Happiness or Engagement: What do you Choose

I began writing in my journal forty-five years ago when my daughter was born.  For much of each day, I was seeing couples in therapy, teaching young therapists, and taking care of Jessie.  I loved each of the activities but longed for a moment of quiet, a time when no one was asking anything of me.  So I began to wake at 5:00, one full hour before Jessie got up, in order to peacefully reflect on life.

I always wrote in the same notebook with the same pen, sitting the same easy chair.  A ritual emerged.  Within a few months, the ritual almost automatically quieted my mind.  It was like entering a trance, almost sensual in its calm.  The calm would build, peak and wane, and for the longest time, I tried to lengthen its stay.  I couldn’t, and eventually I found a way to let the quiet go.  I accepted its momentary quality.  Both the quiet and the release of the moment are true to this day.

When I was building my house in New Hampshire, I would work long hours, oblivious of time—the absorption was so complete. These days, when I am playing handball with my grandson, walking and talking with Franny on a sunny day, or deep in conversation with a friend, preferably over drinks, I feel something of that absorption.  Time almost stops.  Nothing else enters my mind.  I love these feelings.

There are other experiences that are not so welcome: the nine months, for example, when the organization I led seemed on the edge of failure and dissolution.  It was terrifying. My team and I worked around the clock, with extraordinary focus, staving off panic, and doing some of our best work.  As we emerged from the darkness, we looked at each other with a powerful affection and respect.  Ultimately, this was a good time.

For decades, America has been entranced with the idea of happiness, not absorption, not focused engagement.  Happiness represents one of our great industries.  Books, advice columns, and infomercials tell us the six, eight, or ten keys to happiness.  Positive psychologists tell us that we can train ourselves and achieve unerring results.  If we are not happy, there is something wrong with us.  We are told to take anti-depressants and to seek psychotherapy—or to address the catalogue of our inadequacies.  Maybe we haven’t tried hard enough, haven’t achieved enough, haven’t found the right person, the right job, the right place to live or vacation.  If we’re not happy, we need to keep searching as though we were Ponce de Leon in pursuit of the Fountain of Youth.

I have also have fallen hard to the enchanted promise of happiness, trying in a hundred different ways to get to that holy land.  I have meditated for forty-five years, hoping to rise above my negative feelings.  I have been in therapy and I have taken fabulous vacations.  I have had a great family, wonderful friends, terrific work.

In spite of these efforts, I find happiness chimerical.  The harder I try, the more I’m disappointed.  I am not alone.  As Ruth Whippman, author of a new book, America the Anxious, puts it, “Paradoxically, the more people were encouraged to value happiness as a separate life goal, the less happy they were.”  Victor Frankl concurs:  “It is the single minded pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

In my experience, the emphasis on happiness as an end in itself also steers us in unproductive directions.  It almost inevitably leads inward.  We constantly check our emotional pulse.  Are we happy?  Happy enough?  Are other people happier?  What’s their secret?  We seek quick fixes in food, movies, and drugs.  They are not sustaining.  Ultimately, the search, itself, makes us self conscious and anxious.

What’s more, the search leads in a self-centered direction.  “I want to be happy” is entirely different from “I want to make life better for others,” Or “I want to serve my country.”  Or “I want to do a really good job.”  Trying to lead a happy life, psychologists have found, is associated with being a “taker” while seeking a meaningful life aligns with being a “giver.”   “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life,” they write, “in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

When fully engaged, we lose ourselves.  We become totally absorbed in a task, in achieving goals, in teamwork.  Mihaly Csikszentmihali has written eloquently about “the psychology of optimal experience,” which he calls “flow.”  Athletes call the experience “being in the zone.”  A basketball player in the zone shoots the ball with complete commitment and certainty.  It will go in.  Artists, writers, tradesmen, and leaders at their best, regularly enter the zone.  It is most likely to occur when you are stretched and totally absorbed, totally concentrated on achieving a goal.  When you are in the zone, you are “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”  The feeling is almost ecstatic.

There is a parental mantra that has grown stronger over the last several decades: “I don’t care what my child does so long has s/he is happy.”  This has never been my mantra.  I used to say that I want my children to feel loved so that they were capable of loving others.  The focus is on the other.  I wanted them to believe that they can do what they put their mind to do so they can serve whatever purpose they find in life, and to serve with enough concentration that that their energy flows freely.  I believe that these two capabilities, love and confidence lead to fulfillment, which I treasure above happiness—and will lead often enough to happiness.  As the psychologist, Daniel Gilbert says, “happiness is a place to visit, not a place to live.”

Over the years, as I become engrossed in my journal writing, reaching a new understanding of some feeling or idea, I often enough grow calm, so calm it seems that I am giddy and I laugh aloud.  Then the feeling wanes and I let it go.  The visit to happiness has been a good one, and I am satisfied.

Reflections on Aging and Death

Last week, Franny and I were talking about our finances.  There has been such a drop in the interest paid on savings that I wondered whether it would be better to spend it down or try to live off of the interest.  When Franny questioned my thinking, I skipped all reasonable responses and blurted out “Look, I can only count on about five or six years.  I’d like to live them well.”  I find myself saying such things more often these days.

