Hitting a tipping point

Posted by on Nov 2, 2019

Even her posture was unusual as she walked into the office and sat down. Taking a cue from the energy, which sourced the posture, I sat and waited. “I give up,” she said. The words sort of drifted out of her mouth, barely pushed, barely weighted. The surrender in her being was hard to describe, hard to witness. “We all have a tipping point and it seems I have hit mine,” she continued but then stopped. Too sad to cry, she simply sat and stared at the carpet, looking more lost than I had ever seen her.

What pushes us to this kind of point in life? And how do we know when we are getting close? We are a resilient being, human beings, but that can change in an instant. Strangely, whenever I think about the resiliency of people, black and white photos of emaciated, almost to the point of not even looking human, concentration camp victims flash across my mind. I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an incredible telling of life in a concentration camp told by a psychiatrist and victim, Frankl. It is not a light read by any means, but there is not one moment of blame or victimhood, just reflection, introspection, a searching for meaning and explanation. He was already at work on how meaning impacts life so his time in the camps provided an incredible and rare view into the human psyche. What it must have taken to be a guard. What it took to be a prisoner. Who survived and why? The why is what Frankl contested to be the reason some survived and some didn’t. Having a purpose, a reason helped people survive the worst conditions possible. A phenomenal thought and theory. But what about those walking around without purpose or meaning, how do they survive?

Over the last decade, I have worked a great deal with the conversation of purpose and meaning, so these questions are regular fodder for me. What really brings meaning to life? My patient, the one that has reached her tipping point, has enough meaning in her life for several lives, but yet, she feels defeated, as if it is time to give up. I’m not exactly sure what giving up looks like for her but at least it is not on being alive she assures me. Perhaps she is giving up on the current model her life is working from. Maybe it is time to assess and redefine what gives her meaning. Maybe it is not about meaning anymore. In 2015, I read an article called, The Meanings of Life. It was so powerful and mind blowing to me, it rearranged my DNA. I was already a few years into teaching people how to find purpose in their lives that it seemed like having a mission was the only thing necessary. Then, I read this article, based on a massive survey of people and happiness by social psychologists.

What they found was a difference between meaning and happiness. Wait, whut? They are different? How can that be? Without providing a definition for happiness, the researchers asked about the extent to which people thought their lives were happy and the extent to which they thought their lives were meaningful. The results surprised me. Meaning and happiness are not mutually inclusive. Wait, whut? You can be happy and not have a meaningful life, and you can have a meaningful life and not be happy. I had no idea. Sure, there is overlap, but one doesn’t necessarily result in the other. Meaning came from future-bound thoughts and ideas, whereas happiness was more fleeting and present moment. The part that really tweaked my brain was the social connection part: Meaning came from what you contributed to others and happiness came from what others contributed to you. And, get this, you can become unhappy from contributing too much to others. Wait, whut?

As I sat across from my unhappy and confused about the meaning of her life patient, I thought about this article. I thought about my own imbalance towards helping others to the detriment of myself (see last week’s blog about helping), and I thought about my own happiness compared to my own search for meaning. In graduate school, you are taught to tune into what you experience when sitting with a patient because if you are in the right space or being there for them with the self aside as much as possible, you will feel what they feel. I felt her confusion, I felt her defeat, I felt her sadness, and I wondered what to say. Yes, that happens to therapists, we wonder what to say sometimes. Perhaps that is part of the transference from the patient, who is not sure what to say either. Sometimes, I simply admit it, bringing some comfort that not everyone knows what to do or say all the time. Trying to figure out how to ask without sounding like a jerk, I asked her what made her happy. A long pause, a few false starts to an answer, and then a deep sigh, “You would think I would know, but honestly, I don’t.”

Happiness is a surprisingly tough nut to crack. Just about everyone I know, both personally and professionally, has wrestled with finding happiness. Meaning is easy. Again, surprising. But the transient nature of happiness might make it more difficult to find, sustain, and consistently create. What would Frankl have to say about this, and would he disagree? Happiness was not even on the radar for him because survival was so imminent. It certainly supports the findings that you can have meaning without happiness…which might be okay when your life is constantly threatened, but what about my patient? What about my friend who is struggling with similar feelings? What about myself?

We have a running assumption that we are meant to be happy. What if that’s not true? I wonder if the hunter/gatherer human being, struggling to find water, food, and shelter each day worried about happiness. Meaning for them was the tribe and survival, not so dissimilar from Frankl’s time in the camps. We seem to be happy naturally as toddlers and children but then adolescence hits the fan and takes the shit with it. In the late 1990’s, Martin Seligman launched “Positive Psychology” and the happiness industry was born. His point was excellent, as president of the American Psychological Association, he suggested we move the field of psychology from one of diagnosing and talking about problems, to finding happiness. Like all other good ideas, people can’t just take it as is, we have to blow it up and make it a movement. Now, if you are not happy, something is wrong with you. But as a psychologist, and with every psychologist I know, people are not happy. They look happy on the outside, but they are not. Is it because they are too focused on finding meaning or just missing the elements of social connection and meeting needs that create happiness?

As my patient and I explore the thin line between happy and unhappy, meaning and no meaning, we find no answers, just more questions. Socrates would be so proud. She admits relief in the process of the simple inquiry, as do I. We wonder together how much happiness is necessary and how much meaning is enough. “Enough to stay in the game,” she says as the color returns to her face slightly. Now to figure out the game…