In 2004 the New York Times interviewed Stephen Hawking, the late scientist whose motor-neuron disease left him paralyzed and unable to talk since age 21.
Apparently in a good mood, the Times asked Hawking: “Are you always this cheerful? Seriously, how do you keep your spirits up?”
“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21,” Hawking said. “Everything since then has been a bonus.”
Quite a lesson, isn’t it?
And it’s one that applies to a lot of things.
Part of what makes any joke funny is the surprise. The setup leads you down one path (“Someone gets in a car accident every nine seconds”), then the punchline comes in a direction you didn’t expect (“Imagine how bad a driver that guy is.”)
The setup of that (very bad) joke is sad. The punchline is meaningless. It’s the gap between the two – the punchline deviating from your expectations – that might make you laugh. Few one-line jokes are funny; there’s not enough potential to set someone’s expectations, so it’s harder to surprise.
So many things work like that. People get excited when they’re surprised. Not when something big happens, or when they find the right answer. They get happy, mad, scared, amused, and astounded when they stumble across a gap between expectations and reality.
There are so many examples of this that defy intuition.
Will Smith writes in his biography that:
Becoming famous is amazing.
Being famous is a mixed bag.
Losing fame is miserable.
The amount (Read more…)