Friday, February 7, 2014

Pictures of the Once and Future Kurt

I am nearing the end of the “Great Photo Scanning Adventure.” When my father passed away last May, one of my tasks was to split up the family photos with my brother. I opted to digitize everything so we could both have copies. It has taken an incredible amount of time. After my wife or I removed the photos from an album, I sent them to a vendor for scanning (which is expensive and requires a lot of cataloging and prep work) or I scanned them myself. The hardest part was tagging whatever text was written on the back of the photo to the file somehow. I usually did it by writing incredibly long file names. I’ll spare you the gory details on each step and simply say that the whole process will have taken a year of dedicated work to complete. The only project or hobby I’ve ever approached with as much dedication has been my dissertation.

It is invigorating to review the end product, though. The pictures start with black and white photos of my dad in his youth and span to around 2005, before my parents really lost their health. I have to admit that the photos I think are the most intriguing are from the late 70’s and early 80’s, to compare the memories I had as a kid to the visual evidence. One of the things that’s surprising to me is how happy I look as a kid. Always a big, genuine smile on my face every day, all the time. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Pooping on the toilet can throw Emmett into a tailspin, but he’s otherwise an infectiously happy kid. He’s full of joy, and he wants everyone around him to be happy, too. He makes me glad to be alive, and I reflect on it often.

If this picture were taken today, I'd be worrying about my fashion sense!

Which made me wonder: why did that joy fade? I know we can’t pretend we’re firefighters all our lives, but why have there been long periods where I was miserable? There are a lot more responsibilities, and a lot of awful, sad things have happened; but why does the bad stuff feel like it “sticks” more than the good stuff? I spend a lot more time thinking about why my car is burning oil than thinking about how many years I’ve gotten out of my jacket (15 and counting!). Why?

Yes, I know the psychological arguments, the evidence on “loss aversion” and that we may be hardwired to be more sensitive to the negative than to the positive. If you eat a phenomenal pie, it’s nice; but if you eat a rotten one, it can kill you. And I’ve seen the evidence that happiness may be genetic in some way, that something like 50% of your happiness is attributable to heredity, as summarized in a New York Times article (of note, heritability estimates are frequently overestimated and even more frequently misunderstood). I can’t shake the feeling that we’re trained to be miserable in some way, though; that there’s an expectation that if you aren’t unhappy, you’re not trying hard enough. It manifests in how often we complain about bosses or work or how busy we are. There’s social status to be gained by being besieged (side note: I’ve rarely seen this approach among people at the top of the food chain, and I definitely don’t think they’re less besieged. Tip to those of you who aspire to be more than middle management).

I’m going to fight it. I have renewed a commitment to be a happy person and to enjoy my life. It doesn’t mean I can’t get upset, or that I won’t have to suck up inconvenient, chronically annoying aspects to everyday life like commuting. I spend a lot more time now looking at videos of my kid playing, though, or of my wife and I putzing around at Greenfield Village. I’m committed to spending at least as much time reviewing the good times and my achievements as I do with the bad times and my failures. I know it sounds ridiculous and Stewart Smalley-ish, but I think I’m already sleeping better, and I feel optimistic about the future. The goal: to look as genuinely happy in the photos of me in old age as when I was young.