Adaptation, oversimplification, hyperbole, and change

As part of a conversation in episode 42 of No Stupid Questions, Stephen Dubner made mention of people who lived through—and therefore, for a period of time, adapted to—horrible situations, and then shared this hypothesis:

“All of us can adapt to some degree. But with something as simple as removing sugar from your coffee, to me, that’s just a little problem of engineering. You just need to find a way to engineer yourself into the choice … and then you’ll adapt.”

It was a provocative statement, and one he could make easily, as it was Angela Duckworth, his cohost, who had altered her morning coffee. His coffee remained as-is.

After thinking about this a bit, it feels oversimplified and like it’s missing a key component.

The people he referred to who adapted to horrible circumstances, had to. The alternative was death. (Nor were those options necessarily mutually exclusive.) If people were going to survive, they had to make it through one more hour, one more day, one more week of whatever circumstance they were living through. Often, these stories are from war zones, but they’re also from people who have been captured or kidnapped or other outside-my-reality circumstances.

Also, the people who didn’t adapt and gave up aren’t around to tell their side of the story, so perhaps that is underrepresented.

Most people don’t have to live without sugar in their coffee, and as such, “I can’t live without sugar in my coffee!” is accepted hyperbole.

That said, we’re much more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for, in some regards, and too adaptable in others.

It’s been my experience that many of us adapt to poor interpersonal circumstances—whether it be family, toxic friendships, poor work environments—and live with weight on our shoulders as a result.

Likewise, we adapt to feeling sluggish or bloated as a result of diet and exercise choices.

In both of those cases, the way we feel is just normal. A new, undesirable normal. A normal we might not be happy with but fear changing (because change is hard and scary) and so we suffer.

Changing those things is somewhere on a sliding scale of hard, based on experience, mindset, available resources, privilege, and so on. What one person sees as treacherously difficult another might be able to power through fairly quickly. I’m not going to attempt to distill that into more specific thoughts or advice; it’s too complex.

The takeaway instead is that change is possible, and it starts with mindset. Angela had some interesting moments in talking about drinking coffee without sugar instead of her usual teaspoon, and it was all in her head. Her coffee without sugar was never subjectively rated as just as good as her coffee with sugar, but it improved.

It’s possible to get used to having vegetables for half your dinner and to crave vegetables if you go a day or two without enough. The vegetables just need to be as ubiquitous and the junk food. And made to be tasty. There are endless ways to prepare vegetables so they’re tasty; I didn’t know any of them until I became vegetarian. All of that takes effort, until it becomes part of the fabric. Bonus points if you can make positive emotional connections. And you have to want to do it (so many things I want to want to do…). And you have to make the energy to do it (figuring out new food takes more energy than it seems like it should.)

So while there might be external factors to consider, the biggest hurdle is ourselves.

Doesn’t it seem like that’s always the case? Empowering and infuriating.