Psychotherapists do not presume to tell patients how to live. Not usually. That would be regarded as presumptuous. But still, secretly, therapists, like people in general, have their own ideas about how to live happily and effectively, even if they do not advocate for those ideas explicitly. At least, not at first. These are philosophical matters, after all, and patients come to treatment with symptoms, which they want to dispel. It is only later on, perhaps, that they can stop to think about where they want to go in life, and what they want to achieve.
Goals in life are not usually considered explicitly. Most of us are inclined to put one foot in front of the other without thinking exactly where we want to end up. We don’t know where we are going or why. And there is no reason to think a psychotherapist knows any more about such matters than anyone else. Religion is the discipline that concerns itself with the proper way to live. In fact, it has been said that the benefit of religion is precisely that it tells one how to live. (The disadvantage, one might argue, is the same–that it tells one how to live.)
Having said all that, I would like to state my opinion (prejudice?) about what contributes to a happy life. Tolstoy said that happy families all resembled each other, but that each unhappy family was unhappy in its own way. Similarly, most happy individuals have certain things in common. The presence of those things does not guarantee a happy life, and neither does their absence make certain that a happy life is impossible; but they are critically important. Most people would regard their importance as self-evident.
The overlapping parts of a happy life.
- The presence of a close, loving relationship with a particular person, usually of the opposite sex. Close family ties tend to compensate for the absence of that special relationship. Is it possible to be happy as a bachelor or a widow? Sure, but it is more difficult. Searching out that special relationship is inherent to the human condition. Most readers of this column are preoccupied with that search—with problems of dating and falling in love. This is a sexual relationship, and matters of sex are of great concern to them.
- Having a job. The job may not have the character of a career, although that would be best, but it should involve, besides the opportunity to make a living, some satisfaction in being useful. Steady work organizes the day. There should be social involvement on the job in order to make coming to work more interesting. Is it possible for someone unemployed—or retired—to be happy? Sure, but it is more difficult. A retired person become an “Ex-something.”
- Children are central to most families. Often grandparents occupy their lives meaningfully with caring for grandchildren. In most families, much of the day’s considerations (and worries) revolve around children. Most people look forward with some sadness to their children moving away. Many couples are happy without children, but there is a hole in their lives that require an effort to fill. The appeal of children is natural to all animals and is so basic that it is difficult to explain.
- Some people report without misgivings that they have few or no friends; but they are in a minority. Friends supply understanding, validation, help, and the sense of being important. Can someone be happy without friends? Sure, but then an extra burden is put on these other aspects of life. Can someone be happy without a special relationship and without friends? Yes, but then work becomes very important, perhaps too important.
In fact, the fewer there are of those aspects of life mentioned above, the more emphasis there is on what is left. Someone without a job, without friends, and without children will put a special burden on a marital relationship. Perhaps too much of a burden. On the other hand, the more there is in one’s life, the more resilient that person becomes. Sudden losses are less likely to be devastating.
- I should mention that some people have an overarching commitment and involvement with a particular cause or purpose, and that passion fills in any gaps left by the absence of those factors mentioned above. This includes religious commitments, or involvement with some form of artistic expression, or dedication to some particular cause, such as the care of animals, for instance, These involvements can completely occupy a person.
It is human nature to be concerned about today’s worries and not to sit back and dwell on one’s overall direction in life. Usually we take for granted all of those aspects of life that make life satisfying. But for those who find themselves feeling unhappy, it makes sense to stop and consider whether a special effort can be made to achieve these day to day satisfactions.
I know that many reading these words would insist that they would like very much to obtain what is missing, but they cannot. I would like to suggest that the principal problem in making a success in life is the conviction that it is not possible. “I have tried, it doesn’t work for me,” they say. The job of a psychotherapist is to convince such a person that trying again—differently—might very well work even now. (c) Fredric Neuman. Author of “The Wicked Son.”