I ran across an explanation for a phenomenon I had observed and commented on a number of times while in prison. That is, generally speaking, “lifers” seem to be happier than the inmates with less time.
Mo Gawdat, the chief business officer of Google X, wrote an algorithm for happiness: “Happiness is equal to, or greater than the difference between the way you see the events of your life and your expectation of how life should behave.” Sure, it’s a bit of an oversimplification for something so complex, but it makes sense.
I think inmates who knew they would never be released had more or less accepted that environment as life. They tended not to focus on what they could not change, as opposed to others who also could not change it, but knew their environment would eventually change.
When I first went to jail, I was quite unhappy. As time passed, my baseline expectations changed. I stopped dreaming of the outside world figuratively and literally. Just as my dreams occurred in some sort of prison environment, my aspirations and goals also took on the reality of my situation.
It took about a year of incarceration before I stopped dreaming about the outside world, but since my release, I haven’t had a single dream about prison. My baseline expectations have skyrocketed, and it’s hard to keep them in check. I know I shouldn’t compare myself to others and, for the most part, I don’t. I have a little more trouble not comparing my life now to what it once was. This, after all, is not my first go at the whole freedom thing.
Outside, I’m constantly reminded of how big of a “loser” I am. Now before anyone thinks I shouldn’t be so harsh on myself, I am referring to all the things I have lost. I recently got back an old laptop of mine with hundreds of pictures of my old life. I used to have a beautiful wife, a big house, and a great job. I have accepted the fact my life is different and that situation is no longer my reality. Would I like to have some of that stuff again? Sure I would, but it’s definitely not an immediate expectation. It was much harder to see pictures of how little my son was and think about the years I have missed and the harm that caused.
When I was feeling sorry, I saw photos of my friend Cat who had also been an addict. I wrote an article about my relationship with Cat three years ago when I was in prison, but will recap for those who missed.
Our relationship was not of the romantic variety. Cat and I had become friends in drug court and I kind of watched out for her, as she was a bit younger than me. She didn’t really have friends outside of the drug scene, and looked to me like a big brother. We went swimming together almost every week, she would tag along with me at work, and I even got her to quit smoking. Kat graduated drug court about the same time I was sent to prison. She ended up going back to drugs and lost way more than I ever did. Cat died of a heroin overdose in the beginning of 2015.
I lost a lot, but I’m alive. I could have easily died from my drug use. I can be unhappy about how big of a loser I have been, or I could be happy for the life I can still enjoy.
It’s not realistic to use life itself as a baseline expectation, because you can’t have a personal contrasting reference. I can however remember the reality of my situation; and that is, while I’m no longer incarcerated, I am still officially an inmate. (If you were to look me up in the prison’s computer system, I would be there like any other inmate, except my housing unit is listed as parole.) I don’t even need to try to use incarceration as my baseline, I just need to accept where I am and work on improving it.
Brian Wood, of Layton, pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He served four years in the Utah State prison system before being released on parole on Jan. 2, 2018.