They speak less to actuarial tables than to mindset and mythology.  The mindset has to do with my experience of aging.  The mythology represents the magical ideas that shape my experience.  In this case, they are ideas about how long I will live and how long I will be healthy.  My father died at fifty; many of my friends still tease me about how I prepared them for my early death. There’s more: I shaped my image of an appropriate family size based on this supposition and not wanting to “orphan” my younger children, as happened to my father with his parents.   Now that I’ve exceeded what I thought was my allotted time, I’d like to make conscious my current myths.

There have always been people who struggle to diminish the power of death.  The great English poet, John Donne, wrote that “death shall have no dominion.”  And Dylan Thomas taught us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  I love their passion and courage but their message leaves me cold—no pun intended.  Others try to wrestle with their fears by trying to transform them into wisdom.  With wisdom, they believe, death’s dominion can be very much diminished.  But, for most of us, these quests for wisdom don’t succeed in quelling the fear very much at all.

For me, infirmity and death have increasing dominion.  The frequency of how much they enter my mind and conversation, often stealthily, is startling, especially when, for most of every day, I feel good, lively, even optimistic.  There’s nothing particularly morbid about this, at least I don’t think so.  It’s just a fact.  And I’m not alone with it. My friends tell me that they are pulled in the same direction.

Death comes to my door when I try to plan for the future, whether it’s a question of money, wills, diet, exercise, work, or vacations.  There’s always the question of how long I will have to enjoy things, how long I will be able to get around well, how much my wife and I want to spend on ourselves and how much leave to our children or to our causes. Premonitions of death slide into mind when my stomach is upset for “too long,” when my knees ache too much, when I’m breathing so much harder than I used to after an uphill climb.

There are times that I think about death because I think I should.  Isn’t that what people my age – 74 — do?  Irving Howe puts it this way:  “I think of death because it seems proper at this point in life, rather like beaming at the children of younger friends.”  It’s also proper in formal ways: making out a will; making arrangements with your children, because it can sneak up on you any time.

We plan and prepare for death as though we really could. The process can be almost ceremonial.  We try to imagine dying.  We might begin to write our own obituaries.  We wonder how people will think of us when we are gone, maybe even make adjustments in how we live so that we are remembered well.  We try to be kinder, more generous, even more interesting.  We do this until it seems too hard and we tell ourselves, with some irritation, that “I am who I am,” as though someone is trying to take that away.

Grandchildren are a constant stimulus.  Will I live to see Molly, our seventeen year old granddaughter, married, with children, if she so chooses?  Maybe.  The other day, my six year old grandson, Eli, proclaimed that I would surely be around to meet his children.  “Well, Eli, maybe not.” He looked disappointed, pondered this possibility for a while, then acknowledged what I’d said.  “You would be very old, Grandpa.”  Franny and I wonder if we will live to see our younger grandchildren graduate high school, find professions, get married, have children.  Probably not, at least for me.  (I’m a bit easier about hitting a few of these markers with my second grandchild Jake, already a high schooler.) These “imaginary” events become markers for us, and these subjects come up all the time, as if thinking about the future this way might give us more control over what will happen.

Acute Illness brings death to the door.  I had a major surgery for a hiatal hernia in December.  It’s not clear that it has been a complete success and I might need reparative surgery in the upcoming months.  That gives me lots of time to contemplate “what if’s”.  This is catastrophic thinking brought on by real danger but there are many other aches and pains that kick me onto that increasingly well-worn path of concern.

When friends die, as they are doing with greater frequency these days, death comes powerfully to mind.  The worst, though, is seeing friends who have become terribly frail.  It is beyond poignant.  I identify with them and reject the identification at almost the same time.  It is their ongoing presence that makes it hard to maintain my own defenses and makes me wonder if death isn’t more desirable.  That is, until I start to think of death’s meaning: not being, not existing.  That is terrifying, and I want more of life; in  Howe’s words, a “greediness for time” takes over.

Some people play out their “greediness” by creating “bucket lists,” experiences that they must have before the end.  Some have relationships to mend, places to go, books to write, sunsets to view without rush.  I could extend this list a great deal, as could each of you.

The main point is, though, that as I age, death becomes more and more a part of my life, not something peripheral or grafted on.  It is part of my interior life, my social life, and my physical life.

Over time, though, I have learned to live a little more comfortably with death.  Thinking and talking about it, makes it less terrifying.  It brings it down to size, at least a bit.  Living for long stretches of days and weeks with full energy and concentration, even zest, also brings it down to size.  I won’t or don’t let it dominate me.  So far, I can neither turn away nor stare directly at it.  A sideways glance seems right for now.

That I have already lived the great majority of my life is a fact.  That I am declining and, soon enough, will find myself infirm—that’s for damn sure.  And I’m pretty sure that I will die one of these days.  If the obituaries that I now find myself reading more closely are to be trusted, that day will come sooner than I would like.

How I respond to these ‘facts’ though, that’s partly up to me.  It’s a state of mind that can shade many ways: gloomy, sunny, ironically, matter-of-factly.  I believe that I have some control over this.  Victor Frankl, writing of his time in a German concentration camp, put it this way.  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  I can at least try.