Understanding Our Anger

Though I will never understand everything about the anger displayed in groups – the rage now surrounding us – I have some knowledge of how it developed. Early man discovered he needed allies against nature, beasts, and other humans. He sought the talents of partners in finding or building shelter, getting food, and providing comfort for fear and loneliness. Those who made their way alone were not likely to survive and, by definition, didn’t create offspring.

Allegiance to the small collective – call it loyalty – both was required by the group and increased your chances of outlasting isolated fellow-men. The band was more likely to thrive and your genes stood a better chance of reaching the next generation and beyond.

We became tribal creatures. Believing rumors of potential conspiracies by groups of competitors for scare resources was safer than thinking strangers meant well. Those who were different – other – were often enough enemies for us; we therefore become wary of all others. Not least, those who looked different and came from elsewhere: the people with odd customs, strange habits, who uttered unintelligible sounds. Rage enabled the fight to survive, to overcome our fear and take on threats. Thus supported and encouraged, everything became possible. Buoyed up by the group, small man became larger than himself.

Such qualities did not disappear from our nature. We now see them displayed even in so-called first world, “civilized” society. We vilify our political enemies. We are capable, as fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance images of our brain) show, of reacting to our fellow humans as we do to furniture. Untermenschen: less than human.

Yes, it is desperately important to vote, take the political action you can, voice your opinions, and make even small financial contributions to defend our democratic republic. Yes, some “others” are carried away. They yell and deceive and might want you out of the country. But not all do. Most, indeed, are rather like the rest of us: struggling with the life project, hoping our children will live in a better world, wishing for peace and security. If we lump them – all of them in the same trash bin, assume they are all irrational or crazy, are we then superior to them – really? If we succumb to our version of the same self-righteous anger, are we then superior to them – really? Do not assume all of our allies are pure. Our “team” is never the sole repository of virtue.

You will learn little from those who echo you. We might learn something from people who don’t, at least on occasion.

We would do well to search for solutions, some amount of compromise with those “others” who are open to it, and vigorously defend against the far smaller group of opportunists and the fully self-interested who only want what they want. Better policies than those now in place must address widely experienced concerns, not just those of your tribe. The country needs a better light bulb, otherwise replacing the present installation will leave us still in the dark.

Our genes won’t change any time soon.

Work for a better world, but do not become the thing you hate.

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The first image is a Cartoon Representation of the Molecular Structure of Protein Registered with 1pi1 Code. It was created by Jawahar Swaminathan and MSD staff at the European Bioinformation Institute. The fMRI image below it is the work of Washington Irving. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Looking Through Another’s Eyes: More on How Things End

The death of a parent compels attention. Last week I described how my mother’s end allowed me an enduring and touching memory after a difficult history. But I’m not her only son, and my brothers hold different images, early and late. You should know of one I witnessed. To set the stage, I’ll say more about the Stein household we all grew up in, all with our particular vantage points.

Imagine Milton Stein forever working one of his multiple jobs and Jeanette Stein overmatched by raising all of us on her own. Sibling rivalry became inevitable. We all wanted more time and attention and a different kind of time and attention.

From dad, a focus on us as individuals and our specific interests and talents would have been welcome, instead of the distracted and generic love of a man in motion: about to leave for work, at work, back from work, or worried about making a living. He designed his life to prevent a “Second Coming” of the economic hardship he’d endured in the 1930s.

Mom’s life had no such organizing principle to supply ballast. Perhaps as a result, her internal turmoil wasn’t contained. Relating to her was a tightrope walk.

The challenge of dad’s early life was exceeded by mom’s catastrophic upbringing. Her father Leo: a charming, alcoholic bon vivant. Her mother Esther: a suspicious, hard of hearing woman who cycled between vicious criticism of her children and a claustrophobic, suffocating love of them. Perhaps worst of all, the family’s frank poverty allowed my mother only enough money for a candy bar at high school lunch. Malnutrition made her an easy target for tuberculosis, while the clan’s economic desperation and social chaos stole any sense of value other than her physical beauty.

Her papa and mine abandoned her, each in their own way. To grandpa, drunken outings grabbed him; for dad the need to work. The turmoil of a childhood household with lots of little kids left an ill-equipped mother at the helm; exactly where my mother found herself again, this time assigned the role her mom played years before.

