Reaching for Happiness

Phil Brickman could be a funny guy, but he was not a happy one. Let’s start with the first words he said when I defended my Master’s thesis. Phil was one of the examiners, a member of the small panel passing judgment on whether I met the degree’s requirements.

All the committee members had signed off on my research proposal. Once finished and written up, they’d read the account I gave them of my efforts.

The group of three talked for a few minutes before asking me to enter the room. The 23-year-old version of GS inhabited a state of controlled anxiety typical of graduate students in such situations.

The questioning began. Phil spoke first:

There is a very serious problem with this thesis.

Those were not the words I’d wished for. Fortunately, I carried no sharp objects with me. I waited as my brain began to dissolve. While my imagined dead-end future passed before me, the same gentleman said more.

Philip is spelled with one (lower case) L.

Philip was calling attention to how his name appeared in the Acknowledgments section of my long paper.

It read, “Phillip.

Oops.

I don’t recall what happened next. My guess would be laughs, my apology, and relief. Or maybe my leaping across the desk (I can see it now) and throttling the man. No, I’ve never been one for rashness or battery.

Young Assistant Professor Phil wasn’t a popular guy, as you might have guessed. He didn’t fit well with people, including those of us who called him a teammate on our Northwestern Psychology Department softball team.

Everyone recognized Phil’s intellect, however. Indeed, Doctor B become famous in his field, and his research continues to be cited and discussed.

One of Brickman’s major contributions to our profession is an idea called “the hedonic treadmill.Simply put, the notion consists of this: we adapt to events in our lives, and our elation or dismay tends to fade. As time passes, we return to where we started in terms of mood.

Here is an example of the idea (co-created with Donald Campbell in 1971).

Imagine you get a happiness boost by achieving some goal you’ve long been shooting for. You feel great, but the pleasurable dose of enhancement diminishes with time. The set-point — your usual level of high spirits or unhappiness — returns.

Don’t despair; welcome news is coming. Your set-point doesn’t control everything about your emotional state. One can still reach a condition of well-being: a satisfying life with an often positive and seldom negative mood.

In 2005, long after Philip died, other social scientists took his idea further. A study involving over 2000 twins, Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade estimated that 50% of your life satisfaction derives from inborn temperament — your genetic inheritance. Another 10% comes from life circumstances, with 40% determined by personal outlook and life-altering thoughts and actions.

The encouraging development is that various empirically validated forms of psychotherapy emerged since Phil’s work ended, concentrating on the 40% of our well-being we can enhance and the 10% of life conditions we can sometimes change. Although our genes can’t be altered, we can find ways to move through life at a higher altitude.

Therefore, the patient and therapist’s job aims to boost the things over which we possess some influence.

The irony of Phil Brickman’s life, one he took at age 38, was that his research led to improvements in many other lives, though he never achieved this for himself.

A story by Jennifer Senior from The New York Times (NYT) of November 24, 2020,  focuses on the tragedy, but I prefer to remember this man in a brighter light.

Think of someone who throws a stone into the ocean and then walks away. The ripples continue long after his departure. Many others, years after the missile touched the water, watch the surge catch the sunlight. The beauty of the reflection benefits all of them and those around them.

The cause of the tiny waves is a mystery to many whose lives thereby were enriched. Even you, dear reader, might be one who Dr. B’s distant hand helped to lift.

Now you’ll remember his name and the proper spelling of it, too:

Philip Brickman.

One L.

The top image is Pedra do Baú — Compos do Jordáo. The author is Izabel Tartari. The second photo shows Anna Stoehr, AUS, competing in the Boulder Worldcup 2012. It is the work of Henning Schlottmann. After the University of Michigan picture of Dr. Brickman, comes a 3D Graph That Shows a Rippling Pattern, the creation of Mr. Noble.xyz. All but the photo of Phil come from Wikimedia Commons.

19 thoughts on “Reaching for Happiness

  1. The more you know the harder life is. I’m really struggling with life. After 10 years of therapy I wonder if the more I know and the more I search inward, the harder it is to survive. Anyway, I empathise with Philip (with one l) and understand life is not always livable.

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    • As you are suggesting, Lydia, knowledge alone will not save us. Social scientists point to human connection, setting achievable goals, physical exercise, healthy diet … you know the list. But moods change and seasons change. As Brickman’s research and that of people like Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert indicate, we are poor forecasters of how we will feel going forward. Your story doesn’t sound like it is over yet. You may yet surprise yourself. Good luck.

