Friday, October 14, 2005


Implications of mood echo

Clap your hands on one side of a canyon, and the air in the canyon does something weird: It will report what your hands are doing now (you hear the clap instantly), and also, more quietly, what they did a little while ago. If you clap loud enough you’ll hear several echoes of your clap; that is, the delay effect recurses.

Many musicians, particularly guitarists, like to reproduce this effect with a gadget called a “delay box”. With a delay box between the guitar and the amplifier, the amplifier reproduces not only what the guitar is currently producing, but also, at a (usually) lesser volume, what it was producing a few moments ago.

Sending music through a delay requires some mental acrobatics, because each note turns into an investment over time. The guitarist’s choice of what to play becomes constrained, because he has to coordinate with what he was playing a little while ago, and because he’ll have to be able to play along with it in a little while.

I think there’s a similar signal delay in the human sensation of happiness. When I experience something that feels good, there is an immediate joy, and there is also a long-term contribution to my overall sense of well-being that does not take effect immediately. In fact, for some acts (such as altruistic ones) the first component may be totally absent.

Disregarding the happiness-signal-delay effect can lead to burnout. For instance, I have seen students choose to study when they really shouldn’t, because they think they can stand it. In the short term they’re right – the choice of studying now or not studying now does not seem to change the probability of burning out now. But beyond some point, it becomes too much – and at that point burnout is assured, regardless of what they decide to do now. The accumulation of past effects is real and binding, so disregarding it is dangerous.

On the positive side, in music there exist patterns that are easy to play, which when sent through a delay effect sound not just complicated, but really good. The same is true of happiness: simple activities, regularly compounded, can generate a rich, complex, and unexpectedly enjoyable result.

More generally, keeping in mind that changes in one’s sense of well-being are integrations (in the calculus sense) over one’s history can probably facilitate more effective use (in the utilitarian sense) of one’s time.

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