The frustration and anger boiled over at us rather than her parents or her husband. Routine comparisons occurred. “Why aren’t you more like ______.” We all heard this and sometimes thought ourselves the least favorite child because we didn’t know the game permitted no winners. What you did well didn’t count for nearly so much as what you didn’t or did wrong.

Jealousy grew, each boy short-changed. But our mother could also be extraordinarily warm, your fiercest defender against the outside world, and heartbreakingly sad, as she struggled with her own parental and sibling relationships. Only later did I realize I got the best of both of my folks, their adored only child for most of my preschool years.

Maturity was required of me as the oldest. Job #1: take some pressure off my parents and be a protector of Ed and Jack.

Eddie was an active, eager, smart little guy, while Jack as huggable as could be. Like all younger brothers (Ed is four years my junior and one year older than Jack), Eddie wanted my time and companionship; more perhaps because of dad’s absences and Ed’s quick displacement by Jack as the youngest. But, of course, big brothers don’t have the time or want to give it. I’m sure my rejection hurt.

Our temperamental differences made things harder. I was scholarly and reserved, carrying the family banner through academia. He was active and devilish, the kid who rushed in and sometimes made a mess. We didn’t always get along.

Yet there were moments when I did the right thing. Though I was no fighter, I took on our next door neighbor when the older boy pushed Ed around. I didn’t win, but the point was made. My mother said my opponent now had a hard time combing his hair at the place on the side of his head where I landed my most forceful blow. Later an older kid from the local parochial school harassed Eddie. This time I wound up on my back. I am not in the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Superman, starring George Reeves, was one of the most popular American TV shows of our youth. Reeves (not the late Christopher Reeve) starred as the handsome, muscular hero who every little boy emulated. He fought for “truth, justice, and the American way” as the idea was understood in the 1950s. Thus, TV provided an iconic image even more potent than the comic books we read, while the alley behind the house gave you a playing field to enact whatever heroism might come to mind.

Eddie showed some particular compassion for me in the alley. I was in the seventh grade. The sport was a two vs. two touch football contest. In trying to elude a tag I dodged to the right – and slammed into a jutting garage abutment. The right side of my head made the crunching contact. I knew the contest was now no game.

Eight-year-old Ed saw me – saw what I’d done to my ballooning forehead and my blood-filling, closing eye – and wept.

When Ed and Jack got older we played in summer softball leagues in Chicago and Evanston. Ed became a fine first baseman and a power hitter who once hit three homers in a single contest. Jack, the best athlete among us, was a gifted, strong-armed, left-handed outfielder; fleet afoot and capable of slashing line-drives to all fields. He went on to become an award-winning amateur body builder and a successful business man. These were the guys you wanted on your side.

Not everything in Ed’s life came as easily as hitting a long ball. School was a hard place despite Ed’s intellectual gifts. The rules chaffed. Trouble beckoned. The wrong friends, the kind your folks tell you to avoid, weren’t helpful. Some of them would later die of their own recklessness. Accidents, suicide, murder, drugs? In a wild crowd everything is possible. The coin of a life – the heads or tails of it – turned in the air.

Finding your way is rarely easy. Ed managed – through intellect, hard work, and courage – to shed the bad influences and create a wonderful business as a home remodeler of artistic sensibility and refined craft. He is a devoted husband and father; a smart, generous, and decent man who you still want on your side.

Somehow, though full-up with sadness, the death of our parents meant an escape from the adult version of the crazy-making sibling animosity my mom never stopped fomenting. Such losses don’t always result in closer sibling relationships, what with fighting over estates and bequests. But in our family everyone played fair and reconciliation came in its wake.

Ed, Jack, and I figured out that being friends, not only brothers, was desperately important. That grudges, regardless of the cause, needed setting aside. Love, after all, matters more than just about anything. The things binding us – our memories of the folks, the time together growing up, and a desire to live by the Golden Rule – became more important than our differences.

One afternoon in our childhood, while I played in the backyard, Ed was indoors watching Superman. When the program ended, he decided the day begged for a solo flight. A white towel mom must have tied around his neck made a makeshift cape. He pushed open the window facing the backyard and got out on a ledge perhaps 12-feet off the ground, preparing for launch.

By the time I noticed him, Ed knees flexed like Superman preparing for take-off. I yelled for him to stop. He hesitated. But how to turn him around and back into the house? Before I could get upstairs Ed might crash.

