Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Secret to Happiness (And The Cure for Insomnia)

On House this week, the team treated a woman who had recently left her career as a pediatric cancer researcher to devote her life to being happy. Somebody else can cure the dying children, she explained, but a health scare had taught her that she couldn't postpone her happiness any longer. Instead of pursuing meaning, as House's diagnosticians were doing, she pursued pleasure, working in her garden and studying cookery under a top chef.

It was an odd storyline. The woman said the word "happy" so many times that it started to sound like a word from Dr. Seuss. Since when, I wondered, have we had to choose between meaningful work and personal happiness?

Since high school I've known that happiness is detectable only to the peripheral vision. Look at it head-on and it vanishes. You can set the stage for happiness by getting lots of sleep and keeping an optimal balance between work and leisure, but you can't just sit on the pitcher's mound of your personal field of dreams, waiting for happiness to show up - instead you just get on with things and hope that happiness will sneak into the bleacher seats sometime before the seventh-inning stretch.

To House, the cynic, all decisions ultimately boil down to a single motive: the search for happiness. His patient pursues happiness by taking up hobbies; he and his team pursue happiness by doing their jobs. "I don't do my job to be happy," Kutner objects. "I do it to help people."

"No," House retorts. "You do it because helping people makes you happy."

It's an old argument, that idea that all actions are morally equivalent because all are selfishly motivated. So Mother Teresa finds that working with the poor makes her happy - bully for her. If House finds that harassing people and making sarcastic remarks is what makes him happy, that's just as good. The big joke, of course, is that the grim, misanthropistic Dr. House is hardly a poster-boy for happiness. As Sheryl Crow would say, "If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?"

Happiness is a lot more important than some of the things people pursue instead: money, prestige, fame. But both House and his patient seem to overlook the fact that happiness just doesn't work very well as a motive or a goal. It's too sneaky, too slippery, a master criminal that always manages to escape just before he gets caught.

When I awaken during the night, jolted out of my sleep by a child's nightmare or just to anxiously check the clock to make sure it's not yet 6:45, my best cure for insomnia is to meditate upon how happy I am. When I start imagining how exhausted I'll be in the morning, how unsafe it will be for me to drive my car if I'm functioning on only 90 minutes of sleep, I switch mental tracks and start focusing on how soft my flannel sheets are, how lucky I am to be warm and cozy, to have hours stretching before me in which I won't be required to get up and pack lunches or grade papers - just hours of dark, blissful nothingness.

It doesn't always work, this attempt to enjoy the conscious experience of sleeplessness. But when it does work, when a dull happiness creeps in and takes the place of frustration and panic, I only find out about it hours later when the daylight comes to remind me that those dark moments of conscious happiness were replaced, almost immediately, by sweet oblivion.


kgirl said...

Sure as hell beats my tactic of worrying over every microcosm of my life at 4am.

Chaotic Joy said...

I am by nature a bit of a grump. But over the last year, I have made it a point to try to find the blessings in every day things. Joy in the crumbs, as it is. And honestly, this has been the best method for me to leave my grumpiness behind and become happy. Noticing the beauty in a story read to my child, in a new dish I successfully pulled off, in the feel of my child's hand in mine, or the sound of my daughter singing in the shower. Happiness for me hasn't been about changing my life, but in changing my perspective. When I remember to do so.

painted maypole said...

this made me think about the difference between joy and happiness - the biblical idea of rejoicing even in our suffering. joy as a deeper and different thing than happiness, although they are often mistakenly assumed to be the same thing. happiness as an emotion, and joy as a conscious choice. choosing and pursuing joy may indeed bring some happiness, but I think the goal and how you get there will be quite different.

Janet said...

I bought a necklace recently from the Etsy shop of one of the bloggers I read. It reads "I have everything that I need." That's what I focus on when insomnia strikes.

Nicole said...

I'm a happy person, but sometimes I like to think of the quote by Denis Leary:

"Nobody's happy. Happiness is a smoke, a chocolate chip cookie, or a five-second orgasm, and that's it! You come, you eat the cookie, you finish your butt, you get dressed and go back to work!"

(I'm a non-smoker by the way).

For some reason, hearing that definition of happiness always makes me laugh, and laughing makes me happy!

Mad said...

I am a very happy person by nature unless I am suffering time stress or my habitual physical surroundings have become disordered. Then I am misery on a stick. Are you saying that if I lie on my dusty kitchen floor and remember how happy I am, I will just fall asleep? Sweet! Will I wake up in time for the 8am library instruction session that I haven't yet prepared? Dangnabbit, I don't think your theory is working.

Bea said...

Mad - Well, how comfortable is your kitchen floor? (Cork is softer than ceramic, but it's not all that soft.)

Beck said...

I think every marriage has one worrier and one happy-go-lucky sort and I get to be the latter. My husband does lots of middle of the night fretting while I just sleep... unless I have pms and then I'm not happy about ANYTHING.

