I spent a good part of my career consulting in the transportation industry. One of the projects I did was for a group of telecommunications companies looking to develop some idea of what the societal benefits would be if the country were to be wired for broadband. This was 1991 and their objective was to use the data for investment plus, I am sure, for lobbying purposes.
This project was my introduction to the science of traffic congestion as we were trying to quantify how much the traffic would reduce if people telecommuted (a novel idea then) instead of driving to work. The reduction in congestion would lead to increased productivity, a major element in calculating the societal benefits of improved telecommunications.
We came across an interesting phenomenon — -a road remains equally congested even if a fraction people stop driving to work. The reason is that the non-commuting folks who are reluctant to drive on a congested road in the morning, will now take to the wheels since fewer commuters are on the road. So, the road gets congested again as if it is doomed to some level of congestion. In other words there is a set point of congestion, which is difficult to alter.
The reverse is also true. The road can become so congested that at some point the commuters get fed up and seek alternatives — -car pools, transit system. So the congestion gets back to where it was — -its set point.
This phenomenon of set point applies to human conditions as well. Behavior psychologists point to our happiness as something that has a set point. According to this theory, we all have an internal set point of happiness. If we try to increase our happiness, say through material acquisition, we will get some temporary improvement, much like the congested road, but in a short time, we will be back to the set point of happiness.
Interestingly, just like road congestion, the reverse also applies. If the happiness is reduced, say due to a major illness, financial difficulties or death in the family, it gets back to its set point after the passage of some time.
I am now discovering similar set points in other areas as well. Take anxiety for example. Upon retirement, I thought my anxiety level would permanently reduce. It has not exactly turned out to be that way. As work related anxiety has gone, it has been replaced by that caused by the silliest of things — -will I reach the theater in time? Are these the right photographs to enter in the camera club competition? Will a blizzard disrupt our planned trip to Central America?
It looks like I have a mildly anxious set point that I cannot shake off!