A sewer manhole cover lay below the window, the place where Eddie would land, not the more forgiving grass. Mom didn’t answer my frenzied shouts.

I got underneath the ledge, braced myself, and asked Ed to jump into my arms. He didn’t take much persuasion. We both survived.

Fast forward now.

My mother lay unconscious in the hospital. She had a living will, with Ed assigned the power of attorney for healthcare. She’d told us she wanted no extraordinary measures. Mom told us all, over and over after the death of our father, she wished to die.

My brothers and I visited the hospital daily. Ed arrived first on the day in question. Mom’s physician entered her room. He wanted to perform an invasive, long shot procedure. No matter what mom might have asked for, the M.D. knew Ed had control. A conversation ensued. The doc tried to persuade Ed, then talked of Ed’s responsibility to the woman who raised him, guilted him and guilted him and guilted him. At last the “healer” ended his assault and threw up his hands, the indictment now delivered, the verdict of “bad, ungrateful son” rendered. The unstated implication was that mom’s money was more important to Eddie than her life.

Eddie walked out of the room. I’d entered the building minutes before and was strolling toward him down the hospital corridor. At a distance he was still my brother Ed; still a handsome, put-together man’s man with a steel core of toughness that could withstand anything. Wrong. He broke down in my arms.

Most of us could have rationalized conceding to the medical man. Jeanette Stein was now silent, the M.D. was not. Ed put her first, not himself.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing lots of courageous people, folks I met in my practice and elsewhere. Still, there are never enough.

When I think about Ed’s story, Ed’s last stand in defense of our dying mother, I recall his effort to be Superman at the backyard window.

I wonder, did I have to break his fall? In the last moment, Ed Stein – the real Superman who sacrificed a piece of himself in a hospital room – might have been able to fly. Yeah, compared to that, flying was easy.

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For the most part, the images should be readily identifiable: two of my parents, Ed Stein in a photo I took of him hitting a double in a softball game, a cartoon of Superman, Jack Stein, the entire family around 1960 (with Jack, Gerry, and Ed from left to right), and Ed and the author in our backyard. Unfortunately, you can’t see the area of the intercepted Superman flight, which we are facing. Our garage, behind us, stands between us and the alley separating Talman Avenue from Washtenaw Avenue.

A Grateful Goodbye: The Importance of Endings

Old relationships leave a variety of marks. Dark and light, faint and bright, on the surface and below. Some fade quickly, others remain: the wistful, the love sick, the haunting. Endings matter. They impact how you remember past passions, family, and friends of all kinds.

Therapists talk about grieving, but what comes after? Is more yet to learn?

We grieve close-up, but understand at a distance, needful of time’s passage to tally the score and figure what happened. In the brightness and intensity of proximity our emotions get in the way of reason and perspective.

The people who have reappeared as memories in my life sometime took new forms, offered new lessons. One, who lived on a pedestal far too high, became more narcissistic and closer to earth with time. I understood her only after a while. But an old girlfriend is one thing, a parent something else.

Though as a little boy I was “the cream in her coffee,” mom and I lived at odds most of her life. Over time I learned to master the largest part of my animosity, fulfilled my responsibility and visited the folks without incident. She knew I came out of duty more than admiration and said so in her 70s. “You love me, but don’t like me.” I could not deny it.

Age mellowed mom some. The cutting edge of her double-sided compliments was duller, the clever complaints more effortful, less acid. After my 88-year-old dad died in the summer of 2000, mom (81 herself) was desperately unhappy. She’d long since given up on friendship, not wishing to risk closeness. The wounds of her childhood remained unaddressed. Much as Jeanette Stein could be a tough person to deal with, the emotional devastation of an alcoholic father; a paranoid, smothering mother; youthful poverty and teen-aged tuberculosis – these were her most faithful companions. They alone, along with her three sons, represented the only “relationships” left with dad gone.

In the last six-months of her too-long life (she daily prayed to my father and her mother to take her) I visited her every week. Preparation was required. I donned my armor suite, readying for the joust: criticisms aimed at me, the kids, the wife too; none of them present for the “fun” of seeing her again. Mostly I kept quiet, carried on conversation about the TV shows she watched, my brothers’ lives, searching for “safe” topics, and whatever else might pass the minutes with as little incident as possible.

