Imagine a beautiful, wealthy young woman. She falls in love with a man named Compeyson, who cares only to make off with some of her money. On her wedding day she discovers the fraud and is left at the altar. From that day forward, she lives in a state of mourning, continuing to wear her wedding dress as a badge of her perpetual sense of victimization. The cake is left on her dining room table uneaten.
Perhaps you recognize that I’ve just described Miss Havisham, an important character in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. A wasted life, I expect you would say. A mistake never to get over the lost love and the humiliation. Surely people aren’t like that, are they?
Yes, I’m afraid, some are. Their dysfunction is less obvious without the yellowed wedding dress and the uneaten cake, but it is still there.
Another example: imagine a man who wants a career in high finance, a tough and competitive road to travel successfully. He’d trained for it and worked hard to get to the top. For a time he was making his way up the administrative ladder within an important bank in a big city. Then an economic downturn and a change in management caused a corporate reshuffling. His career never recovered and he never again worked in his chosen field. While he made an acceptable living, his mind always returned to “what might have been.” It remained hard to feel satisfied with the remainder of his work or his life.
The unfortunate path I’ve just described is real enough, but it rests on some shaky assumptions:
- That life would have been great if only the man could have achieved success in his chosen profession.
- That life cannot be satisfying for him in any other field of endeavor or by any other means.
Psychologists who do research on what makes for happiness might disagree. And, in fact, that research tends to support the idea that the flush of excitement and happiness that comes with winning the race, new romance, or a major achievement doesn’t last nearly as long as people expect it to.
We humans tend to be pretty poor at estimating the accuracy and durability of what will make us happy. For example, Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade took a look at what effect living in a nice climate might have on life satisfaction. Students living in California and the Midwest were recruited for this experiment. In general, regardless of where they were going to school, the college students tended to think people would be happier living in California. But, in fact, there was no difference in the life satisfaction of those who lived in the harder climate conditions of the Midwest than in the milder ones associated with the West Coast.
In part, it would appear, we are prone to focus on items like climate that we will become accustomed to as time passes. Similarly, you might be delighted over the terrific new car or new house you just bought, but it is likely to recede into the background of your life as you get some distance from the moment you acquired it. Put differently, going out with Brad Pitt or Marilyn Monroe might be terrific for a while, but in a few years the dazzle and novelty tend to wear off.
It turns out that life satisfaction and the happiness we experience along the way are strongly influenced by our inherited temperament. You can be fantastically wealthy and unhappy — or relatively modest in your level of success and affluence and be happy. Of course, this issue is much more complex than I am suggesting. But, if I were to prescribe a brief recipe for happiness, it would have to do with making a decent enough living at labor you deem worthwhile to live modestly but well (research says that a household income of $75,000 is usually enough) and having people in your life who you love and who love you back, both friends and relatives.
One other thing: to some extent, happiness depends on what you are paying attention to. Kahneman suggests that misery can often be traced to having goals that are especially hard to achieve. A laser focus on obtaining great success in a performing art like music or dance or theater is almost a guarantee of continuing disappointment (since so few make it to the top). The danger is that those who aim for triumph in fields such as these tend to unconsciously make their entire happiness dependent on their level of achievement, to the exclusion of other factors that might contribute to a satisfying life.
Of course, it needn’t be just an attempted career in the arts that frustrates a person. Athletic accomplishment at the highest level is only attained by the few. Nor are Nobel Prizes given out at the bingo parlor. If you pin your happiness on writing the “Great American Novel,” becoming the next Steve Jobs, or being a scientist whose name will still be in bold relief in the next century’s text books, you have almost certainly guaranteed a significant level of displeasure.
What then does this say about all the rest of us? Especially in our attempt to get over the failures and rejections by employers and lovers that are the commonplace experiences of life?
The disappointed banker I mentioned earlier would have to reorient his thinking, get over his defeat, and “invest” himself in some new line of work or another facet of his life — like family, community, friends or hobbies. The same might be said of the baseball player who never becomes a Major League star or a physics professor who never produces the scientific breakthrough he was hoping for and continues to work at it into his old age, never giving up or accepting that he didn’t become the man he hoped to be; never satisfied by the work itself as opposed to the glory he hopes will come from it.
What is preventing these men from feeling happier about their lives? Perhaps it is their belief that a satisfactory life amounts to winning a figurative pot of gold at the rainbow’s end of their career, as in the top image; not necessarily money, but a kind of vocational or social jackpot. In part, this self-imposed requirement makes it harder to grieve their losses. They continue to focus on what might have been or what might still be. The failed banker is looking back on the career he wished he had and re-running the same old movie of his life with the same old unhappy ending, even before that life is over. The physics professor is still trying to produce the next major scientific discovery, not willing to accept that his colleagues have already rendered their verdict on his work.
The former individual replays the lost ballgame of his life 10 years or more after it ended, while the scientist continues to play the game into extra innings without progress, even after the fans have left the stadium and the lights have been turned off. The tyranny of “what might have been” can be the equal of “what might yet be” in its capacity to diminish those lives that might be good in every other way. The mistake of giving up too late or not at all on a fruitless pursuit is just as costly as “giving up too soon” on one that would have been profitable with more persistence.
You needn’t be a great man or woman in order to have a satisfying life. If you must become a financial wizard or a Nobel Prize winning scientist, then you have probably overestimated the importance of these endeavors and undervalued the other possibilities in your life, including the things you might already have: interesting work, health, love, and some amount of admiration by others, even if the latter quality isn’t as much as you wanted.
Miss Havisham, the failed banker, and the perpetually striving scientist have all made the mistake of believing that their happiness depended upon a particular thing; and by failing to grieve when that thing wasn’t achieved. They have idealized what a life with that thing would be like (be it a particular spouse, money and status, or scientific achievement and glory). Each one remains stuck in a state of bitterness (Miss Havisham), disappointment (the banker), or longing and frustration (the scientist). Others, with less fixed goals and more intellectual and emotional flexibility, would be unhappy only temporarily, eventually withdrawing their emotional investment in what they never had; moving on to find some other focus of their attention and effort.
As the title of this essay suggests, it is important in life to learn how to lose; how to give things up and set them aside. In fact, I’d argue that this is more important to life satisfaction than victory in the game of romance or your chosen profession, which, unless you are Einstein, will probably be pretty modest. I suppose that my suggestions here would result in fewer scientific breakthroughs and fewer great violinists. On the other hand, there would be more happy people.
Even on the day after you take home the Nobel Prize, should you be a genuinely great man and a lucky winner, you must deal with the fact that there is still the laundry to do. Even after winning the fair maiden, there are still bills to pay, children to raise, and differences over which movie to attend (and worse). Most of us frequently misunderstand that the object we are chasing usually doesn’t make that much difference to the rest of your life, even if it seems desperately important at the moment. Unless of course, you think it really does make all the difference; which means that the problem resides in how you think about it.
If you must be a big-deal banker or a Nobel Prize winner, then I guess you will keep gnawing on the meatless bone of your failure or pursuing the miniscule possibility of a late success. No, you shouldn’t be a bum and automatically give up some admirable goal, especially if you are young. But, I am here to tell you that the goal you have believed all your life to be essential to achieve, just might take you off course and your chance of satisfaction with it.
Sometimes only by accepting your losses can you make your life into a winning proposition.
The top image is called Pot of Gold in Arkengarthdale by Andy Waddington. Next comes a photo of Men Running in a Chariot Race at the Piha Surf Club Carnival in New Zealand, ca. 1938 sourced from the National Library, NZ. The picture of Chemutai Rionotukei is the work of Ricard from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Finally, the relay race photo was taken by Katy Walters. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.