HH Flashback: Misery Can Neither Be Created Nor Destroyed

[See below, as promised, an archival excerpt from The Harold Herald, the world’s first blog, which I invented in the early 1990s. Yeah, I did. One of the things that made the HH special, and thereby transcend the as-yet-created blog genre, was the fact that we attracted scads of talented contributors. Dave Rose was one of these, and here we reprint one of my favorite bits, first published circa 1995.]

By DR. DAVID ROSE

BOSTON, Mass. — From a meteorological perspective, this winter has been a particularly difficult one in New England. The ground here has been snow-covered for at least a month, and each time the snow begins to retreat a new storm sets in, dumping a foot or two of the white stuff on the city’s long-suffering populace.

In times like these, even the most stalwart, Eastern masochist can cast an admiring eye to the South or West, imagining more comfortable — if less character-building — Februarys. In weaker moments we are all capable of believing we would be less miserable if only the weather were better.

What few people realize, however, is that misery — like matter, energy or gravity — is a measurable entity subject to strict physical laws. Paramount among these is the law of conservation of misery, which states that misery can be neither created nor destroyed. What the law of conservation of misery means is that each human being is subject to a fixed quantity of misery during his or her lifetime. This “misery quotient” is absolutely immutable, a constant that holds across socioeconomic groups and geographic boundaries.

The law can be demonstrated in the field by measuring and tabulating misery in test subjects by using sensitive, electronic monitoring equipment. In the following study, diary entries for three individuals are followed by the amount of misery experienced by each, expressed in misery units (MU).

Subject 1, Los Angeles, Calif.

Day 1: Beautiful day. Saw Erik Estrada at Arby’s (.002 MU)

Day 2: Beautiful day. Discussed Rolfing with a Scientologist. (22.001 MU)

Day 3: Beautiful day. Around noon my house ripped loose from its foundation, slid down a hill, burst into flames and was swallowed up by a huge fissure that opened in the Earth. I was trapped for four weeks and was forced to drink by own urine to survive. One of the paramedics looked just like Kevin Bacon in Footloose. (1223.12 MU)

Subject 2, Tallahassee, Fla.

Day 1: Beautiful day. Stayed in the trailer and ran the air conditioner. (.003 MU)

Day 2: Beautiful day. Noticed that some, but by no means all, of my neighbors bear a striking resemblance to Gomer Pyle. (12.4 MU)

Day 3: The morning was beautiful, but in the afternoon I was mistaken for a German tourist and shot in the head, doused with gasoline, and set afire during a hurricane that destroyed the entire trailer park. (1232.72 MU)

Subject 3, Boston, Mass.

Day 1: Mixture of snow and sleet. Frostbite in right foot. (415.041 MU)

Day 2: Mixture of snow and freezing rain. My right foot has become gangrenous, and the stench is unbearable (415.041 MU)

Day 3: More snow. However, I reflected today that my house remains intact and this gave me a sense of stability and well-being. Right foot amputated. (415.041 MU)

Note the three subjects had very different experiences during the test period. However, the total amount of misery endured by each subject is identical (1245.123 MU).

While life in Boston is characterized by an endless series of petty humiliations and annoyances, life to the South or West consists of long stretches of inane, vapid, colorless contentment punctuated by absolute cataclysm. You can take your pick, but you can’t avoid misery altogether.

And before you move to warmer climes, consider the fact that spring will bring nicer weather to Boston, whereas Gomer Pyle lives in Tallahassee year ’round.

Herald Science Editor David Rose, PhD, is the world’s foremost authority on suffering. While he still gets a charge from the warranted misfortune of others, he specializes in chance trauma and self-imposed misery. He once dieted for two weeks on nothing but chicken boullion and carrots. His latest book, “I’m Wretched, You’re Wretched” (Knopf, $14.95), was published in February.

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