The last time we talked wasn’t a remarkable event. While mom was her usual critical self, at least she was not at her worst. The next week Mrs. Stein didn’t answer the phone call made from the retirement facility’s reception desk. I took the elevator to her room, but no amount of knocking got a response. The facility manager opened her apartment for me. We discovered mom sitting upright with a cooling cup of coffee tableside. She never regained consciousness.

Not an unusual ending, then, but I haven’t told you what happened two weeks before: the second to last time I talked with her. My mother suffered from lots of physical pain even when she escaped invasion by one of her frequent headaches. Not this day. She felt “pretty good” and offered me a lightness of spirit I’d not seen in decades. We laughed. She was at ease. Her cleverness had no ill intent. The time together was an unexpected joy for me, almost a miracle: one of the most extraordinary days in my pretty interesting life. The kind of day you want to capture in a bottle and take home with you; the more poignant and precious because you can’t.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has described us as having two “selves.” The experiencing self and the remembering self:

The experiencing self is the one that answers the question (say, during a painful event): ‘Does it hurt now?’ The remembering self is the one that answers the question: ‘How was it, on the whole?’ Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.

Kahneman continues, “The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living.”

Yet this is not the whole story, as the psychologist also tells us. If you are having surgery, your memory will be influenced by the “peak-end rule.” Both the extent of pain at its peak and the level of suffering at surgery’s end affect whether you will think back to the procedure as awful or no big deal. A benign ending can transform the experience.

Endings are like boomerangs – they keep returning. Seventeen-years this month have passed since mom died. It has become easier to “live” with her ghost and be more sympathetic to her tragic life. My brothers and I get along better and the family jokes I tell do not have the bitterness of the past.

That last good day lasted just a couple of hours. Not long, but it didn’t need to. Some people get nothing of value when relationships end. The things unsaid remain unsaid on one or both sides; the finish finishes, at best, in discontent, at worst in horror. You think you will have more time and then it’s gone. I was lucky to see my mother once again beautiful and gay, happy and happy with me.

It was not enough for the teen I was once, but by then it was enough for the adult, surely more than I expected or imagined possible.

It will do.

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The top photo is my mother as a young woman. The Suit of Armor is from the Carnegie Museum of Art, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Daniel Kahneman quotes can be found in his wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

But I Don’t Know How to Talk to People

My buddy Rock was facing a common young man’s dilemma: what do I say to a girl? Our school lunch group, all of us 15 or 16-years-old, had little experience in that department. Fewer than half had been on a date. I will let Rock and our friend Harmon provide an example that applies even to adult variety women and men with Social Anxiety Disorder.

Keep this in mind if you share the same worry: you might be better at talking to people than you think.

Rock’s problem was set up by asking out a comely classmate. She said yes, not the outcome he prepared for. A little bit like the dog who chases the speeding fire truck and somehow overtakes the juggernaut. Now what?

The date was scheduled for Saturday night, so Rich (his real name) had time to create a plan. Harmon, playing the role of our comparative dating veteran, was consulted. He listened as Rock asked for help with the talking business:

First, you need to think of girls as – like – real people. Like one of the guys. You talk to friends with no problem. Talk about the same stuff with your date: school, teachers, movies, tv, music. Try this: make a list of topics to bring up. Then, if the conversation gets slow, consult the list. You’ll do fine.

Note the confidence and authority. Those of us who overheard the lecture were impressed. This was better stuff than we were getting from our teachers.

Encouraged by Harmon’s advice and pep talk, Rich proceeded to work on his agenda. “I can do this,” he said to himself. By the weekend, a formidable and fairly lengthy itemization of topics existed. He even memorized it.

Saturday evening arrived.

Rock took the Lincoln Avenue bus to the stop closest to the girl’s home. From there he walked two blocks to the address. Deep breath. Front door. Several repetitions of the agenda had been carefully rehearsed. The document was as clear in his mind as the chiseled version of the Ten Commandments was to Moses. Rules to follow to the letter.

The door bell was duly rung. A brief conversation with the mom ensued, then off with his date for the short walk back to the bus. Movieland and the wonders of time spent with a pretty girl beckoned. Houston, we have lift off!

