A Step Toward Happiness: Learning How to Lose Without Being a “Loser”

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:

  1. That life would have been great if only the man could have achieved success in his chosen profession.
  2. 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.

Chemutai Rionotukei Running in the 2007 St. Silvestre Road Race in Sao Paulo, Brazil

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 End of the Norfolk Relay 2006 at the Athletics Track, Lynnsport.

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.

In Honor of Jay Perman: Speech to the Mather High School Class of 2011 on Behalf of the Zeolite Scholarship Fund

Jay A. Perman

It isn’t very often in life that you meet someone who does good and who is good. But today, you will get a chance to meet such a man and it will be in his name that we will make scholarship awards to a few of you.

He is a leader who does not glory in his leadership. He is a healer who works for the good of his patients and for the common good as the head of a great university. And he is a friend who has not forgotten his old friends.

The man is Dr. Jay Perman and all of us up here and in the first two rows are proud to say that we were his classmates.

Here at Mather.

Forty-seven years ago.

Not exactly yesterday.

All of us represent the Zeolite Scholarship Fund and graduated from Mather in June of 1964 or January of 1965.

Like you, most of us didn’t have very much money.

Like you, most of us had parents or grandparents who came here from another country.

And like you, most of us were more than a little unsure of what was possible for us in the future.

Jay’s parents came to Chicago from 5000 miles away in Eastern Europe and struggled to make ends meet. When Jay was in his first year in high school his father died. Thereafter, Jay’s mom supported the family by working as a seamstress, paid by the number of hats she completed in a day.

Jay is probably the only Mather graduate in history to become the President of a major university, in Jay’s case, the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

That school is about 700 miles east of Mather. But the interesting thing is, that in order to go from being a student at Mather to becoming the President of the University of Maryland, you have to travel an even greater distance.

It is not like the distance of an airplane flight from here to there.

It is not like the distance that Jay’s parents traveled from the Ukraine to Chicago.

Rather, it is the distance in here (your head), between where you are now and what you can imagine might be possible in your future.

And it is the distance in here (your heart), when you set your heart’s aim on what seems like an impossibly far away goal and give everything you have to achieve it.

It is easy, too easy for you sitting in this auditorium, to think that nothing very special will be possible for you.

It is easy, too easy, to think about the difficult economic conditions that prevail in the world today, and wonder if you will even be able to make a living.

In other words, it is easy to give up — too soon.

Let me tell you a story about that.

Two shoe salesmen were sent to Africa about 100 years ago by two different British shoe companies. Back then, Africa was a very primitive place and these men were sent to the most primitive parts of it.

The salesman from the first company wrote back to his home office in despair: “SITUATION HOPELESS. PEOPLE DON’T WEAR SHOES HERE!”

The second salesman also contacted his office, but his message was rather different: “GLORIOUS OPPORTUNITY. THE PEOPLE HERE DON’T HAVE SHOES YET!”

The point is, sometimes things depend on how you look at them.

If, like Jay Perman, you have talent, courage, and the imagination to see what might be possible for you, then, just maybe, you can become a pediatrician, as Jay is, and eventually a university president.

Sometimes thinking it is possible, makes it possible.

All of us here are waiting, putting some of our money in the form of scholarship awards for a few of you, betting on the possibility that you will do something both great — and good.

And if you do, your classmates will be as proud of you as we are… of Jay Perman.

The photo of Dr. Jay Perman above is sourced from the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Courage For the New Year

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cd/Churchill_V_sign_HU_55521.jpg

Many of you, I suspect, have had a tough time over the holidays. Perhaps lonely, perhaps worried about what the future will bring. Many all over the world are yet unemployed or underemployed. Things have been difficult.

I offer you, therefore, an audio excerpt linked below, from a late 1941 speech given by Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during most of World War II.

I hope that it will provide some solice and some reason to believe that a better future is possible.

Things were particularly dark for England in 1940. All of continental Europe had been conquered by the Nazis and night after night, the great cities of that island nation were bombed by the Luftwaffe, Hitler’s air force. The British Empire stood alone against the Third Reich and expected a land invasion. The United States had not yet entered the War and there was no certainty that it would.

Virtually no one thought England would survive.

But Churchill did and the Nazis were defeated.

In October of 1941, still prior to the USA’s entry into the war, Churchill was asked to speak to the students of Harrow School, an independent boarding school that was his alma mater.

What he had to say applies quite well to those, even today, who might fear that worse is to come in their lives, as well as those who despair over their current condition.

Listen to the first three minutes and ten seconds and take heart.

The entire excerpt is just over four minutes long.

