The Benefit of Declining Emotional Highs


A weird theological thought psychological/spiritual development. This one may not make a lot of sense outside a Christian framework, so sorry to the rest of you. I tried, and if it bothers you to be left out, we do have is a theoretical solution...

By my understanding of the world, pleasure and pain are your body's animal-level feedback and suggestions for events in your life. That is to say, your body (which is essentially an animal) is trying to tell you whether what happens is good or bad. For example, food tastes good because your need the resources to continue functioning. A skinned knee hurts because it is damaged, which means a) something has gone wrong, and b) you need to be especially careful to avoid further harm to it. A clifftop is scary (especially during a strong wind) because it is dangerous, and you get tired because sleep a) allows your body to run some periodic maintenance, and b) reduces your energy needs during a time when it is too dark to find food anyway.

However, there is a group of pleasures that do not seem to follow this pattern. (There are actually multiple groups, but only one is of interest here.) These are frequently-abstract pleasures that appear when you start doing something, but then sort of run down over time. Some examples would be moving to a beautiful place, becoming a Christian (appears to only happen to some people), and falling in love. I have read that you can get a ridiculously-powerful one by getting married, although I think that only works if you obey the traditional rules of chastity. Some of these experiences also affect the way people act, and those are the ones I am concerned with here. Living in a beautiful place doesn't do much except make people think "Oooo... pretty" a lot, so we will discard it for now. My point may apply there too, but it is less obvious.

The mechanism (efficient cause) by which these emotional states wear off seem pretty clear. Your body notices that it is frequently sending you the same message and updates its standard of comparison. This allows it to give you more valuable feedback for your current circumstances. If you always have enough food, you don't need to worry too much about wasting food. On the other hand, if the only food you have is gazelle you kill with your own spear, you had better eat all you can in case there isn't another one 'til next week. Another advantage is that the same system can work equally well for primitive tribesmen and modern Westerners, and, even if your move someone from one place to another, they can (with a bit of training) adapt and flourish there.

The question that interests me, however, is what purpose (final cause) this serves. Admittedly it keeps people alive, but perhaps there would be some other way to do that. I want to consider whether people benefit in some way from having a enjoyable experience for a while, but then having that experience taken away.

The answer I come up with is "Yes, but you probably won't like why". Consider it this way: When you are first in a new situation, you have an outside force (your impulses) that urges you to act in a certain way. Over time, the influences weaken, grow less frequent, and eventually disappear. After that, you can
  1. Try to preserve the emotional effects.
  2. Attempt recreate the experience elsewhere.
  3. Keep doing the same things for some other reason.
  4. Start acting differently.
Perhaps an example would help here. I will choose falling in love because I hear about the effect it has on people a lot and people worry a lot about the emotional high wearing off. When two people first fall in love, they feel strong desires to be nearby their beloved, think of their beloved as a wonderful person, do various things together (e.g. eat meals, go places, mate, play games, etc.), make promises of unending loyalty, and so forth. Eventually, however, the original attraction wears off. At this point, the couple has a choice. In this case, the four options would be:
  1. They can try one (or many) of the innumerable techniques proposed to "keep love alive", so as to keep their instinctual closeness.
  2. They can decide that what they experiences must not have been True Love (because it wore off) and spit up to each try again with someone else.
  3. They can keep doing loving things for each other anyway, replacing their original relationship based on instinct and need with one based on commitment and mutual support.
  4. They can sort of drift apart and probably have a lot of problems when each blames the other for the failing relationship.
Side Note: I have read in multiple sources that option c) is the only one that really works.

Now that we have the process, we should ask whether we see it anywhere else. Interestingly enough, yes. This is the same overall design used in many computer games. First there will be a training level, where you will explicitly be told what to do. Over the course of the level, the instructions will become less frequent and less specific. You will also have to use the techniques they taught you in increasing complex ways (e.g. jumping over a hole becomes jumping between moving platforms). Eventually the tutorial level runs out and you are expected to figure out the rest of the game on your own. Your options at that point are:
  1. Keep trying to find more tutorial hints.
  2. Play the tutorial level over again.
  3. Keep using the same skills for the rest of the game.
  4. Try to complete the game using some other approach.
Admittedly, computer game tutorials are usually more detailed and clear-cut, but they are teaching much simpler things in a completely controlled environment. Reality is messier.

So it seems like some life experiences are like training sequences in games. From this, it is a relatively small step to another Christian idea. This one holds that the world is primarily a place for people to develop and grow, not just to exist. Part of why there are so many things wrong in the world is that otherwise people don't learn (see Ecclesiastes 5:19-20). It's disappointing, I know, but it's also kind of like being in school. You have to finish your time before you can go and play with your friends. Admittedly there are no formal recess breaks, but we normally have some time to do the things we want. I don't know of anyone who thinks people should never do enjoyable things. The Bible says the same thing, with the same reference as above.


  1. Near the beginning, I said that this also applied to living in a beautiful place, even though it doesn't prompt much in terms of action. This is because the acknowledgement of beauty is an action in itself. So many people seem to go through life an miss most of the beauty around them. It's a shame, and I wonder if noticing beauty in some circumstances will make you more receptive to it in others.
  2. Most of the ideas this is build on I got from C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey. Theology is also a science, and we too can see farther by standing on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before us.

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