This little anecdote might be less interesting to most people than it is to me, but I share it because it's an analogy for an important concept in life. Happiness is often dependent on relative, not absolute, levels of well-being. This applies to societies, in which people cannot help but compare their own lives to those of their neighbors. It also applies within the life of an individual. How you are doing compared to how you were doing last week, last month, or last year might be a lot more important to your happiness than how you are doing in some absolute sense. If your quality of life is a +28 on whatever arbitrary scale we're using, but not long ago it was a -12, that relative value of +40 could result in you being extra happy.
I wrote this in a blog post at the end of the year 2016:
As 2016 draws to a close, it's become a cliche to remark on how horrible a year it was. Trump's election being a large part of that, but for many other reasons as well. So it's kind of funny for me, while fully recognizing and acknowledging the reasons that 2016 was horrible, to realize that 2016 - on a personal level - was overall one of the best years of my entire life.The biggest reason this was true was that at the beginning of 2016 I was at pretty much the lowest point of my whole life, and then I came out from that, and by mid-spring got to the point where my life was at least "not bad," and then by early summer to the point where my life was actually pretty darn good, and then it continued to be that way. June 2016 was a landmark month in my life for at least two reasons: the Cavs won the NBA Finals and I bought and started riding my mountain bike. June 2016 was also the beginning of what I now realize was the longest period of mostly uninterrupted genuine happiness if not of my whole life then at least since my childhood. Later that year there were a couple of very distressing incidents (my friend Shelli being hit by a reckless driver and nearly killed while riding her bicycle in Montana, and Donald Trump being elected president) that temporarily caused significant downturns in my mood, but all in all, from June 2016 through September 2017 there were 16 straight months where for the entire duration I could honestly say about my own life, "Life is Good."
For the last three months now, although there have been good things, all in all I have not been able to say that. And just as being happy after being very unhappy magnifies the happiness, being unhappy after being very happy magnifies the unhappiness.
My life has been marked by sudden drastic changes in a number of ways. One way that has become a repeated pattern is drastic changes in my level of physical activity. Ever since I was young, athletic pursuits have been a huge passion of mine. In high school, although I excelled academically, I took much more pride in my distance running accomplishments. After my collegiate running career was over, the volume of running I did dramatically decreased because of chronic injuries. A few years later, to battle a different sort of chronic pain I found that doing a lot of running was the best medicine, so in 2009 I found myself more physically active than I had been in years. Another drastic downturn came that fall after I ran my first and only marathon and caused awful and long-lasting ankle tendinitis in the process. And a pelvic fracture in a cycling accident the following May took me down even farther from my heights of fitness.
For the next few years I wasn't sedentary, but I was fairly limited due to these and other injuries. And then in the fall of 2015, I once more found myself in a situation where I was in horrible chronic pain and I had to do a huge amount of exercise to even begin to keep it under control.
This time, still not able to do much distance running, I found new forms of exercise that I enjoyed and soon fell in love with. First playing basketball, something I had done very little of since childhood. And then, the following summer, mountain biking. I've come to love both playing basketball and riding my mountain bike with nearly the same passion I had for running cross country. The year 2016 was by far my most physically active year since 2009, and that was definitely a major contributing factor to it being one of the best years of my life.
I feel like the last few years have been a repeated process of my life falling apart and me putting it back together again. Last summer, around the end of June or beginning of July, a left hip issue that I have had for several years now (and is probably related to one or both of my past pelvic fractures) got significantly worse again. I didn't recognize it at the time, but that was actually in a way the first step in my life falling back apart. After playing basketball several times a week with no serious interruptions for more than a year, I abruptly stopped. This was no fun at all. I've realized that being a basketball player has become a part of my identity, of how I view myself, in a similar way as being a distance runner. It was so great to go, over the course of all those months, from being the awkward nerdy guy who could rebound well but not do a whole lot else to someone who was known and respected by most of the regulars at the gym. Around the same time as I stopped playing basketball, I also mostly stopped riding my bikes, for a little while. I was in a lot of pain and suddenly not very active and under ordinary circumstances it would not have been a very happy time in my life. But these weren't ordinary circumstances. I had something totally new and totally wonderful in my life and that was forming a parental bond with an extraordinary child. And with that in the picture, all the ordinary problems of my life were greatly diminished in their impact.
That, of course, is no longer in the picture.
Fortunately I did discover later in the summer that I was still able to ride my bikes. Riding would often make the pain feel a little worse at first, but it wasn't a lasting change, and many times after I was done with a ride - later that day or the next day - the pain would actually be somewhat better than its baseline level. So I did continue my cycling pursuits, and got to do a lot of fun mountain biking in particular, really improving my skills in that discipline which has been very rewarding.
But now, with it being winter, going out on a bike ride is not something I'd much enjoy. And unfortunately I have still not been able to comfortably resume playing basketball at anywhere near my normal levels. So in the repeating cycle of drastic changes in physical activity levels that have marked my adult life, the last few months have seen another drastic downturn. With what else has happened, this is an especially bad time for that. Exercise can have a great effect on mood. But for it to really work well, it has to be exercise that I enjoy. Going for a run? A bike ride? Playing basketball? When I'm able to do any of these things, they work wonderfully. Pedaling a stationary bike? That's not nearly as effective, because it's exceptionally boring. I did go to an indoor bike park for the first time recently and rode my mountain bike around in there for a couple of hours, and that was great fun. I'll have to go back.
I have been doing physical therapy for my hip since the summer. It seemed to help at first, but then things plateaued. In the last few weeks the pain has gotten worse again and I don't know why. It's very frustrating. I hope my doctor can figure something out but I'm not especially optimistic based on past experiences. At the same time, I don't expect things will be like this forever.
I realized some time ago that effective pain management was the most important thing in my life. Now I realize this can be divided into multiple parts: 1. Decreasing my pain. 2. Decreasing the limitations pain places on my ability to enjoy physical activity. 3. Coping with the psychological effects of being in pain. 4. Coping with the psychological effects of diminished physical capabilities. At any given time one or another of these might become paramount in importance, but all four have been the story of my life for a long time, and that will undoubtedly continue. And whereas much of the pain in my life has been due to losses I've suffered that have been totally outside my control, these are things that I would like to think I do have some control over. Don't get me wrong, my life right now is not completely horrible; there are a lot of good things, but there's also a lot of room for improvement, and I need to try to prioritize the ways in which I can attain that improvement.