I do think that we've been sold a bit of a load about happiness - and that a lot of what we think of as happiness is merely amusement. Hmm. Thinking.

Anonymous said...

I tried your techniques last night and it works! We do forget to be happy about the heat, clean sheets, etc.

Happiness is elusive. It shows up in waves. Contentment is a state of being.

Sounds like a fortune cookie.

Great post.

(Your) Anon

Kyla said...

Happiness is fleeting, you can't live your life seeking it. It happens, but as a by product of the life you lead, not as the end goal of it. Happiness isn't quite enough on its own.

Jess said...

This is such a good point. I'm going to try this next time I can't sleep.

Patois said...

I am so going to try your technique when sleeplessness or pain or children have me up in the middle of the night.

kittenpie said...

It's funny, I don't find happiness so elusive as that. But then, I take huge joy in small things a lot - and I never have trouble sleeping, so there's that, too, since I find sleep has a huge impact on outlook. What you need is a flannel-wrapped duvet. mmmm... duvet. that, or a baby to make you really appreciate sleep when you can get it!

toddlerplanet said...

I've had this post open for hours now and I'm still not sure what to say. It seems to me that happiness is a byproduct, albeit one that shows that you're probably doing the right thing. for you. but it's not foolproof....

I saw the episode too, and it bothered me, although not for quite the same reasons.

Bon said...

i think i need to try this. right about now, in the middle of a Sunday morning when i'm so bleary i can't see but the phone rang just when bebe and i had dropped off for a needed nap.

i AM happy. hmmm. great post.

psychomama said...

This mightn't cure your insomnia but writing it helped cure mine :)..
The pursuit of happy-ness, that is the modern psychoanalytic dilemma; a generation has grown up heeding the parental and societal demand that they ‘just be happy’. It’s an injunction that pervades the common discourse: ‘You’re worth it’, ‘Just do it’, etc. This is a ferocious and frozen demand in its positioning of the subject. How is the ‘push-to-happy-ness’ to be satisfied without a defined demand, without the correlative facilitisation of an emerging subjective desire?

My clients ask to be made ‘happy’, to be ‘fixed’, not to encounter further destitution. They seek satisfaction in idealised images: the perfect career, bank balance, skin, lover, shoes, car. They must be 'perfect', it's not good enough to be 'good-enough'. They speak of guilt but it’s not Oedipal, it’s not castrating, it’s not within a Freudian context. They speak of stress, depression, pain - but never anxiety!

We live in a society beset by the failure of the signifier: father, mother, baby, money, land, law, sexuality. There is no name which suffices to contain anxiety, to stop the slipping of meaning - not Xanax, not Tantric sex, not aromatherapy, not yoga. Everyone is seeking a cure not a treatment; no-one is willing to wait but insists that they be given something now to take away the anxiety, the pain, the suffering. In this acquisition-driven, object-laden existence, where does psychoanalytic psychotherapy fit in, a treatment that offers no cure, no ‘happy meal with free toy’?

‘Too much of a good thing is a bad thing’ goes the old adage. Or as Lacan said in Seminar X, ‘when I am too full my lack lacks and I am full of lack.’ The modern subject suffers because s/he is too full to feel lack, too happy to be afraid. The ego is satiated with money and objects while the Unconscious pays with obsessionality, self-harm, panic attacks, explosive anger, corpo-Real angst, etc.

The Freudian Unconscious has much to teach us about our relation to each other, about what we wish to say to each other. The extraordinary contemporary corpo-Reality is an Unconscious signification of the anxiety we dare not name except in manic accumulation or consumption of objects, in the cut or the tattooed encryption of our skin (the primary envelope) or in the fashion statement, a proclamation of a uniform nonconformity.

The modern subject’s anxiety resonates in the questions: ‘ How do I look?’, ‘What am I like?’. We are captivated by the 'look' - by always-on mobile phone/cameras, Bebo, 24-hour ‘Breaking News Alerts’, on-line porn, on-line gambling. We seek 'to make a name for ourselves', a label that offers narcissistic integration - depression, PTSD, addiction; Goth, Emow, D4; YUPPie, WAG, Yummy Mummy . Celebrity, being seen, being objectified, a being-for-another, however ineffable, offers proof of life.

Psychoanalytic psychotherapy offers another proof of life: the signifying discourse, a symbolic register that is not of the body or the image. It is time for a subjective narrative of desire to replace the fallacy of the object-consumption-satisfaction that has marked our recent Demand-saturated-society. Now is the time to challenge the happy neurotic in an encounter with lack.

Robyn said...

"...happiness is detectable only to the peripheral vision. Look at it head-on and it vanishes."

How true.

Just discovered you. Thanks for the insight.

Veronica Mitchell said...

Az really liked this post.

It reminds me of the experiment in Little Women, where the girls try to only amuse themselves, and instead find themselves short-tempered and dissatisfied.

Lisa b said...

tonight I will be thankful for my sheets. Thanks bea.