When you are enjoying something, music, food, company, any experience, sometimes I think it’s less about the quality or experience of the individual thing, and more about the differences and contrasts that give the individual things value relative to one another. This goes back to the idea that you can’t understand something if you aren’t familiar with it’s opposite – bad doesn’t have a lot of meaning without understanding good, hot without cold, etc. I can’t fully appreciate a great friend if I haven’t been treated poorly at some point. You can’t fully appreciate a state of good health because it’s impossible to be aware of things that are absent: you only are aware of how bad a stomach ache is when you have one!

To fully understand any idea and experience the full spectrum of a certain concept you have to have life experience that sets the outer limits of your range of experience. I can imagine that these outer limits vary for different people.. for example, being from New Hampshire, my concept of cold might vary drastically from someone from Florida,.and I would suspect the same is true for hot, but the other way around. The way that we construe the present is a direct reflection of these levels and ranges of experience. So if I have a more complex or larger span of understanding something, it can be a double edged sword, depending in what direction most of your experience has fallen.

If I’ve had a lot of bad stuff happen to me, I might be more resilient when minor bad things happen, or at least have the mindset that €œoh, this isn’t so bad € as opposed to someone that lacks any adversity, and for that individual, the minor scrape can feel like a very traumatic event. On the other hand, I can see how extending your experience of amazing things might set a lot higher expectations and make it a lot harder to reach the upper parts of the range. You sort of have inflation of experience it might take a lot more WOOO dollars (let’s call that the currency of enjoyment) to reach the same level of enjoyment, except the problem is that the WOO dollars that I am receiving from everyday experience remain the same, the cost of the same feeling is just a higher.

So what do we do? Raise the money supply right? Search for different experiences that might pay more WOO dollars to reach those upper limits. Maybe instead of trying to max out our range we should look for experiences with marginal benefit just enough WOO dollars to go over the turning point from negative to positive experience and give us a €œwoohoo!€ but not enough to change the scale. Okay enough poorly articulated Econ, and back to little, tangible things that can be thought about in everyday life.

I’ve always been a big fan of trail mix, mostly because of the variety. My Dad has this super efficient €œtechnique€ of putting everything into his mouth at the same time, minimizing consumption time perhaps, but I’ve always been very particular about the experience of eating. Everything is enjoyed to its fullest potential in its simplest form, but ordered with other things – so I like to isolate flavors, eat one thing at a time, and sometimes combine two things that work well together. For example, when I was a kid I used to stick raisins in the holes of cracklin oat bran and stretch them out so they would swell like grapes, and change the texture, and the taste was amazing, and it was fun putting them together. So what does this have to do with the contrast of experience? You can really experience the wheatiness of the pretzel better if it follows something sweet like chocolate, and the flavor that you like to linger with you is best to be saved for last. I’m not saying that a single high quality item wouldn’t be enjoyed greatly, but even from a biological standpoint, don’t taste buds adapt to types of flavor, making the first bite the tastiest, and making a variety of flavors a more rich experience? Eating, like many life experiences, is filled with ritual, many that we aren’t even aware of. To take this into perspective and apply it to life experience I think that we can appreciate or better enjoy individual experiences and people when we can put them in context or perspective of other ones. This is why relaxing and watching a movie might be enjoyed more following a day filled with work than a day filled with leisure. This might be why we sometimes don’t appreciate a person, or a room-mate, until we meet someone so much worse! This might be why, even though we like routine as human beings, life can get boring without a little bit of change to ensure a spectrum of experience.

I think that as humans we try to maximize the quality of our experience and look for consistent, habitual activities that seem to do that. Is it safe to say that we try and avoid things that might be labeled as unpleasant or bad? I think you only run into trouble when you don’t expose yourself to enough of the BAD, and too much of the good. And if you read Stumbling on Happiness or watched the TED talk by the author, you would see that regardless of what happens, we are inclined to view it in a way that feels good. It seems like a win-win situation. When something you perceive as €œbad€ happens, learning occurs that changes the scale of your experience, so minor bad things don’t seem as bad and little good things seem even better, and we are biologically inclined to look back on said yucky experience and still feel good. Maybe it’s best to do away with labels and expectations, and allow all forms of experience to flow in. Gosh, back to that balance thing! Arrrg!

I’m a pirate 😛

Suggested Citation:
Sochat, Vanessa. "Contrast Gives Value to Experience." @vsoch (blog), 02 Jul 2008, https://vsoch.github.io/2008/contrast-gives-value-to-experience/ (accessed 12 Jun 24).