Friday, May 27, 2011

The Unified Theory of Happiness - Part Two

I would like to share a thought experiment of mine on the subject of happiness. It goes like this. Let's say we imagine you in a year's time. In fact, let us imagine tomorrow your life takes one of two possible paths, both of which end up with you in exactly the same situation a year down the track. In both these possible lives, you are a half million dollars richer in a year than you are today. But in one scenario, you are miserable; in the other, you are happy. In every external respect, your life is identical in these two variations, but emotionally the results are completely opposed. What explains the difference? Surely, if your life is the same, you should be equally happy. But consider: in one life version, you win $500K in a lottery. In the other, you win ten million dollars in the lottery, and, through a bad investment, lose all but the last half million of it. In the former situation, you're overjoyed because you perceive an expansion of your life's possibilities. In the latter, you're shattered by the contraction, even though your situation is significantly better than it was a year before.

It's not hard to imagine variations of this thought experiment. For example,you lose the use of your legs, but a miraculous new medical procedure restores your mobility. Now the mere fact of being able to walk brings you untold joy. It's all about the set point of 'normality' and the movement of our circumstances in relation to that point. It's about the story we tell ourselves about where we should be - the dynamic tension of having, desiring and losing - that determines our satisfaction, not the actuality of what we have. Consider the successful business men who commit suicide when their businesses collapse. They may still be far richer than you or I, but the massive readjustment of their set point and, more significantly, the attachment of their identity to this wealth, is more than they can take.

It seems to be the movements up and down the snakes and ladders of life that make us happy or miserable much of the time, not how far advanced we are on the board. Because wherever we are on the board we want to be further on, and fear falling back. For this reason, even though we kind of know that those with more than us aren't necessarily any happier, we still aspire to be in their shoes. We mistake the thrill of going up for the thrill of being high. And we always tend to focus on what we don't have than what we do. If you are the number two tennis player in the world, you don't lie awake at night thinking about the six and a half billion people you play tennis better than. No, you think about the one guy who still beats you.

I sometimes think about the wealth I possess today and take for granted as a person of average means in modern Australia: iPhone, flat screen TV, modern car. Any one of these items would be considered a miracle to a person of fifty years ago and would be beyond price, if somehow one could fall through a worm-hole to that earlier era. Yet it's precisely because these things are available to everybody that we take them for granted and don't recognise how truly extraordinary they are. What we consider wealth is a completely relative, social construct. It's all about the comparison with others, not the actual, intrinsic value of what we have. (For argument's sake, I'm deliberately overlooking the question of what constitutes poverty and lack - there is a real, absolute point of hardship).

Can we really talk about things having an 'intrinsic value'? I'd like to argue that we can. Otherwise we are forced to the conclusion that the value of a thing is merely the value we consciously place upon it, which runs counter to our frequent experience that 'you don't know what you have until you lose it.' It may be impossible to quantify, but I believe there is a value in everything we have, and this value is often best measured by what we experience when we lose it. Sometimes it turns out that a thing we valued highly leaves us merely relieved when it is taken away. Other times, something we didn't recognise as being of any value at all turns out to be of the deepest importance when we face the risk or the reality of its loss. Grief is the truest measure of value.

What I'm arguing is our moods and our feeling of satisfaction with our lot is generally tied to fluctuations around our 'set point', our 'normal', when we should be attuned to the real value of everything we have. An analogy that has occurred to me is ice in Antarctica. This ice seems cold to us, but in fact it contains a huge amount of heat energy. On average, this ice is -17 degrees Celsius, or approximately 260 degrees above absolute zero. Consider the difference between zero and 260 degrees Celsius - it's a lot of heat! Analogously, when we feel like we have lost everything, when we feel completely empty and like nothing we have is of any value, we still possess a huge amount. In fact, what we possess by merely being alive: our senses, our minds, our capacity for love and wonder - all these things carry a huge unseen value that dwarfs the difference between being rich and being poor.

This is the insight that many people have reported achieving in the act of unsuccessful suicide. People who have survived leaps from bridges invariably report that in the moment of certain death, the value of everything they have becomes clear to them, and they regret the jump. Almost as if the act of suicide reflects a kind of spiritual immaturity - a throwing away of what we have because of the hurt of losing something else. We all remember having done that, and how terrible it felt afterwards.

