The Impermanence Curve of Life
There is a story from my childhood days that still stays with me as the theme recurs often. It’s from when we used to crave ice-cream as kids and our parents would let us have just a single cup or one bar. And then one day dad said something to the effect that I would only enjoy it because it is a rare occurrence and that if he kept giving me ice-cream bars, I would enjoy it less and less and eventually even refuse it. We actually tried this one day (mom was out of course 😉) and by the 3rd cup I realized how right he was. I have seen this effect many times in life with different things such as wine, amusement park rides, travel, and even people. The 2nd or 3rd visit to a place is never as exciting as the first time with a few exceptions of course. In psychology, science, and business this phenomenon is referred to as the Law of Diminishing Returns and generally means that after a certain point of optimization or experience, any additional input will yield no further gains and will even result in reduction. Perhaps the most direct experience with this Law that people have is with movies; the 2nd time watching a movie is far less engaging and satisfying than the first time. There is a statistic that for the average movie, it’s only watched the 2nd time by less than 30% of the people and drops to single digits by the 3rd time. Even the largest and most expensive things we buy follows this Law. Think of buying a Ferrari or a very expensive house which seems like an amazing event at the start. But as time passes, the former becomes just a car and the latter a place to live. We become less sensitive and numb to almost everything that made those things so exciting to being with.
This law seems to apply to all aspects of our life and to our life itself though most are only barely conscious of it. But our body reminds us of this Law on a daily basis, especially as we get older. Regardless of who you are, where you live, how much money you have, race, sex, etc., the body only has one destination which is going back to the earth from where it came. Hence, we can view our own body as the best example of the Law since it also is created, rises, plateaus and then inevitably falls and then dies. The mind is also governed by this Law as almost all of our experiences follow the same pattern of rise, plateau and fall. This is the main reason why materialistic or intellectual pursuits never provide an enduring pathway to sustained happiness or joy because all of those things or experiences fades over time. While we get short-term bursts of happiness or joy, we are unable to sustain it. Even Love, that unique and astounding force in the universe falls prey to the Law though it is only to one dimension versus what Love truly is. But that is a subject for an entire blog post onto itself. Sex, that powerful driver of multiple dimensions of pleasure for the body and mind, is another stark example of this Law…. it has a very obvious rise (no pun here 😊), plateau and fall. The Law can be visualized by this simple graph.
Figure 1: Graph of the Law of Diminishing Returns
Think about life when you were a kid… everything was fun, joyous, and every day you woke up with excitement and wonder at the possibility at what life would offer that day. Do any of you remember being bored under 10 yrs of age? Of course, the miracles of Internet + Smartphone (I+S) are destroying even that age’s joy, but let’s ignore that for now. Overall, you were much happier when you were a kid than now. While obviously may not be true for those who truly have misfortune of abject poverty, hunger, or disease, the above holds true for almost every stratum of society across race, sex, religion, etc. As you got older, life slowly began to plateau while individual experiences may still have been joyous or disappointing. At some part of life, you are or will experience the downward portion of that curve and then the inevitable end. We experience billions of iterations of this curve over our lifetime and the average of those is what we call our life. From eating a croissant or visiting Machu Picchu or the first car you owned to the first time on a plane, every single experience followed that curve and left its imprint stored somewhere in your memory banks. But if everything in life follows that curve including our own bodies, do we have any hope for sustained happiness or joy? If everything is going to eventually disappoint and fade anyway, why bother living at all because it just sounds depressing? Would constantly accumulating new things or having new experiences provide sustained happiness?
Have you ever noticed that everything in life has some sort of ending? Have you ever actually noticed this? Its not easy as our modern lives are filled with a million things and even more so via the I+S never-ending firehouse. For most, things just sort of end to be quietly replaced by something else. Material things are easier to track as they end quickly but mental things only get layered over with other things and stay with us at some level, till the end. But when we start actually observing the million things in our lives, we notice that all things change and flow over time and eventually fade. What was important to you ten years ago are not relevant now and most are not even in your conscious memory. The friends you had, the job you did, the body’s condition, the place you live, your favorite wine, no matter what it is, it has changed radically or gone away altogether. I used to jog around 30 miles a week and ran two half-marathons. But, a muscle tear and getting older meant I chose not to put any more impact on my knees and switched to biking. There was a point in life running was the most important activity in my life. This never-ending flow of life, constant change, and the inevitable fade is called impermanence and is one of the three main pillars of Buddhism. While impermanence is neither good nor bad (nothing is really), it can have a profound effect on us at any given point in time. A broken relationship can cause a lot of grief while the same relationship, when new, caused a lot of joy. Whether it is work, people, environment or whatever, all of it is impermanent and is inescapable no matter what we do. And as a constant reminder, our own bodies and mind are also subject to it though we may not be consciously aware of it. An itch on your body, a thought about work, sleeping, being sick, whatever it is, it is not permanent. We tend to notice the really prominent things such as pain but are not consciously aware of the million other things that start, happen, and then fade. Finally, the world we live in and the universe itself is also full of impermanence. Stars form, burn brightly, and then one day, collapse. Seas rise and fall, seasons come and go, days turn to night and back into days, and so on. As the old business adage goes, the only thing constant is change.
All aspects of life are generally governed by the Law of Diminishing Returns, no matter whether it is physical or mental. While the duration of each phase can vary greatly, there is always a predictable flow. In addition, everything in the universe is also impermanent and constantly changing. The best and most obvious example to most is our bodies as we can observe the changes and path of the Law in a direct manner. Put together, I propose that these two facts combine to form the Impermanence Curve of Life that governs all aspects of our lives. Recognizing this simple fact can lead to profound and noticeable changes in building a foundation of happiness and contentment in one’s life. It can also help us deal with trying times and negative events as we know they are also not permanent. I will explore this far more in a separate blog about the evolution from happiness as a goal to instead building a foundation for joy.