Sunday, February 24, 2008


On Happiness

Therapist: So why have you come to see me today?
Young Man: My coworkers recommended that I come here because they say I’m not happy enough. They say I always look stern and that I need to lighten up.
T: All right. Do you think you’re happy?
YM: Compared to what?
T: Compared to nothing. Are you happy with your life?
YM: Right now? You mean right at this very instant?
T: (nodding)
YM: I think so.
Okay, are you or aren’t you happy most of the day?
YM: Yeah … yeah, of course.
T: When are you not?
Well, I’m not really happy when I get up in the morning, because I’m not really a morning person and the weather’s pretty cold between 6 and 7 a.m.
T: Is that all?
YM: Well, no. I’m not always happy at work, because, you know, I try to do my best with all the work they give me to do, and the people around me seem to appreciate it. It’s just that there are some workers in my company who always need help, and because I always try to finish my projects in a prompt and professional way, the people in those other departments end up coming to me with more work to do.
T: And how often has this happened?
YM: You mean today?
T: I see. And how does that make you feel?
YM: Like my only reward for doing my work is having more work to do.
T: Okay, let’s talk about what happens after work. What do you usually do?
YM: I often go exercise.
T: Does this bring you happiness?
YM: Well, no. When I’m in the gym I’m usually inflicting pain upon myself for a period of time lasting from one hour to 90 minutes in length. When it’s finished I do feel those endorphin thingies that they talk so much about in Men’s Health. They kind of balance out the general muscle aches I feel.
T: If it doesn’t make you happy, then why do you do it?
YM: Because most of my colleagues are older than me, none of them exercise and pretty much all of them have considerable arterial or lower-back problems.
T: So, by inflicting carefully measured amounts of discomfort upon yourself now, you’re hoping to avoid a greater helping of it later?
YM: Yes, I suppose so.
T: When your colleagues are sick, does it at least make you feel better knowing that you are preventing those problems from happening to you?
YM: When they’re not feeling well, I usually have to cover for them at work, so I can’t say I feel great about it.
T: Have you done anything to stimulate yourself intellectually or mentally? How about continuing your own education?
YM: Lately I’ve been taking classes after work ends.
T: How has that changed your situation?
YM: The university is an hour from my house, the program requires hours of daily study to succeed, and when I graduate I’ll be marginally more valuable to prospective employers.
T: Well, I’ve saved this question for last. Do you feel fulfilled emotionally? Is there someone special in your life?
YM: There is, and she’s great. It’s just that we live in different cities because of our jobs. We’re both so busy that we pretty much have to schedule time on weekends to see one another. When we see each other it’s great, but when the weekend comes to end and I go back to work I realize that I’ve fallen behind and under-slept.
T: Where do you see this relationship going?
YM: We’re going to get married this year.
T: Well, you must be happy about that.
YM: (Pause) Have you ever planned a wedding?
T: Oh, right. I forgot.
YM: (mutters) … and they say I need help.
T: So, you say you’re generally happy …
YM: Mmm-hmm.
T: Except when you say you’re not …
YM: Right.
T: …which, judging by your answers, seems to be the majority of the time.
YM: Yeah, I guess so.
T: So, has your emotional state taken a recent downturn?
YM: Actually, this is the most satisfied I’ve ever been.
T: Really? Could you elaborate?
YM: Well, I have a stable job and I’m not struggling to pay the bills. I have a wonderful woman who’s going to be my wife. I’m glad to have all of those things but … I’ve always got think ahead, right?
T: I think I understand the problem.
YM: Oh, really?
T: Let me ask you: what’s the first name you think of when you hear the word “talent?”
YM: Well … Beethoven.
T: Good choice. Who looks happier in photographs, Beethoven or Kelly Clarkson?
YM: Hmmm…
T: Who do you think of when you hear the word “leadership?”
YM: Abraham Lincoln.
T: Who looks happier, him or George W. Bush?
YM: Oh …
T: And finally, who looks more pleasant in photographs: Kurt Vonnegut or Mitch Albom?
YM: I’m noticing a pattern.
T: The problem is that you have a rare condition.
YM: What’s that?
T: It’s called “responsibility.” Beethoven, Lincoln and Vonnegut didn’t grow up in an age when their own “happiness” was prioritized. Today’s society says we have to be happy people, not productive people or people of integrity. That may make us feel better in the short-term, but it leads to harmful side-effects.
YM: Like what?
T: Well, Kelly Clarkson and Mitch Albom, for starters. Maybe Barack Obama also, but the jury’s still out. Paradoxically, I’m pretty sure that if more people were responsible, then more people would be happy.
YM: So what should I do?
T: Just what you’re doing now. Enjoy your pleasures when they come, but don’t expect them to be there all the time.
YM: Well, you’ve opened my eyes. How can I ever thank you?
T: You don’t have to. I was happy to help.

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