coming up with a particular turn of a phrase (my former office-mate Holly once delighted at the chance to use "a seeming surfeit" in one of her papers). And certainly those last minutes before and the afterglow of dropping it down the chute of a post box... It can take you by surprise. 

I think the thesis of the book was that depressed people often don't "do" because they don't expect that they'd enjoy. The context for thinking about this was that I've recently been working on a conference paper about my group's research. I'm not sure I'd say I'm the best writer...Scientific writing, with its sentences, shaped in tortured passive constructions, and a seeming surfeit of clauses and commas, can resemble, in a way, the literary equivalent of River Dancing. But nonetheless, I probably wouldn't have believed if you had asked me a week ago how much better I'd feel after the draft was finished. But there it is, felt good to know it was done and could leave work before the security guard tossed me out. 

One can't help but wonder the broader context of what else is enjoyable but not necessarily an obvious thing that one would want to do. There's something to be said from learning from experience and knowing what one likes (I once heard that one's life-long musical tastes are set by 22). At the same time though, there's that cliche that you should do at least one thing a day that you're afraid of.  

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