Here's the challenge then: to stay always mindful of the true depth of what we have rather than being hitched to the endless ups and downs of fortune. Not that it's easy. My initial thought experiment overlooks the significance of grief. To make it clear, imagine we hadn't won and lost the lottery, but found and lost a lover, or birthed a still-born child. Our different reaction to those scenarios reflects a recognition of the reality of loss, and our intrinsic awareness of what is of real value in life - not money or things but people, love. How do we becomes large enough in our hearts for the losses we will have to bear? Jonathon Safron-Foer's searingly memorable quote comes to mind: 'In the end, everyone loses everyone'. Everyone and everything, except perhaps our souls.

I'm going to come back to that in my next post - the remainder that is left when everything else is cancelled out - but for now let us acknowledge that life and everything in it is ephemeral. We can't, if we acknowledge the deep value of life in all its particularities, avoid the fact and necessity of grief. The project of happiness cannot deny sadness. But we can - and I know this because it is increasingly, if not always, in my grasp - live in gratitude for and awareness of the beauty of what is: this granted, extraordinary moment and all that it contains.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Unified Theory of Happiness - Part One

After several days of mild pre-winter funk, I dream I am holed up in some Antarctic bunker, prepared for six months of blizzard and darkness, when I open the ceiling and find a bright and beautiful, icy blue day. Happiness floods in with the light. Ah yes! I now remember how days in Antarctica can last for weeks, months - eternal sunshine in my spotless dreaming mind... I wake up knowing the meaning as clearly as if my unconscious had casually chatted to me in English: the funk is over, happiness is back. It's no longer the scarce resource it was in days of yore, when I squandered my youth gnawing the bones of melancholy and doubt, following the well-trod footsteps of the best Gen-X role models for the creative soul: suicidal and addicted rock musicians (Cobain, Waters, Kilbey, Morrissey, on they go). Today I'm sitting in a cafe eating pan-fried sardines and chat potatoes and reading, of all the soulless things, a Microsoft paper on updates to the .NET framework (never mind), and there it is again: a radiant gratitude for the preposterous fact of my existence and a cheerful knowledge of being a Fine Person Overall. No conceit. I just like me. I look out the window at the mild street, people about their business and I want to:

  • do a little Charleston (more on this later)

  • kiss the waitress (not for being sexy or anything, just nice, human)

  • write a blog entry about happiness (and voila!)

It's not a manic high, not like the two happy weeks I had once back in my twenties while living in St Kilda, unemployed and writing some crazy theory about the reality of qualities in the world, a fortnight of delirium somehow dislodged from my interior by an LSD trip that had me wandering out on the beach off Beaconsfield Parade, exclaiming to a passer-by, 'Isn't it a beautiful morning!' only for him to stop and, regarding me skeptically, reply, 'Well forgive me if I hadn't noticed.' Only then did I notice that it was, in fact, a pretty crap day - flat, grey and insipidly mild, perfect weather for the worms that shat up their little sand-turds all over the dun, wet expanse where the tide had shallowly retreated. The man kept standing there uncertainly as if the morning might be about to significantly improve, and I realised I'd just successfully, if inadvertently, picked up on St Kilda foreshore. Alas I had to throw the fish back however - not my kinda sardine. But I digress...

There's a story my mother likes to tell about my saying, as a very young child, that I was going to be a God of Happiness. Some boys aim to spend their adult years sliding down poles in fire-stations over and over, no doubt driving around in the big red truck a fair bit too. Others dream of being astronauts, policemen, 'engine drivers', pilots... Normal children. My aspiration, on the other hand, was to nothing less than apotheosis, it seems. Later I became a psychotherapist, evidently having traded down 'God of Happiness' for the more alliterative but less refulgent 'Mitigator of Misery'.

Psychotherapy is not the art of joy. And when I started studying it, back at age twenty-five or so, becoming a Supreme Being was honestly no longer part of my ten-year plan. I just wanted to work out why I was always so miserable. The only truly 'clinically significant' depression I ever suffered ended when I was twenty-one and threw in science-law to go roam the subcontinent for six months in search of God (of whom I found few unambiguous traces, though I had plenty of fun looking for Him inside various pipes) - but long after the depression ended I was still gripped by regular bouts of subclinical gloom. Now I realise I was unhappy because I was, in some ways, a bit of a jerk. Well, perhaps that's harsh. I couldn't help it. One's jerk-like aspects and one's unhappiness are really all part of the same dizzily whirling unmerry-go-round. The unhappiness makes you a jerk, and the more you jerk, the more miserable you make others, who in turn feed their misery back into the whole vicious cycle.

