We all just want to feel something
Based on pattern-matching and some introspection, here are three simple frameworks that help explain how people behave:
- hierarchy of feels: feeling good > feeling bad > feeling nothing
- marginal feels: you notice changes in feelings, not the absolute feeling
- optimization of feels: feeling good requires sometimes feeling bad
To explain principle 1 (hierarchy of feels), just look at how humans crave intense feelings, even ones that are not classically happy. Why do you listen to Adele songs, even though they make you feel sad? Why do you watch scary movies, even though your skin is crawling the whole time? Because, above all else, you want to feel something. The worst feeling of all is one of numbness, a major symptom of depression.
To explain principle 2 (marginal feels), just think of the best moment of your life. While it was likely special in an absolute sense (it was really happy), what really defined it was the marginal happiness (the period of time beforehand was nothing special, or maybe even bad). My best moment was when I moved to SF and discovered a healthy, balanced life. Those first 6 months were complete magic. Since then, my life has continued to increase in absolute happiness, but I notice it less given the marginal increase is much more moderate.
Principle 3 (optimization of feels) can be derived in principle 2. Your happiness is discovered in context of less awesome moments. As such, even very happy people (in an absolute sense) pursue sad moments in order to reaffirm their current happiness. A geographic analog to this is how people from California forget how great their weather is until they visit a freezing place, and upon return, feel immensely grateful :)