Thursday, November 08, 2007

It's Adaptation, Amigos

I came out of the airport at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, smack bam into the blasting sunshine. Between me and the airport wall the sun beat down, tumid and enveloping. New York had been cool, bordering on chilly. I remember thinking, damn it's hot.

Dodging taxi offers of around $60 a ride, I found the bus stop and some locals who helped me flag down the bus to Sayulita. Sitting up near the driver and the overridden clutch (actually I have no idea where the clutch on a bus is, but I was sitting near a rather large mound that screeched and swore like a wet cat every time a gear changed), I had a good view of the road and its variability, the roadside stalls featuring an inordinate number of magazines about nail-art, and the passengers who came on and off. We stopped every few minutes - at one point I think we stopped so a man could pick up some cigarettes. He wandered off and we left without him.

Sitting back on the crusty seats wearing my cowboy hat, I felt like Indiana Jones. He definitely would have taken a bus rather than a taxi. Or Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, on her way to Cartagena.

Okay, so I also took the bus because I was way under budget. Okay, I didn't actually have a budget. But I did spend an extra $120 on a taxi from New York's JFK airport back home to pick up my Green Card (which, incidentally, looks just like a credit card), then back to JFK to get the plane. So, in Mexico, I took the bus. Not really so adventurous, just cheap. And fun.

I love the change that a vacation entails: change of routine, change of scenery, change of experience. I'd been planning this trip for so long, there was so much to anticipate. I had imagined it, how it would be, how it would feel, what it would look like. New foods, drinks, smells, flavors, temperatures, experiences.

Once in Sayulita, after finding out by text that my friends hadn't even arrived, I headed down to the beach hoping to find someone from the wedding party. Lugging my suitcase along the sand, sweating in my heavy plane clothes and randomly ear-wigging on conversations felt less Indiana like, but my quest was soon over when I happened upon the French contingent and settled at their table with a gallon of frozen margarita.

Later, at a beach table with my beach food (cerviche) with my beach friends and Texas hat. The novelty of the little beach table deserved a photo...

Sayulita itself is a small town about 45 minutes by taxi, or an hour and a bit by bus, from Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific Coast. The small town is unencumbered by large hotels or chain restaurants. The people - and this came up often in discussion so I feel justified in such a generalization - were genuinely friendly and helpful, almost as if the lack of commercialization had kept things sweet with the locals.

With five friends, representing Australia, New Zealand and Ireland (a perfect target for the French who unfortunately were rugby fans) - we hired a house near the beach. It was beautiful, all primary colours, open spaces and a maid.

The wedding was day two, on a clifftop over looking the sea. After that, we settled in proper.
In a day or so I knew the beach and the strange, short-breaking surf. I knew the cafes and the beach-front bars that served the best margaritas and salsa. I knew that the outside couch on our patio at "home" had fleas and that the hot water didn't work. I knew, with some relief, that my roommate Derek didn't snore.

I'd been reading about how our minds adapt to circumstances in Professor Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis. He, like many psychologists, has studied our incredible capacity for change and its effect on our happiness.
Adaptation enables us to cope in a labile world. Our lives are defined by change, and without the ability to adapt we would desist completely, be overwhelmed.
So, what long-term effects do external changes have on our internal well being? There are dissenting views: one famous study showed that people who suffer paralysis, compared with lottery winners, all within a year or so return to near-abouts their base level of happiness. Others differ in opinion, and cite cases where occurrences such as the death of a spouse or divorce do impact well-being in the long term.
Regardless of where we end up on the life-satisfaction scale, we often anticipate our inability to change as far greater than it is. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Professor Haidt says:

We are bad at "affective forecasting," that is, predicting how we'll feel in the future. We grossly overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions.....The human mind is incredibly sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels.

I was thinking about this principle in relation to a my friend's impending career change. He is feeling some trepidation regarding a new career move - a looming fear of the certain drop in income that will come with starting his own business. Like many of us, he's always worked for someone, and been paid a salary. He wonders how he will cope on less income, given that he is used to certain luxuries.

What the science points to is that, he will start the new job and at the beginning, in comparison to his previous pay-check, he will feel less satisfied. But as he adapts to the new level of income, each gain or accomplishment will register as a positive change, and give him a boost.

The flip side of adapting to negative changes is our ability to become accustomed to positive ones. The "hedonic treadmill", as described by Martin Seligman, "causes you to rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted. As you accumulate more material possessions and accomplishments, your expectations rise." (Pg 49, Authentic Happiness). We get used to things, but still want that rush of positive feeling that comes with the change involved in earning more or gaining more.

At Sayulita, what had sufficed for entertainment in the first few days - beach, friends, the wedding, food - was soon to be superceded with more daring adventures. Some people went deep sea fishing. My group went out into the humid jungle and swung down long wires strung between trees - in New Zealand we call it a flying fox, over here they call it a zip line. Awesome.

To me, adaptation is also closely related to mindfulness. Knowing we will adapt, it is even more useful to be mindful of every moment. The future will never turn out the way we imagine it. In the meantime, with all our (read = my) day-dreaming and imagining, we've adapted to circumstance without appreciating it just for what is is....a moment - each little moment being a micro-bite of constant change, constant renewal and constant adaptation.

I took a taxi back to the airport. Done with the bus, time for something new and more comfortable! My driver's name was Jose and we sang to Classic Rock, windows down, barefoot and warm. Maybe I appreciated him and the car more because of the bus experience? It definitely felt like a treat.

At the airport it was hot. I felt the heat, recognized it. I remembered it and the feeling of novelty just days ago.

I wanted to be back on the beach, my beach. I wanted to be with my old friends. I wanted to be drinking margaritas with my feet in the sand.

Then....then I just got in the line to check in. And hoped that they would have something other than peanuts on the flight back.

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