Perhaps it takes a new form of melancholy to stop being a jerk to yourself and the people around you. The kind of melancholy that comes when the egotistical illusions of youth begin to turn yellow and brittle and fall from the tree, and you're no longer full of angst and Weltschmerz and rage against the dying of the light, or against the machine, or whatever flavour of designer unhappiness you prefer to wear along with your torn jeans, and instead you're just plain sad, just plain lost, just plain you. Your misery don't make you special, sunshine. It's not an effective form of protest, not a form of creativity, not the secret brand of destiny.

Or maybe it is - the secret brand of destiny I mean. Maybe it's the calling of the Self, the keening of the lost You, the song that guides you Home. Because without the suffering, how would you know you weren't happy yet, how would you know to seek? Ah, paradox!

I have, I believe, a few things/people to thank for the unexpected blessing of being happy these days. Firstly, ironically, the women who've broken my heart - who, by tearing so many gaping holes in the fabric of my neuroses, actually left them in so many tatters it was impossible to keep holding them together any more. Unconventional therapy - and fucking painful I might add - but highly effective. Also I can thank the Bolivian Altiplano, for curing me of the fear of loneliness. That wild, transcendantly harsh and beautiful desert, that wind-scoured, planetary, salt-crusted, fuming flamingo-world leaves no place for the personal. You can slough it off into the rarefied wind, leave it behind like a rattlesnake skin, like you know life will leave you behind one day, your skin and bones the discarded husks of the vein of life that once animated you. There is nothing to fear in solitude - it inhabits you always anyway, like the starry sky obscured by the blue one.

I'm not going to try to trace all the tributaries of happiness back to their respective springs. But I will mention one other contributor: swing dancing, a pastime that occupies me increasingly these days, in spite of my lack of grace, aptitude, or co-ordination. I'm crap, but I freaking well love doing it anyway, and this love does somehow translate into something that could be described as a weird kind of ability. In spite of myself I think I may one day not only love it, but also be good at it. It's kind of daggy, not at all a Cobain or Kilbey thing, but it just makes you, well, happy, goddamn it.

Anyway, enough. I'm running out of steam. I have more to say on all this, but for now I'm done. Perhaps tomorrow I will return to write more about it. I have a theory, you see, which I'd like to share...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Crime and punishment

Back in the mid 2000s I was working as a counsellor for an organisation that supported offenders and their families. I ran anger management programs for wife beaters and pub brawlers, tried to teach the inmates of a women's prison to understand their dreams, listened to the torturous denial of child rapists' wives. Looking back, what's surprising is not that I burnt out, but that I lasted as log as I did handling every day the currency of human misery. Recently, while trying to finish off my short story collection, I wrote a story based on one of my clients from those days, a young girl who'd fallen in unknowingly with a serial rapist. My editor rejected the story as just too preposterously horrific, too extreme, too unbelievable. Ironically it was the parts I'd added for fictional effect that she accepted without question. The truth is though that as a fiction editor she was right. Reality sometimes lacks plausibility - to make it digestible as fiction you have to dress it up in the trappings of the expected to get the reader to swallow it.

In the true story, the girl told her rapist partner/abuser about visiting a single mother friend of hers who lived alone in a nearby suburb and the partner, having noted the details, went around to her place, broke in and raped her. My client learned about the rape and was sure he was responsible (and therefore that she was responsible) but could never be sure. She was tormented by the guilt. She prayed to forget the trauma of her experiences, and managed to acquire a brain injury in a car accident that had the effect of destroying her memory - though not of the experiences she longed to obliterate.

We dealt with the walking wounded. Men and women so damaged by brutality it was scarcely comprehensible that they could have survived. Looking into their faces was a curious experience: something was profoundly wrong, like a terrible deformity, but it was not always easy to pin the sense of wrongness down to anything tangible - it was not just the missing teeth or the physical scars. It was as if they had been smashed into pieces and badly glued back together - everything in its right place but somehow fragmented, the unity lost.

