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A Little Happier: Why Is It So Hard to See and Hear the World from Someone Else’s Perspective?

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In my study of happiness and human nature, I’m often struck by how hard it is to appreciate other people’s perspectives. It takes constant effort to remember, “This is my view, these are my preferences, this is what does and doesn’t work for me, this is how I like to do things.”

Over and over, I catch myself wanting to say things like “You should work at a desk” or “Why don’t you get up early and tackle that task first thing in the morning?” or “Just put it on your calendar, then it will get done.” These are all true for me, but they aren’t true for everyone!

I recently read a memoir that reminded me of how hard it is to remember that what we value, what we prefer, and what works for us is very likely to be different for other people.

Well-known essayist and journalist Ved Mehta wrote a memoir called Dark Harbor: Building House and Home on an Enchanted Island (Amazon) about building a summer house on a small island in Maine.

As he explains in the memoir, when he first set out to move to this island, he thought a lot about acoustics. Meta had been blind since he was four years old, and sound mattered a lot to him. People told him that for acoustics, an old house with plaster walls would suit him better—but because of the nature of the land he’d purchased, he ended up building a new house.

He worked with an esteemed architect Ed Barnes, and the two men genuinely liked and trusted each other. Ed was very involved in this assignment, and he was very aware of the importance of the acoustical environment to his client.

In fact, back at the very beginning, when Ed Barnes first asked Ved Mehta what kind of house he wanted, Mehta answered that he wanted rooms that were soundproof. He wanted a house by the ocean, but he didn’t want to listen to the sound of the waves all the time—he found the constant sound of the surf very wearing. He lived in the city, and the constant noise there grated on his nerves. Sound was a very big issue in the planning of this house.

And yet, Ved Mehta writes:

From the dining room, even with the window shut, our voices carried straight up the tower to the bedrooms above. It seemed that despite Ed’s genuine wish to design for me a soundproof house, he, like other contemporary architects, had favored natural light and air over quiet and pleasant acoustics. For instance, the large, fixed half-moon window in the stair tower, while flooding it with light, made house sounds harsher—glass is a notoriously poor acoustical material. Also, because the stairs were open, like a ladder, rather than closed up and carpeted as in old houses, even the shuffle of shoes in the basement carried all the way to the top of the house. It was as if with modern materials and a preoccupation with light and air a contemporary architect could not build a house whose main objective was soundproofing without making unacceptable aesthetic compromises.

I was astonished when I read this. This house was built for Ved Mehta! He’d emphasized what he needed, and why! And yet the architect had failed. And the architect didn’t just forget about the issue of soundproofing; he designed the house with many features that specifically worsened its sound quality.

To me, this story illustrates a crucial truth: It takes constant and rigorous discipline, as well as humility, to remember that what other people experience, and what other people value, and may be very different from what I experience and what I seek.

Here are some photos of the house:

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