Monday, April 16, 2012


I recently began musing on happiness when invited by David Burton, a local, independent, documentary filmmaker to be interviewed on this very subject for his present film project. I thought about how the human brain is wired for moments of happiness; it releases happiness chemicals during certain experiences such as love or orgasm or a runner’s high. The more experiences our brains have with happiness, the greater our faith that we can expect future happiness to be forthcoming. As such, I recommend we practice some joyfulness every day.

Because as infants and toddlers we require attachment for our very survival, each of us as children constructs what we believe will maintain that attachment bond. As such, children will comply with parental demands to themselves be the parent to the parent, or to be the container of all bad feelings or behaviors, to achieve in sports or academia, and so on. Even with good enough parenting, eventually well-fed and well-loved infants who have delighted in playful interchanges with caregivers learn as toddlers that their caregivers are no longer under the child’s omnipotent control, a loss compensated, ala Benjamin, by the joy of two separate minds coming together, because they choose to, to share one thing, e.g. the child’s wonder at a dandelion. Later when we are aware that we are finite, mortal, and alone in the universe, this meeting of the minds bridges the gulf of existential isolation, and momentarily we are joyful.

Happiness, or at least contentment, comes with satisfaction of certain innate strivings of human beings, five that Lichtenberg beautifully delineated: physical needs (food, safety, shelter); needs for creativity, exploration, and play; for sensual and sexual pleasures; for attachment and affiliation; need to defend against or escape adversity as well as to assert ourselves. Happiness is co-created in the context of relationships. When we have had the experience of being welcomed and enjoyed, then our parents’ joy infuses us. We learn joy and to enjoy ourselves, as well as others. Happiness comes more easily to those who have been welcomed and enjoyed. And when we despair, it is easier to keep the faith that happiness will eventually be coming around again.

I remembered a psychiatry resident from a few years ago whom I was to supervise. She came to me, terrified about the prospect of doing psychotherapy without sufficient training, and I asked her what she thought most people want. After a few moments she answered, profound in its simplicity, "love and acceptance." That is, then, I told her, exactly what we must learn as psychotherapists to weave into the treatment relationship.

I advocate, then, for love and acceptance in the psychoanalytic situation, welcoming and enjoying our patients, even their darkest self states, such as anger, despair, envy, and murderous rage, self states of which they are ashamed and may disavow, but being welcomed into the treatment room can find voice, and, ideally, can find dialogue with one another. The psychoanalytic experience of love and acceptance coaxes forth shamed and disavowed self states, invites in play and creativity, and a communion between self states, mine and the other’s, in a panoply of possibility. When I experience myself with another, intimately, fully, authentically, there is happiness.

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