How to live a good life? Let alone a meaningful one? The mind is required to adjust to a changing world out there and a changing internal landscape inside both body and brain; and to keep on adjusting as both keep changing. In his book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera comments that, “We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch”. I think of life more like an eventful surprise. It is one thing fantasizing about life and another thing living your life. Think, for instance, about my choice of profession. No matter how much I researched it and prepared myself for it, my reality of working as a psychotherapist is inevitably distant to the fantasy I had of it.
I suppose one of the temptations of fantasizing about life rather than living it, is that the fantasy all happens inside us, thus we maintain control. When we actually LIVE life, we have to relinquish that control and embrace the undeniable element of surprise. The responsibility of having only one life where we are called to improvise in it whilst living through it, is exciting, overwhelming and infuriating all at once!
But the weight of the responsibility to be happy all the time really interferes with this. If one feels happy all the time, then feelings of uncertainty, anger, frustration, and anxiety must (or can) be denied. The wish for an endless happy state is the wish to abolish conflict and frustration. The urgency of making the most out of the gift of life is motivating but can also be immobilizing. If we are in a state of oblivious happiness there is no time or need to question our choices.
The newborn infant comes in this world governed by two states of mind – a blissful state in which all needs are perfectly met or a state of disintegration when one’s needs are left unsatisfied. The infant will cry inconsolably until his needs are met, until the environment responds accordingly. The baby’s cry is a matter of survival. The infant demands to be instantly gratified because he cannot tolerate any frustration. When the mother is not present to gratify infant’s needs, the baby’s primitive mental capacities desert it and because the baby lacks the internal structure to hold itself together, it disintegrates. For the infant these two states are not a choice, the infant is not cognitively equipped to keep in mind that mother is only temporary absent and that she will come back. The infant understands physical absence or presence, being satisfied or not being satisfied.
The obsessive search for happiness stems, I think, from an internal need for permanent gratification because frustration cannot be tolerated while the risk of disintegration is lurking. When the infant is not helped to resolve and work through these intense experiences as a baby and a growing toddler, during periods of uncertainty as children and adults, they will be more likely to regress to this primitive state of mind. Freud has argued that you can define maturity as the ability to postpone gratification.
I would assert that maturation is achieved via the parenting experience and gets reinforced later in life via exchanges with society. If a primary carer is not present from the start to contain the infant’s distress and help it construct a trust-worthy view of the world, the infant cannot internalize a solid enough internal structure to rely upon in the future when he will be called as an adult to face anxiety and frustration – in short, life’s shortcomings. The infant is egocentric and only has space for the gratification of its needs. Mother would have to gradually disillusion her child and facilitate a space where the child would have to learn that other people have their own needs, minds and they are not servants of the infant’s demands. The capacity to have concern and care for others is an arduous and hard-won achievement. When this process gets arrested, the urge to be in a permanent blissful state of happiness becomes a lost paradise to which the person passionately wishes to return but which reality obstructs him from. Those who seem to be standing in his way – objects or people – become the target of hatred and resentment and pave the way for him to reside in a ‘poor me’ victim mentality.
Every human contact stirs up these early primal feelings of dependency. If the facilitating environment of the infant has helped the latter to contain these terrifying feelings; human relationships become joyful and can be maintained by and large in a stable manner later in adult life. If the infant has been helped to see others as subjects and not objects, relationships are deeper and feel more meaningful. Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, wrote that, ‘Happiness can be pursued but ensued’.
The Harvard Study is the longest running research study in the world. 750 people over 75 years have been interviewed, measured, prodded and poked from birth to death across the life cycle at regular intervals. Dr. Waldinger, current head of the Harvard Study, did a TED talk which attempted to use the data collected to answer the question, ‘What makes a good life?’. What they found out was surprisingly simple and unexpected: meaningful relationships and social connections are what really matter for a long and happy life. It is not how many relationships we have but how much we invest in them that determines our happiness. Dr Waldineger says that these long term relationship are not sexy or glamorous but they demand time and effort. They are a lifelong, messy and confusing project.
A happy relationship is not a relationship where a state of permanent satisfactions is preserved. Happy relationships are meaningful relationships where the other matters, matters enough to frustrate us! It is not an idealized, static relationship but a working project that needs our own attendance and care. Susan Neimman in her book ‘Why grow up’ approaches the matter from a philosophical view and uses a historical review of how human existence was perceived by philosophers. She talks about the turn in history when Kant, Rousseau and later Hume acknowledged the importance of an emotional life. Infants were not seen anymore as in Velasquez’ paintings – tight and stiff automatons. They were seen as emotional beings who needed support to become adults in order to live, work, connect. Neimman explores how growing up does not have to be a chore but can be a fulfilling, expanding experience.
There is the world as we want it to be and the world as it is. The negotiation between the two is perpetual. The deprived infant must invest in a fantasy world where life ought to be ideal, where mother and infant will be merged in an idyllic union. The infant grows into an adult later in life who desperately searches for that perfect union and of course reality keeps interfering with her plans. A mirage, which promises to be the oasis, misguides her. Every product, every relationship becomes another mirage. The illusory quest for happiness deprives her from making or maintaining meaningful connections and she is left feeling short-changed by life. She looks for quick fixes through shopping trips or one-night stands and wonders why she is left feeling empty and confused.