Meanwhile, in various homes in West Rogers Park, Chicago, friends of Rich were all wondering some version of the same thought: what might be happening now? We hoped, after all, to get tips from our chum come Monday’s lunch. Perhaps enlightenment awaited us. A strange new world beckoned. As they say on Star Trek, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Rich arrived at our noontime meal looking like the person we’d last seen on Friday. No remarkable transformation. No bigger muscles, no greater height, no glow. He sounded the same, too. Finally, the question:

What happened?

(Pregnant pause, no pun intended. A sober look came over Rock’s face).

Well, by the time I’d walked the two blocks from her house back to the bus stop, I’d gone through the entire list.

Imagine now the collective sigh of a group of 10 young men: the air making a half hearted escape from a large balloon. Rock continued:

Yeah, I’d keep asking her questions and then … nothing. Silence. And I’d made especially sure that I didn’t smell bad. She did say she liked the movie. Oh, wait, she asked me one question:

Do you like Sugar Shack?

What’s Sugar Shack, I answered?

She tells me its a new song. That was it.

Some men are called to greatness, others have it dumped on them. Or not.

What is the point here? Rock did everything right. He made fine conversation, showed interest in his companion, and still … nothing worked. Moreover, before long he realized the date disaster wasn’t the fault of poor social skills.

Take the lesson to heart, my friends. If you’d like to learn more concerning the ease of drawing the wrong conclusions about your social skills; and about the treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), read this:

I’m Not Very Good at Making Conversation/

Remember: sometimes it’s your fault, but not always. Maybe even less often than you think.

The top photo below is called Young Love at the Malt Shop by Kevin Simpson, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Next comes a Cover Illustration created by Livia De Simone for Dream Hunters, published by Astro Edizioni. It was sourced courtesy of Bubysan and Wikimedia Commons.

Therapy’s Ultimate Goal: Embracing Life

Are there endangered emotions in the world, much like endangered species? The ones that disappear? Most of us had sentiments and enthusiasms as small children we now rarely experience. What might they be? Can we get them back?

The greatest events of life, I’d argue, are fleeting. The birth of your first child is one. An early, electric kiss. The clichéd “thrill of victory” as it is felt, not reported. A musical performance of sadness or exultation so powerful you float and reverberate for days. Immediacy, intensity, and loss of self-awareness are found in these moments. Routine breaks. One is swept away.

What do we try to do with such things? Extend them, for sure. Go back to the source and regain them. Produce more children, maybe; more kisses, for certain. Play in additional ball games, too. Perhaps attend the repeat-performance of the concert the next day. But, the repeat almost never captures the wallop, the poignancy of “the first time.”

Does the picture of a speeding bullet seize the essence, help us remember and relive it? The most precious things and people are priceless, in part, because of their short supply and elusiveness. Here and gone. No matter the effort, we can’t catch an emotional deluge in a bucket and keep it in the fridge, just so.

Yet still we try. We want the honeymoon to be endless. We want our child’s spontaneity to continue forever. We think the earth-moving moment should be mounted in a frame or frozen under glass, but its soul is in the movement, not the stillness. The carefully preserved butterfly does not fly.

Some of us, as we age, lose even the ability to be astonished by life, bowled over by happiness or love, sensation or tenderness. Most want a bit of protection, so we add, without thinking, one layer at a time, beginning in youth. Seems safer, more necessary, less risky. The arrows of fate then won’t pierce as far, hurt as much, or so we believe. We want to escape fatal bullets, but unintentionally kill ourselves – the life in us – by trying to avoid them.

The bravest therapy patients attempt to change no one but themselves in their effort to recapture the innocent wonder they had at the point of creation, or grab the life-enkindling thing for the first time. They have the courage to recognize the mirror’s image, to overcome the pain of treatment, to outlast and out-will the unendurable: a kind of therapeutic integrity not to be denied. They grip tragedy and wrestle him to ground. They rip the emotional scabs off their being and bleed until purified and joyous. I still cannot believe how open they are.

As an observer of myself, I can characterize personal life from my 20s to the present as an opening more than a closing. My work required this openness, but so did full immersion in the best private moments as they happened. To my continuing surprise I become more open, not less, even now. Saying what others might not say, but only think; expressing the deepest part of myself to those who care to listen. Looking into your eyes if I am touched by your being. Life hurts more this way, but feels right and perhaps I have no choice: I became and am becoming such a person with little intention. Who knows what version of myself might appear tomorrow?

