The Safe Hurricane: a brain cocktail of happiness

People love a certain kind of disaster preparation.  After Hurricane Irene’s lackluster rains last year and today’s Hurricane Sandy prep, New Yorkers are now well familiar with mayoral press conferences and impressive lines at the Trader Joe’s.  Twitter is abuzz with witty puns and prayers for safety (and the safety of satellite dishes, so that they can still see The Walking Dead).  Everyone is just a little bit jazzed, even if they’re evacuating.

We’re fascinated by a certain kind of pseudo-disaster for the same reason we like watching scary movies: it is a safe kind of fear.  Hurricane Sandy has already killed 65 people to date in the Carribean, but we can likely assume that the New York death toll will be essentially nil; even if someone does die, it will almost certainly be less than the loss-of-life suffered in the average heat wave.  So for most New Yorkers, we’re “in danger” but not in any way that is, practically speaking, dangerous.

But the trick is that our brain doesn’t fully believe the difference.  We still get a spike of generalized arousal, which makes us more alert and focused, so that we get the benefits of preparing for fight-or-flight but without actually having to run or fight anyone.

In other words, a hurricane is a scary movie but you get to actually be in the movie.  There are practical things you get to do (like food shopping); it engages in your brain, you can plan, you can execute.  And in doing so, you come into contact with other engaged people: you make friends in the supermarket line, schedule impromptu parties of neighbors for spontaneous hurricane parties, hop on social networks to exchange plans and jokes and tips.  So we’re aroused, we’ve got a place to channel it, and we get to do it while being around other people.  That’s a brain cocktail for happiness.

Until Day 2.  Arousal is long gone; your brain isn’t stupid, it has figured out that you aren’t actually in any danger, and now it goes back to sleep.  And its an even deeper sleep, because now its recovering from yesterday’s burst of activity.  You’ve got no practical things that need doing, having battened the hatches and filled the fridge.  And you already saw everybody yesterday and they are sick of playing board games with you.

And that’s par for the course.  For psychologists, there are two major components to happiness: satisfaction (the long term experience of happiness) and delight (the momentary experience of happiness).  Delight, what you feel on Hurricane Day 1, is intense and important, but it comes at a significant cost: by sharply elevating our brain chemistry and our expectations, we experience a bit of a gulf when it is gone.  With enough satisfaction, we can mitigate this by using our long-term base level to bring us back up, but there will still be a little dip.

So live large, New York, on the first day of Hurricane Sandy.  Because tomorrow, it will be raining, with no schools and possibly no subways, and you may all be just a little dreary.  Celebrate – and don’t party so hard that a few more board games don’t sound good for tomorrow.