Lewis Carroll on Happiness and How to Alleviate Our Discomfort with Change
By Maria Popova
I am the frequent and fortunate recipient of wonderful letters from readers, many of whom share deeply personal stories of their struggles and triumphs. But few have moved me more than a recent one from a 61-year-old woman from Santa Fe, who has been living with Stage IV cancer for nearly twenty-six years — something she revealed not as a centerpiece of the letter, and not as self-pity or even a complaint, but as a mere factual report for context. She went on to describe all the enlivening ways she has found for leading a rich, creative, and rewarding life as she adjusted to her progressively diminishing physical faculties. Astounded at first by her resilience and optimism given the cards she had been dealt, I was reminded of a now-legendary 1978 adaptation theory study (PDF), which found that both lottery winners and people rendered paraplegic by an accident not only return to their baseline happiness level within a few months but also have similar baselines overall, regardless of whether they had great or terrible fortune.
And yet most of us find this difficult to believe because, despite what we may know about the psychology of resilience and our hardwired optimism bias, we dread change enormously. Change — be it negative, neutral, or even positive — is hard; more than that, it’s usually unwelcome — in no small part because we’re stitched together by our routines and rituals. But change is also how we stretch ourselves and grow, and in the tension between the resistance and the necessity lies one of the great paradoxes of the human condition.
The wisest advice I’ve ever encountered on how to assuage our deep discomfort with change comes from Lewis Carroll — a man of timeless and timely insight on so many facets of daily life: In his nine commandments of letter-writing we find guidelines to making modern digital communication more civil, and in his rules for digesting information we find solace for our present state of information overload.
Although Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland is a story about befriending the disorienting strangeness of change, he addressed the subject directly two decades later. In an August 1885 letter included in the altogether addictive The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — which also gave us Carroll’s three tips for overcoming creative block — he writes to a young friend named Isabel Standen, who had written to him lamenting her loneliness and unhappiness in a new environment:
I can quite understand, and much sympathize with, what you say of your feeling lonely, and not what you can honestly call “happy.” Now I am going to give you a bit of philosophy about that — my own experience is, that every new form of life we try is, just at first, irksome rather than pleasant. My first day or two at the sea is a little depressing; I miss [my usual] interests, and haven’t taken up the threads of interest here; and, just in the same way, my first day or two, when I get back [home], I miss the seaside pleasures, and feel with unusual clearness the bothers of business-routine. In all such cases, the true philosophy, I believe, is “wait a bit.” Our mental nerves seem to be so adjusted that we feel first and most keenly, the dis-comforts of any new form of life; but, after a bit, we get used to them, and cease to notice them; and then we have time to realize the enjoyable features, which at first we were too much worried to be conscious of.
Almost a century before that famous adaptation theory study, Carroll illustrates his point with a strikingly similar example:
Suppose you hurt your arm, and had to wear it in a sling for a month. For the first two or three days the discomfort of the bandage, the pressure of the sling on the neck and shoulder, the being unable to use the arm, would be a constant worry. You would feel as if all comfort in life were gone; after a couple of days you would be used to the new sensations, after a week you perhaps wouldn’t notice them at all; and life would seem just as comfortable as ever.
So my advice is, don’t think about loneliness, or happiness, or unhappiness, for a week or two. Then “take stock” again, and compare your feelings with what they were two weeks previously. If they have changed, even a little, for the better you are on the right track; if not, we may begin to suspect the life does not suit you. But what I want specially to urge is that there’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself. Sit on the beach, and watch the waves for a few seconds; you say “the tide is coming in “; watch half a dozen successive waves, and you may say “the last is the lowest; it is going out.” Wait a quarter of an hour, and compare its average place with what it was at first, and you will say “No, it is coming in after all.” …
With love, I am always affectionately yours,
The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a treasure trove of humorous and heartening treats in its entirety. Complement it with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland.
Published February 16, 2015