#161: Unhappy medium
When worse is actually better
This morning I was checking to see if my laundry was done drying and found my favorite t-shirt wrapped torturously around the edge of the lint trap. This has happened before—our lint trap doesn’t slide fully into its slot, and the exposed lip occasionally catches stray loops and straps. But never has it so thoroughly snagged something. The sleeve of my shirt was still wet, twisted into oblivion, and when unfurled, stretched into an entirely new shape. Given the seriousness of this offense, I removed the trap and finally took a flashlight to its opening. I wanted to see what was preventing it from being properly stowed. What I discovered—and this seems so obvious now—was a brick of compacted lint.
Fifteen minutes and three extraction tools later (kitchen tongs, straw cleaner, water-bottle squeegee), the slot was completely clear, and the lint trap nestled seamlessly back into its newly swept home. Euphoria ensued. “I’m so excited!” I kept screaming at Avi, “I can’t believe it worked.” And when he replied with the ultimate truism—“It feels so good to do stuff” (true)—I realized my lint triumph was a perfect example of what I was planning to write about this week. It’s something called, of all things, the Region-Beta Paradox, and its unrelenting relevance is actually what makes it special. Proof of its veracity is everywhere, never-ending, so much so that when I first heard about it, I immediately believed it to be true based on almost everything I’ve ever experienced. Or at the very least, the most important things.
The region-beta paradox describes the phenomenon whereby, sometimes, a person may benefit from being worse off versus just mildly off, because being worse off may mobilize them to take action to address the problem, whereas being mildly off can lead them to stagnancy. This means that, strangely, people may heal, recover, or move on more quickly from experiences that are more intensely negative than experiences that are just unpleasant. To use a blunt example offered by Daniel Gilbert, the guy who coined the term: A bum knee hurts longer than a shattered patella, because a shattered patella requires immediate care and attention, whereas a bum knee can just sort of linger forever. Gilbert is a Harvard psychologist who gave one of those viral TED talks about how to be happy—we’ll have to let that slide.
The paradox could have a more approachable name. Not just from a branding perspective but because I’m not sure the concept it references is the best way to illustrate the idea. I will explain what it means anyway: When a person needs to get somewhere that’s less than a mile away, they may choose to walk, but if the destination is further than that, they may choose to bike. This leads to the paradoxical fact that if a destination is two, three, or even four miles away (region beta), the person will actually get there faster than if the destination is one mile away (region alpha). This is of course because biking is faster than walking. Throw in driving or busing and the paradox intensifies. What I dislike about this framing is it suggests that getting somewhere quickly is inherently better than getting somewhere slowly, but I guess if we think of the metaphor as portraying potential healing speed (i.e. we may heal faster from worse situations), it makes a bit more sense.
The relevance vis-a-vis my lint trap is clear. Had its errant edge not finally caused me considerable trouble—versus the minor irritations it inspired previously—I’d have never been motivated enough to fix it. So, worse ultimately means better. But I think it’s more illuminating to apply it to more significant problems, like (say!) my last relationship. I dated my college boyfriend for about five years, from age 21 to 26. Despite the fact that I harbored quiet doubts about our long-term compatibility for much of that time, I struggled to leave because, actually, we got along great, and I loved him a lot. This was of course torture. Ending that not-quite-right relationship was, counter-intuitively, one of the hardest things I’d ever done.
The same could be said of all the big leaps I took in my twenties: leaving San Francisco (pleasant but hollow), leaving my HR career (comfortable but unfulfilling), leaving my editing job (stable but constricting). In terms of their effect on my wellbeing, these situations, prior to my leaving them, hovered somewhere in the middle, and so naturally, took many drawn-out and uncomfortable years to address. I could conclude that lingering in less-than-ideal circumstances has been motivating in its own way—some realizations can’t be rushed—but I think it’s also true that, had the situations been worse, I’d have been galvanized much sooner.
I think all those shifts stand out as formative to me because they were defined by unavoidable risk, something I’m wired to reduce as much as possible. As someone who, by nature, favors thinking over doing, which can be paralyzing as a personality trait, my adult life has led me to venerate the inverse. Introspection can only get you so far. Region-beta makes sense of this; it presumes that, in matters of indecision, action is almost always better than inaction, because it will thrust you out of the middle and into the margins where, positive or negative, you’ll have a lot more to work with.
Medium-bad situations make great fodder for advice columns. My Dear Baby question bank is full of them. When things are bad-bad, people are too busy dealing with them to write into an advice column. When things are medium-bad, meanwhile, people are full of immobilizing qualifications: gratitude, perspective, acknowledgments that things could be worse. These considerations are useful for putting one’s situations in context—and for generally not being a miserable, histrionic person—but they’re useless at helping one make decisions. Gratitude for food never helped me pick what to have for dinner. Sometimes, it’s just irrelevant.
I appreciate that about the region-beta paradox—that it diagnoses the room-temperature source of immobility. But what I like most about it is that it suggests a new way to grapple with more serious problems. The turns-for-the-worse. It highlights the value of rock bottoms, and implies they have bounce. It’s a somewhat unsettling reminder that, although we may perceive a certain safety in the middle-ground, in being half-in-half-out, sometimes, we may actually be safer going all in.
My favorite article I read last week was “The Bad Patient,” by B.D. Mcclay for The Drift. A great piece on the performance of illness and the suspicion it inspires. Last Friday’s 15 things also included my hidden storage finds, my new bar of choice, some You've Got Mail thoughts (lol), and more. The rec of the week was the best shops to follow on Etsy, for which everyone really pulled through!
My podcast last week was about my summer slump, and your comments were so sweet they made me cry. Thank you for being the best subscribers.
Hope you have a perfect Sunday,