Stuck on Roller Coasters

This Monday, 24 people were stuck on a roller coaster at the Great America theme park in Santa Clara, California. The ride malfunctioned at about 1:00pm, leaving the passengers sitting on an incline, 80 feet up in the air. It was a sunny and warm day, and the riders waited, the children on the ride kicking their feet, until authorities came from the surrounding cities and rescued them all, one by one, using an aerial ladder. The last passenger touched down at 6:00pm.

Five hours, sitting on a roller coaster. My first impression when I heard a snippet of what was going on was worry. “Passengers stuck on roller coaster!” the headlines said. “On an incline, 80 feet up!” I think I even heard that they were upside-down. That was the kicker for me, as I thought about the uncomfortable pressure that built when I used to hang upside down, for even a moment, on the jungle gym at my elementary school playground.

However, it doesn’t seem to have been all that bad, now that everyone is officially safe and sound. There were no injuries, and judging by the pictures I’ve seen here and there across the internet, the passengers stuck on the roller coaster (the “Invertigo”, to be precise) did not even seem very irritated at their five hour delay. Water bottles had been passed up to them because of the warm sun’s threat to cause dehydration, and all appropriate safety measures were taken when getting them down.

Actually, I can’t help but wonder if the people stuck on the Invertigo went home happier and healthier than other park goers that day. I can’t help think of the dehydration, sun sickness, and sore bellies from too much funnel cake that accompanied me home whenever I went to any amusement parks as a child, and I wonder who got the better end of the deal. The fact that all of those customers must have gotten significant “we’re sorry” perks from the park’s powers-that-be after the incident also helps to weight the cost-benefit scale towards the good in my reckoning, but since no real report has come out about this part, I can only offer up conjecture.

Being stuck on a roller coaster strikes me as a funny metaphor for life. You stand in line, wait, get excited, and then, once you’re up there, not everything goes according to plan. When there are big hiccups, like Invertigo’s malfunction, it often looks worse to those peering in from the outside than it is in reality.

All my life I’ve been struck with the anti-climactic nature of the peaks and valleys of life. Time and again I’ve worked tirelessly for a goal, building it  up as this huge accomplishment that will transform my world so that my life is wonderful, bad moods or bad days don’t exist, everyone is always sweet and flowers fall from the sky. Obviously this isn’t the way that things happen, and in my late teens I started to notice the pattern. You work hard and build something up, and you achieve what you set out to do. It’s nice, but you look around and see that you’re still here, things still happen, maybe someone hands you a bottle of water, and you go home and to bed.

It seems that perhaps life can always be mundane, no matter what happens.

But if that is the fact of it, can’t life always be wonderful too, no matter what happens?

Studies have been shown that mood affects your view of the future – that the better your mood, the more positive options you see available to you, and vice versa.* If you see positive options and choose one, then that positive future leads to more, and on and on, the future can, theoretically, be a bright and surprisingly happy place. But the same is true for the other side of the coin too. It seems that we are all always standing on the slope of a mountain, with an option to climb or descend, depending on our internal state.

Choosing to put a positive spin on things as they stand may affect more than our facial muscles.

So, with this in mind, perhaps a good practice for this week will be to put on the badge of “hall monitor” for the corridors of your mind. Take one day, and pay attention to your thoughts. Are they mostly excited? Glum? Pessimistic? Hopeful? Don’t try to change them yet (that’s for next week), just notice. Eventually perhaps we’ll all be sipping our cool water and admiring the birdsong 80 feet up while we’re stuck on our roller coasters, rather than bemoaning the lost funnel cake bellyaches that we’d be getting on the ground. Can’t hurt to try!

(this article has been a weekly pick-me-up, courtesy of A Luminous Life.)

*Winkelmann, R. (2009). Unemployment, Social Capital, and Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Happiness Studies. 10 (4), 421-430.

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