When the pain's in the change

Today is the beginning of Daylight Saving Time, which many people love to hate. Studies have shown there are both health and economic costs to Daylight Saving Time, and no one enjoys the beginning of DST, when we lose an hour. (I’m actually kind of partial to the end, when we gain an hour.) And I am told that any discomfort someone like myself feels from clock-changes is nothing compared to parents of small children, who are less able to regulate their own body clock according to artificial factors like a clock change.

But here’s the thing. All these downsides to Daylight Saving Time have nothing to do with whether the sun sets at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. They’re about the fact that we change, in a single day, from one time to another. When it’s December, I think people are actually pretty content that the sun isn’t rising at 8:30 a.m. And I definitely appreciate it being bright late into the evening in the peak of the summer. It just really stinks for a few days each spring and fall to have to reconfigure one’s internal clock.

Sioux Falls solar day, from weatherspark.com.

Daylight Saving Time is illustrative of a broader principle: In many cases, when we complain about changes, what really bothers us is not the new normal, but the transition to get to the new normal. Put another way: sometimes it’s not the result that’s painful, it’s the change itself.

Take, for example, a family that’s earning $100,000 per year. Then, suddenly, something changes and they’re earning just $70,000 per year. There’s nothing wrong about earning $70,000 per year. Lots of families earn that much or less and are still comfortable and happy. But the change to a $70,000 salary from a much higher one can be painful. (Think about this example when listening to a lot of political discussion about changes to benefits and tax rates. This theory of the Painful Change explains why people will react so strongly to the proposal that their tax rate or government benefit change to a new, less generous, level that seems to a dispassionate observer to be perfectly reasonable.)

I think of the Painful Change maxim, too, when reading commentary and debate about climate change. If a region’s climate becomes hotter and drier, that’s bad news for all the living things (humans included) who currently live there. It’s not necessarily bad news for life itself, which in the long term will adapt to the new normal, possibly with new species or new behaviors from old species. But it can be catastrophic for everything that had adapted to the old way. Life thrives in the climate of St. Louis and life thrives in the climate of Minneapolis, but if Minneapolis’ climate changes to be like St. Louis’, it’s not going to be pleasant for things already living in Minneapolis.

Don’t take this idea of the Painful Change to diminish the significance of this transitional agony. I’m not making a “Who Moved My Cheese” argument that we should just suck it up and accept negative change because the new situation is all that matters — though in many cases, graceful adaptation to change is exactly what’s called for. My point is that we should conceptually distinguish between journey and destination. Sometimes we have to endure painful changes to get to good results. (I’d put Daylight Saving Time in that category.) Sometimes painful changes lead to painful results. Similarly, pleasant changes can lead to good or bad situations. And sometimes the magnitude of the change outweighs the magnitude of the result — while it can be worth it to endure a terrible change to get to a much better place, it’s not worth enduring a terrible change for a trivial improvement in one’s situation.

The comfort of the transition doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about where we end up, and we should recognize that when we make decisions — or before we start complaining about turning our clocks back in the spring.