Some of these people were deeply toxic and almost intolerable to be near. Once I picked up a call from Barwon Prison and the cold, arrogant voice of the man on the line sent instant shivers of revulsion down my spine. Sex offender, I thought. It turned out to be Robert Arthur Lowe, the man who raped and murdered Sheree Beazley and stuffed her body into a culvert under a bridge. Barely more tolerable to me was the woman who used to come in for travel assistance to visit the man she'd recently married in the same prison. He had raped and killed a sixteen year old girl and buried her in a shallow grave, but when we asked his new wife what she knew of his offences, she insisted that he was an armed robber - a respectable criminal in other words! Thinking that she had been misled, we confronted her with an entry in a book of notorious sex offenders that detailed his appalling crimes, she was horrified - not by the truth of what he'd done, but by the fact that the book was publicly available for anyone to read! For some reason, though I worked with murderers and criminals of all stripes every day, I could not suffer that woman's presence for more than a minute and always had to pass her on to a colleague when she came in. It wasn't evil in her case, but a sort claustrophobic atmosphere of pain, need, and oppression that clung to her, a horrible lack of any spiritual light in her being at all.

If you don't believe humans possess an aura, some sort of tangible psychic information field, that place would have to convince you of it. There was an old Italian guy who used to come in to talk to me while he was on bail awaiting trial for sex offences against a four-year-old boy who had lived next door. Not out of moral judgement of his crimes, appalling as they were, but out of a visceral repulsion at the man's physical presence, I used to dread the handshake with which he'd greet me when he stepped out of the lift. I'd want to wash my hand. Reviled by his community and his family, cast out on the street with nothing, he'd show up several times a week in his filthy, crumpled suit and his lank, matted hair and tell me the story of his life. As a child he'd been raped by his brother and his brother's friends on a regular basis back in his home village in rural Italy. He suffered a condition known as 'micropenis' ( yes, it's what you think) which he'd kept a shameful secret all his life. In Italy he'd been to visit a prostitute, who had laughed at him. In Australia he married a woman who was happy not to have sex, and to keep his secret for him. It doesn't take a psychologist to see how the story of his life led to the crime he eventually committed - indeed lent it a sort of awful inevitability.

My grandfather, who was a war correspondent on the Kokoda Track, once wrote about the nausea he felt upon seeing a man go to pieces with fear upon sighting an enemy plane for the first time in Port Moresby - he went to jelly as if literally spineless. I always found that a harsh reaction - until I thought of that old Italian paedophile. For as much as I could understand how he got to the point he did, I was still repelled by the cowardice of the man. 'Cowardice' may seem like an odd word, and yet it's the one that comes irresistibly to mind. He stank of the failure to shoulder the burdens of his life with courage. That was the aura of shame I wanted to wash from my hand whenever he shook it. Which isn't to say I didn't pity him. I pitied him greatly, but pity is not an emotion that the courageous inspire.

Mostly though, your average offender was a likeable fellow. I wouldn't want to encounter him strung out for heroin in my living room at two a.m., but my colleague's description of the average prisoner as a 'loveable rogue' always struck me as apt. These prisoners weren't the demons of tabloid imagination, but three-year-olds inflated into adult bodies. In them, the emotional self-regulation of toddlers was dangerously allied to the strength of full-grown men. Their psychological development stunted at a young age by trauma, they were disarmingly child-like in their responses, and often responded with great warmth and gratitude when offered the simple human gesture of respect. However much the outer vessel of their psyche had been warped, the light of a good heart still shone out of them, oftentimes with greater clarity for their emotional simplicity. It was this unaffected warmth that you lived for in that job - without it, the harshness of the environment would have been intolerable.

My blood still boils occasionally when the Herald-Sun recycles one of its lock-up-the-monsters, cheap outrage front-pagers that are always good to sell a few papers. The truth is so much more complex and morally ambiguous. So complex in fact that after five years in the system I left feeling far less certain of my notions of good, evil and justice than when I started. To know a man's crime is to know almost nothing of him, only a single act that, like an iceberg, projects above the surface but reveals nothing of the great mass of circumstances, choices and emotions that lies beneath, invisibly supporting it - and that, even when revealed, remains a mystery, impenetrable perhaps even to the person who experienced it.