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Good things are hard to articulate

Published by Martin Kleppmann on 31 Aug 2010.

If you have a stone in your shoe, it’s easy to articulate what is wrong (“something is hurting my foot!”). But if you don’t have a stone in your shoe, you don’t go around rejoicing with every step. If you have just removed a stone, you may be pleased for a few seconds to have removed the irritation, but things very quickly return to normal.

The bad things keep sticking around and irritating us, whereas the good things are quickly taken for granted. The bad things are often easy to describe, whereas the good things are sometimes just the absence of a bad thing — the absence of some irritation.

This is a fundamental asymmetry, and it has lots of implications, big and small. For example, a big implication is the development of human society and technology. Because we are more prone to noticing bad things, and bad things keep bugging us, we try to fix bad things and make them go away. So humans invented tools (to stop hurting their fingers), agriculture (to stop hunger and laborious hunting/gathering), medicine (to stop their family members from dying), writing (to stop forgetfulness) and the internet (to stop the slowness of paper communication). Over history, humans have continuously taken stuff that is bad, and tried to make it better. Now that we have all these good things (tools, agriculture, medicine, writing, internet), we mostly take them for granted and don’t think about them any more.

(Some things that humans invented turned out to have bad side-effects besides their intended good effect. Take weapons as an example: intended to stop the hungry neighbours from stealing our food, but the idea got taken a bit too far. But that’s a different story.)

There are also other, less grandiose consequences of bad things being more noticeable. For example, when I was writing music and song lyrics, I found it comparatively easy to write about themes like conflict, struggle and sadness; writing about good things, however, was much harder. It would often just sound trite, banal and uninteresting.

How do you articulate those things that are good? Part of the point of this very essay is to see if I can write about things being good without just being incredibly boring. And what do I do? Complain about the fact that it’s hard to express things that are good. I complain. I am irritated that bad things are easier to write about than good things. And so I write about that irritation, thereby locking myself in a self-referential loop.

How annoying. Let’s talk about the good things again.

An observation. If bad things are much more noticeable than good things, that means that it’s very easy to lose sight of all the good things. In fact, it probably means that we are surrounded by lots of wonderful things that we’ve simply forgotten about. It might even be that the vast majority of things around us are good, and we are just failing to notice them!

We need to consciously remind ourselves of the good things from time to time, to avoid getting too bogged down in the bad things. That cannot mean getting complacent; it just means enjoying and appreciating life.

For example, I am writing this essay on a mobile phone (good) connected to the internet (good) while sitting in the sunshine (good) in a park (good) in San Francisco (good). I am wearing comfortable clothes (good) and don’t have any stones in my shoes (good). I live in a peaceful age (good) in a peaceful society (good). I am educated (good), healthy (good), don’t need to worry about being able to afford the rent (good) and I have a wonderful family (good). I look forward to sending this essay to Rita (good) to see what she thinks. (Hopefully it’s not too bad.)