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  2. Suicide touches many lives. Thanks for the essay and sending me off to read Senior’s brilliant piece in the NYT. Of course all this begs the question as to why you misspelled Philip, which like Elliot, requires diligence to spell correctly.

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    • @Harvey…. you mean, T.S. Eliot?

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    • You are welcome, Harvey. I found Senior’s piece both well written and unfortunate. She did not know Phil personally (she is too young). She interviewed people who were close to him and, of course, powerfully affected by his death, none of whom are active clinicians. If she sought expert opinion it is not stated.

      Senior’s background includes an anthropology degree and writing increasingly focused on politics, as an opinion writer for the NY Times. She has certainly also written about mental health for public consumption, but never as a scholar.

      What I find most troubling is that she has taken Phil’s academic insights and tied them to his personal life. This is easy to do and, to some extent, we all do it when we think of troubled artists like Beethoven or alcoholic writers like Poe. Anyone can play at this game. Phil’s work would stand alone and be better served without this.

      Most of those who are creative, as Phil was, hope to be remembered for the work itself. What Senior has done (metaphorically) is to exhume a non-professional, anecdotal version of his personal life at a distance of 38 years from the time of his death, attach it to his work, and rebury them together. I wish she hadn’t.

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  3. I find myself wondering whether, you know how you can alter your tension baseline level by doing things like bilateral tapping or meditation, and it’s supposed to bring your constant stress levels down a notch to make a new baseline? And I think the idea is you can do that enough to really make a difference, a bit like bringing your blood pressure down to a normal reading probably, well I was wondering if you can do the same with your baseline happiness? I wonder if you can take steps to up the baseline a little bit, so that becomes your constant state, instead of the previously lower level that was set?
    I’m expecting that even if you can, it’s not a one trip wonder and you have to keep practicing whatever you’ve done to alter the baseline though…

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    • It is an interesting question, Loving Summer. I think if you could do what you suggest, the change in the baseline would become independent of whether you continued to engage in those activities that modified your tension or your blood pressure in the first place. In the absence of such “permanent” changes, the baseline would remain the same. It occurs to me that the expert meditators who have been studied by researchers spend lots of time continuing to meditate throughout their lives. They are said to be among the happiest people in the world. All that said, the encouraging message is that we hold the possibility to change so much else beyond our baseline, things over which we have the opportunity to exert control. Always good to read your comments, LovingSummer. Thanks.

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      • Yes it is encouraging to think we can permanently change the baseline for our own good (which will inevitably have a likely knock-on effect to other people eventually!), I very much like that thinking! It also give a practical reason to bother try and do therapy exercises to try and bring down the stress levels and high levels of constant arousal (adrenaline).

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      • My guess would be that this major breakthrough waits for genetic alteration that raises some ethical issues. On the other hand, natural changes in brain chemistry as we age have been known to influence how we take on the world. The future will be interesting. Thanks for bringing up this idea.

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      • Got to admit I prefer the more natural DIY method than genetic modification of some sort! 🙈

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  4. If only our lives were so simple to break down into percentages of what we can and cannot control!

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    • If I gave the impression that the research referenced intends to offer a simplified version of our lives, my apologies, Rosaliene. As you say, our lives are not so easily broken down as that. Research such as the study you are referencing speak of humans in the aggregate — as a group, not as individuals. Still, we need to recognize that we come with some built-in limits. For example, I am 5’9″ and no amount of effort or imagination can make me taller. There are cognitive and emotional determinates to our being, as well. Ultimately, it is what we do with what we can change that will remake us and, perhaps, the world. As always, thanks for your insights.

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  5. I enjoy hedonic adaptation because if I lived in a constant state of elation I would feel as if I were experiencing mania, and as enjoyable as this is it is not healthy. I feel hedonic adaptation is nature’s way of telling us to “calm down.”

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  6. As Prince reminds us, “life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last”. I guess this can apply to both happiness (however one defines that) and to life itself. It’s tragic, but I don’t find it surprising or incongruous, that a man who dedicated himself to the research of “happiness”, would come to end his own life.

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  7. I agree. Phil’s life was ironic, unfortunate, and had a bad end. As I noted in my reply to Harvey, I think we need to be careful not to view his professional life through the single lens of his demise. Colleagues with whom he collaborated were not selected with regard to the status of their mental health. I knew one of those with whom he worked (and who is quoted extensively in Senior’s piece) as a star student of mine when I was a university prof, before she went to graduate school. Thanks for your comment, Brewdun.

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  8. Great article and I got a lot out of the comments as well. I’m familiar with his work (I read a lot of psychology research and articles) and found it quite interesting.

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