Sunday, July 16, 2006

Artificial Happiness

Happiness is Fleeting

What made us happy yesterday might not do it today. One need only observe children and their ever constant desires to understand that happiness is a temporary state at best. The littlest thing will make a small child deliriously happy - for a while. As they grow the child's requirements to achieve a constant state of happiness outpaces a parent's ability to meet them. That's when the trouble begins.

What is happiness? Why is it so slippery? Like water through our hands we can feel it, bask in the glory of it and enjoy the moment, but rest assured the moment will be gone. Frankly, that's the way it's supposed to be. We cannot, should not expect to be happy all the time. We actually do ourselves and our children a disservice by trying to make happiness "the" goal. Happiness, I believe happens naturally without coaxing.

The American Declaration of Independence places happiness front and center... "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Note that Jefferson did not say Life, Liberty and the achievement of Happiness. The pursuit of happiness is all about the journey. Therein lies the key. Quite often it's the journey not the destination. We find happiness along the way, and sometimes in the most unusual places.

If we look at life, even the grind of daily life, as a series of small journeys and enjoy the fleeting moments of contentment and satisfaction we will go a long way toward being a well adjusted soul. Unfortunately, for many people (since the beginning of time) recognizing happiness for what it is becomes impossible.

Enter Artificial Happiness

Artificial happiness comes in many forms and sad as it is to say nearly all of them are ultimately destructive if they become the journey... We humans have an endless supply of vehicles to climb aboard: alcohol, drugs (legal and illegal), eating, sex, exercise, TV, shopping, self-improvement, gambling, electronic games and gadgets, selfishness - well, the list goes on forever. Now, any one of these can enhance a moment that lead to periods of contentment and satisfaction if they are treated as just one small part of the journey. For too many people once seduced by the instant gratification of making the journey without all those pesky up and downs happiness becomes about feeling no pain or frustration - ever. Seeking some kind of temporary happiness via any of these vehicles is so effective nothing else will do anymore.

Inevitably they all crash. If you are a compulsive shopper eventually the money runs out. Drug and alcohol use produces terrible hangovers and addiction. TV watching in excess leads to a sedentary life that introduces all kinds of health problems - physical and mental. It's just not a pretty picture.

Enter Modern Medicine

In his book "Artificial Happiness" Anesthesiologist and political philosopher Ronald Dworkin explores the role the medical community has played in the instant gratification field of the pursuit of happiness. He takes a lot of heat from those who claim he is far too dismissive of minor depression and the treatment of it. His primary angle, interestingly enough does not focus on psychiatrists. Instead he pins the blame on primary care doctors. The claim that far too many people are taking Prozac for unhappiness and not really for clinical depression is very compelling. Which comes first the chicken or the egg - unhappiness or depression? Dworkin is really careful about separating real (major) depression from unhappiness. Depression, not unhappiness, should be treated with drugs, and Prozac and Zoloft as well as many others are safe and effective when perscribed in an applicable situation. The problem is that doctors take cues from their patient's expression of unhappiness (during 10 minute encounters) and then prescribe anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs.

Unhappiness, stress and other temporary afflictions are perfectly natural and universal. The rich and famous are often the most unhappy. Oddly, in some parts of the world the poorest people are the happiest. This has been the focus of many studies over the years and while seemingly counterintuitive the real answer to this paradox is expressed in the simple phrase "money can't buy happiness". Neither can drugs or alcohol.

Me, I recommend balance. A little of this, a little of that and a whole lot of God. Talking with God via the Holy Spirit that resides in your heart is the very best counseling your can receive. In other words take God along with you on this journey we call life. He's a great listener and the perfect gut check.