The Happiness Equation

Case #1: A young man is a live-in caregiver for his stepmom, going on now for three years, with no time off except two hours a day and the occasional bonus of several hours on a weekend. Our hospice gives him the opportunity for free, every three months, to have his mom stay at our residence for four days with twenty-four hour care but the son never takes us up on it. I used to think it was because he was afraid of freedom, being at a loss of what to do with it. But one day he figured out for himself why he has hesitated, saying, “Once the door is opened, I just won’t be able to go back. I’ll never be able to bathe her again and stay home for hours on end. I’d rather wait until I’m free all at once.”

Case #2: A lady at our hospice residence was about to turn ninety. She loved activities of any kind and the stimulation of gossiping to me about the other patients and families. Her family wanted her to leave the residence for a day trip to celebrate her big day. “At first,” she confided, “I didn’t want to go, because after having a great time away from this place, I’d be sad about having to return here and be lonely again. But then I decided I would go.”

On the face of it, there is something missing in our reasoning about not wanting a break or enjoying an event because it would force us to rub our noses in the drearier aspects of our routine once we resume it. Maybe that is partly why so many United States workers don’t use up their vacation time. Thus, these cases are highly relevant to all of us in situations where less is at stake than in hospice. Are you more like the young man or the lady? Each of them went through their own cost-benefit analysis of how much sadness would ultimately be subtracted from the happiness gained. The man thought it would be too much a cost, and the lady thought it was worth the price. I say nay to Case #1, and yay to Case #2.

So let’s think about this for a minute. There is a reductio ad absurdum here. Are we never to let ourselves be happy by leaving our routine because we will be sadder upon our return than if we had never left it? This means we would always be a little sad and never be happy. It would also spell out a dull life. And what’s more, this cost-benefit analysis is flawed, because the relationship between happier-than-usual times to our routine times is not all zero-sum.

I went on a vacation to Stockholm last June and I noticed the glorious architecture and I ate in a health-food Japanese restaurant among other unexpected cuisines, and saw how Swedes behave differently than Americans such as their concern whether my country knows about and likes them. Once home, I faced more laundry than usual and had to catch up on work, but then I had lively stories to tell, and thought more about some beautiful architecture right in my own neighborhood I had not noticed before. From the trip I became sensitized to new aspects of my routine life, stored some memories, and had some assumptions challenged about what is important. I also appreciated certain things that I missed while gone, such as the relative ease of walking on smooth pavement as opposed to the beautiful but uneven cobblestone streets of downtown Stockholm.

In sum, the answer to the happiness equation goes back to the platitudes to “enjoy the moment” and “seize the day”. But let’s remove the corollary that states that enjoying Moment X necessarily entails less enjoyment of Moment Y.

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