Once you click on the blue link just below this paragraph, look at the upper  right corner of the page. Then scroll down and click on the Speech #33 (incorrectly identified as having been given in November 1941):

BBC Winston Churchill Speech to Harrow School

The image above is Winston Churchill on Downing Street Giving His Famous ‘V’ (For Victory) Sign, June 5, 1943. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“In Defeat, Defiance:” Suicide and the Danger of Giving Up Too Soon

When is suicide justified? When is it permissible to give in to the despair and hopelessness that life sends to some of us?

Before you answer, a cautionary tale.

The little girl was born in approximately 1889. She was five years old when her parents died in a home fire. Two older brothers, themselves only in their late teens, were now heads of a household that lacked a house.

The farming community in which they lived in Lithuania (then a part of Russia) offered few vocational prospects and certainly no way for them to support their two younger siblings. A neighboring family made them an offer. In return for the promised work services of the five-year old and the slightly older sister for the next seven years, the head of that family would advance the two boys enough money for passage to the USA. By then, it was hoped, the brothers would have sufficient funds to arrange for the transport overseas of their little sisters.

And thus, this poor little five-year old, already having lost her parents, now separated from the older brothers she loved.

What is seven years to a five-year old?

Eternity.

But the family with which these children lived was good to them, and the brothers made good on their promise. They kept in contact by writing letters to their sisters and, after seven years, had enough money to arrange for a reunion with them in the USA.

The now 12-year-old girl was named Johanna. And it was not too terribly long after, when she was 16, that she met the man who was to be her husband. Her brothers had been supporting her, as well as their own young families. It was time for her to marry, she was told. She had to choose among the suitors available in their small town of LaSalle, Illinois.

The man she chose was 16 years her senior — 32 years old. A coal miner. Farming and coal mining were the chief ways of making a living in that time and place.

Johanna had the first of her five children when she was 18. Life was relatively peaceful and she made the best of the marriage that her brothers had required of her. But, in her 37th year, Johanna began to feel less than her best. At first, she thought little of the fatigue and shortness of breath. Others noticed her pallor. Meanwhile, her appetite diminished and she suffered from diarrhea.

Eventually, the symptoms could not be ignored. The physician diagnosed her as having pernicious anemia, a disturbance in the formation of normal red blood cells.

There was no cure. Her doctor estimated that she might live for one year.

LaSalle, Illinois was a small, largely Lithuanian community. And in that place, at the same time that Johanna received her death sentence, so did another young woman, also a mother.

That person became profoundly depressed and hung herself.

Johanna did not. She did not want to leave her children and her husband in such a fashion. There were things yet to do for her children, messages to impart, care to deliver.

Johanna informed her children that she was going to die before long. She instructed them in what they needed to know in order to take over her household duties and become independent themselves. And, she told them that they would almost certainly have a step-mother eventually, and to welcome her as if she were their own mother.

In 1926, the year of her preparation for death, Johanna Grigalunas could not know that there would be a second World War 13 years in the future and that the country of her birth would be consumed by it. She might have heard of Winston Churchill, however, the man who became Prime Minister of England for most of that conflict. But she would not have been aware that Churchill battled depression himself.

Things were particularly dark for England in 1940. All of continental Europe had been conquered by the Nazis and night after night, the great cities of that island nation were bombed by the Luftwaffe, Hitler’s air force. The British Empire stood alone against the Third Reich and expected a land invasion. The United States had not yet entered the War and there was no certainty that it would. Virtually no one thought England would survive. But Churchill did and the Nazis were defeated.

In October of 1941, Churchill was asked to speak to the students of Harrow School, an independent boarding school that was his alma mater. Most of his words that day are now forgotten. But his job was to rally and inspire a nation, as well as the young men to whom he said:

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in…”

Just as she could not know of the geo-political events ahead for the world, Johanna did not know that two separate research teams, one in England and one in the USA, were searching for a cure for the disease that afflicted her.

Thus, in 1926, George Richards Minot and William Perry Murphy fed large amounts of beef liver to their pernicious anemia patients, based on the pioneering work of George Whipple, who had demonstrated that the creation of red blood cells in dogs could be enhanced in this way. It was determined that a daily diet rich in liver would prolong the life of those with this disease. All three scientists received the 1934 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology. Eventually, the crucial healing component in the liver, vitamin B 12, became deliverable by injection.

Johanna Grigalunas lived to be 93, more than a half-century beyond the medical death sentence that she received in the 1920s.

Now, you might ask, how is it that I know this story?

Well, I met Johanna Grigalunas, almost blind but full of life,  when she was over 90.

You see, Johanna was my wife’s grandmother.

The above image is of Winston Churchill. The quotation in the title is also from Churchill: “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.”

Churchill is reported to have suffered from depression off and on throughout his life. He referred to it as his “black dog.” On the subject of suicide, he said the following:

I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.