Death sets the border on everything. The cliché tells us the cemetery is full of irreplaceable people, the last stop on a human world in transit. The trains of life’s are always in motion, much as we want them to wait a minute. The best of them are swift. That’s what makes a train. No picture of a locomotive moves at 60 mph unless you throw it across the room.

So my advice to all of us is this: eyes open, heart open, stay alert, let down your guard as much as your dare; but don’t lose the best of yourself. Make love to life as if she were your first and last, both. She just might be.

Of course, I’m uncatchable, but catch me while you can.

As the advertisements tells us, we are all on sale for a limited time only.

The top image is called Berliner gör’n by Till Krech and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Age of Social Comparison: When Self-Involvement Makes You Unhappy

We live in an age of entitlement and self-involvement.  A Metra train conductor offered an example last summer:

I was taking tickets and the train was getting pretty crowded. I noticed a middle-aged lady standing near an empty seat. I could tell she was asking a young woman to move a package so she could sit. Apparently, to no avail. So, I walked over to smooth the situation over. The younger woman was gorgeous, maybe 25 or so, and attending to her phone, not the person hovering over her. When I asked her to move the stuff she ignored me. I tried again, same result: head down, as if I didn’t exist. OK, now I bent down so I was harder to ignore and told her she needed to let the woman sit; said the other person had a right to a seat. Finally she talks, in a kind of astonished and disrespectful voice, ‘You don’t understand, I’m beautiful!’

Does her beauty make her happier, I wondered? Are her gorgeous selfies (I’m sure she has a ton) the path to everlasting bliss? Taking them, making them, reviewing them, sharing them, comparing them?

The back-to-back hardships of the Great Depression (1929-1939) and World War II (1939-1945), contributed to a more modest and realistic view of a life worth living: a selfie-less and more selfless life. In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined a soon famous expression capturing something now lost and redefined, “that the American Dream of a better, richer, happier life (be available) for all our citizens of every rank.” Not fame or Midas-like wealth, but “enough” in the reach of all.

Granted, he didn’t include blacks in his vision, but at least his view was independent of constant social comparisons, Kardashianized aspirations, and the belief more is always better: a bigger residence, finer clothes, and social status. Where happiness is somehow attached to what you buy and the ability to turn heads until they swivel. Where college is intended not to enlighten you to the glorious natural world, man’s loftiest thoughts, and responsibility to his fellow creatures, but to learn enough technique to receive special treatment for you and your wallet.

I believe a good part of today’s unhappiness, not including the genuine want suffered by so many, is that a large number of those doing pretty-well want more and more with no end to their wanting. Want for themselves.

Perhaps no limit exists because there is always someone with more. We envy greater beauty, infinite wealth, a bigger house, a superior job when they are not ours. Envy assumes “my life would be better if only …” according to Joseph Epstein. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show people flaunting their prosperity. We know how much they make for a living, where they reside, and what cars they drive. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our desire and our frustration.

The question then becomes not how can I get more of what they have (and thereby grab on to more happiness), but does this path lead to my goal?

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provided data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that comparing ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction. “In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.’” Moreover, their subjects tended to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they made those comparisons to those below them.

Following the same logic, even if your wage increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within your comparison group (or unless your paycheck is relatively modest, as noted below). If all incomes go up without changing your rank you would be no happier.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified if it motivated people and led to the prosperity needed to unlock the door to serenity. The problem is, the key doesn’t work. Indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth. We rank 19th of the 34 OECD countries in the 2017 World Happiness Report.

Psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money your neighbor has won’t make your moment-to-moment experience of life much more pleasing unless your income was unexceptional in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel wrote:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it.”

Sound familiar? Similar to kids who are thrilled with their long yearned-for Christmas gifts, we adults put most new material acquisitions on the shelf or use them with little delight after a small passage of time. Warning: if shopping is the way you fill yourself up, this is your future.

