Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Measure of Madness

I’m quite sure Yann Martel was not talking about divorce in Life of Pi, when he wrote about the "measure of madness" that drives us:

But even animals that were bred in zoos and have never known the wild, that are perfectly adapted to their enclosures and feel no tension in the presence of humans, will have moments of excitement that push them to seek to escape. All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, and sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.

But that’s exactly what occurred to me when I read it. It’s like a marriage in which the pair are quite calm and seemingly content with their enclosure, and then, in what appears to be a moment of madness, someone says “no more of this prison!”

I’m thinking of the people that come to me, talking endlessly about their relationships, yet drowning as if in quicksand, as the life is slowly sucked out of them. It’s not madness at all, just great difficulty acknowledging that something isn’t working. That the house has become a cage.

And Martel goes on, Pi is speaking now about how he comes to understand his lifeboat:

I did not grasp all these details—and many more—right away. They came to my notice with time and as a result of necessity. I would be in the direst of dire straits, facing a bleak future, when some small thing, some detail, would transform itself and appear in my mind in a new light. It would no longer be the small thing it was before, but the most important thing in the world, the thing that would save my life.

And this is precisely what happens when we make changes. We figure out things using bits and pieces that heretofore seemed inconsequential. They become important. And gradually, we know exactly what to do. It might be the divorce, it might be the new career, indeed, it might be anything.

As a life coach and psychotherapist I’m always interested in moving this process along a bit quicker, thereby decreasing discomfort and increasing happiness. I’d like people to recognize their cages for what they are, and sooner rather than later plan their exits swiftly and gracefully.

Pi’s journey is inspiring. It’s a great book. I might add, Pi has a lot of grit. And the bottom line is about the power of relationship.

Related theme: Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads

Friday, April 11, 2008

Maladaptive Happiness

An oxymoron? A crazed psychologist’s rumination?

Not at all. It’s interesting to note that happiness experts have found that we adapt to exciting, fun new things. I use adapt here referring to the manner in which organisms adapt to their changing environments. According to happiness researcher Sonja Lyubormirsky, we do things to increase happiness, but then we adapt. The thrill wears off. Now I call that maladaptive. We’ve all experienced it:

That hot new guy you absolutely, positively had to have…now that you have him, he’s not all that anymore?

The dissertation you’ve given blood, sweat and tears to produce…by the time you get there it’s a bit ho hum and you’re wondering what next.

The promotion you’ve worked yourself to the brink of death to land, is it really all it was cracked up to be?

Lyubormirsky and colleague Ken Sheldon are now studying whether or not people can avoid that adaptation. They’re going to look at the effect of behaviors like savoring and introducing variety.

The Nine of Cups in Tarot refers to having one’s wish fulfilled or dreams come true. It’s likened to savoring a good meal, to contentment, to sensual pleasure. It’s the wish card. So instead of just taking the hot new guy for granted…well I don’t think I really have to get into the specifics of savoring and variety, do I?

I believe that the notion of celebrating achievements is a kind of savoring. Take the dissertation completion as an example. Instead of letting it drift by virtually unnoticed, celebrating is a way to enhance pleasure in the event. And not just for the few hours of the mad party you’re having, you have to keep it going for a while. I don’t mean the party, I mean the focus on the accomplishment. Maybe keeping a copy right near you in your office is a way to remind yourself of what you’ve achieved.

Variety keeps things interesting. Studying yoga is great fun and exciting to the newcomer. You have to try new poses to keep the fun in it. It’s the same with anything new, you have to find ways to make it interesting and fresh.

So let’s share a good glass of wine, or may a couple for the sake of variety, and savor the experience together.

See the Monitor on Psychology article about Lyubomirsky at


Monday, April 7, 2008

The Show Must Go On

I'll admit it from the get go, I've always loved Julie Andrews. I found her, in Terry Gross' interview on Fresh Air today, completely captivating. You can listen at:


Ms. Andrews has a most amazing speaking voice. Admittedly, I'm a sucker for accents. But I can't imagine anyone listening to her and not hearing the beauty of the voice. There's also an incredible warmth in her interactions with the interviewer.

Truly remarkable is her attitude. You can hear her acceptance and optimism as she speaks about negotiating her difficult childhood ("no wallowing" were her words). Not a child of privilege by most standards, she still talks about her childhood as relatively happy and privileged in its own way.

Then there was her surgery in 2005. After a period of denial, Ms. Andrews accepted the hard truth; she could no longer sing. She recognizes she could have gotten up to "crawl away," but instead has kept busy acting, writing and speaking. She actually said she is "extremely grateful" for her life post-surgery.

If we could all aspire to that attitude, wouldn't it be loverly?

Her attitude reminds me of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Here the idea is to learn to accept our pain, not try to get rid of it. And we can live life in a meaningful way instead of living a a life in which our primary object is to identify with our pain. Check out Steven C. Hayes' Get Out of your Mind and Into Your life for more on ACT.