The temporary “high” of a new purchase is diminished because of “hedonic adaptation.” Put simply, we get accustomed to things. The momentary excitement of the new possession soon wanes, like the smell of a new car.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested personal contentment would come from knowing yourself, performing social acts of virtue and public good, and friendship. Researchers now recognize the important part friendship, doing good, and being grateful can have on well-being.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction. He points to the capacity of productive and engaging work to produce a sense of “living in the moment:” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. This is called the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive experience. “In the zone” as athletes describe it. A different path to living in the moment, of course, is the mindfulness meditation of those master meditators who are among the happiest folks on earth.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether this is due to the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility individuals who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last point: data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are scheduling a therapy appointment already.

The top Foto is the work of Catarinasilva25 and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The four paintings also come from Wikimedia Commons and are described in this way on Wikipedia:

The Four Freedoms is a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

What We Do in Private: the Story of a Good Man

Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

By that standard none of us receive a perfect score. Worse still, we live in a historical moment in which the highest officials in our country don’t even pass the daily public tests. But this story is about someone who did pass. Hearing about him might allow the rest of us to take heart that virtue is still found in quiet places, where a person is willing to give up something great for something good. Where no audience will ever know.

The tale came from an unremarkable man. He was in his late 40s, a guy who blended into the crowd and had a pretty dreadful middle-management job. Not an assertive fellow. His wife had hen-pecked him into submission, inheriting the role passed to her by his parents. You could almost see the peck-marks, the little dents on his flesh. I once asked him about his sex-life and he laughed while rolling his eyes in a way that revealed he hadn’t had sex in a decade or more. If you knew about the less-than-satisfying marriage, you might have told him to “man up.”

Let’s call him T.

T was a religious person, a bloke who took his faith seriously, even if he relied too much on Jesus’s message, “the meek … shall inherit the earth.” Still, he was bright, companionable, and funny. He considered himself Republican in the old style sense of fiscal and religious conservatism, but had friends among Democrats. One other notable quality possessed by T: he knew more obscure baseball statistics than anyone I knew or know.

If you believe a good man is hard to find, he might be your guy. Or not. Too easy, too timid, too unmade and overmatched by some of the challenges of life. Like many in my generation, the Great Depression through which his parents lived left their only son with a tendency toward economy. Not rich, T drove a high-mileage, well-kept car, up in its years. He did much of the maintenance himself. A polyester kind of soul, but not without talent.

T occasionally employed a local handyman to do odd jobs around his home and another property he inherited when his folks died. The worker was a casual acquaintance, not one invited for dinner or coffee. Not even a person T talked baseball with. Just someone T knew and called if work presented itself. By T’s observation, the fellow wasn’t the best jobber, but good enough and available enough and needed the work. In other words, no one special.

Our hero heard the man was in the midst of economic difficulties. I could tell you T was always selfless, but I don’t think so. Yet, on this occasion, he did something pretty remarkable. He counted out $714 (baseball fans will recognize the number*) in fifties and twenties, a ten and four singles; enveloped the bills, walked over to the handyman’s place on a day he was out being handy, and put the money-laden wrapper in the mail box. No message, no name, no return address. He did not want to embarrass the tradesman or make an offer that might be rejected. T needed no thanks or congratulations or celebration of his good deed. He did not expect to know what happened to the cash. Helping another was the end of the story for him. I found out only in passing because I was his therapist. I’m sure T told no one else, including his wife.

We live in a time when every act of greed or self-interest can be rationalized. Where too many “know the cost of everything and the value of nothing,” to quote Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic. The yellow-fellow on top doesn’t ask, “What would Jesus do?” Or Muhammad or Moses or the Buddha or any other prophet or deity or role-model than the god he makes of himself and his wallet. No, he is not the creature you hoped your sister would marry, your daughter would date.

We Americans are said to be a charitable people, but charity too often applies only to those of our religion, our party, our tribe. Virtue signaling – trumpeting our piety or generosity – masks the misdeeds we do elsewhere. I guess it has always been so.

Research tells us people tend to look at some others as objects, the homeless for example. We hide ourselves in social fortresses of like-minded contacts who hate the people we hate (if we still consider them human) and praise the folks we like. No new thoughts are permitted, no doubts allowed, and “virtue” takes the form of rage and self-congratulations.

But when I begin to despair of the human condition, I turn my remembered gaze upon T: the most average of men, the most extraordinary of men.

He and others I can name offer me hope. He is not perfect and he would not tell you he did anything special. Just what any good person would do.

Thanks, T.

You gave me something, too.

Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The sheet music cover photo of a once popular song dates from 1918.

*The number of home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career.