Monday, November 28, 2011


In the psychiatric rotation of my medical training in 1966, my very first patient lamented, “All I want is to be happy. Is that too much to ask?”

Good question. When we talk about being happy, what exactly do we mean? A terrific film, “Happy,” directed by Roko Belic, who made the equally terrific “Genghis Blues,” seriously examines the subject. You can find it at

Happiness depends on how much time we spend in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “the flow.” We’re in the flow when we are absolutely at one with what we’re doing. It’s a magical realm uncluttered by time or obligation or even, as a matter of fact, mortality itself.

We can literally “lose ourselves” in running or in writing, heart-fluttering love, painting, yoga, sex, music, daydreaming, whatever: it doesn’t matter what the activity is. The opposite, evidently, is remaining “in our heads,” experiencing unengaged distance. Gestalt psychology founder Fritz Perls advised, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.”

If you’ve never experienced this total immersion, you might want to take it on as a quest. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get great press in our culture, as we assign productivity a higher value, and I guarantee that the quest for happiness is decidedly unproductive.


  1. During the last 5 or 6 years of our work life at Stanford, before we retired to our home here in Grass Valley several years ago, my primary source of joy -- moments of complete immersion in my senses, accompanied by a feeling of intense gratitude -- was riding my bike back and forth to work each day through the most bike-friendly town on the planet (Palo Alto).

    When we moved here (after looking forward to it for 35 years) I experienced an unexpected grief for the loss of that "small" daily joy, no longer possible in these dangerous and narrow mountain roads.

    Until we moved here I hadn't realized how rich I was in joy in my old way of life. Nor did I fully appreciate how precious and vital it was to find it in some activity every day.

    I'm slowly -- slowly -- working my way back to that happy state (through exercise, sunlight and -- surprisingly -- writing).

  2. True, our cowboy county isn't particularly bike-friendly. I can't tell you how many pickup side-mirrors have almost slammed my shoulder.

    However, there are terrific dedicated bike paths on the western side of Lake Tahoe and the great American River Parkway in Sacramento. Let's push for more of these!

  3. Thanks, Jeff, for your ever-astute observations.
    Still trying to lose myself... Happy birthday, brother.

  4. Thanks, Dr. Jeff.

    We have heard about the trails at Tahoe and the American River Parkway and hope to try them in the spring. We also love spending days in Pacific Grove, biking the beautiful trail there by the bay.

    But ... regarding happiness and joy ... it's important to get it daily and easily. That was my point about Palo Alto being bike-friendly. I commuted to work by bike, and anytime I felt the least bit restless I could hop on my bike and roll right out the driveway into a state of bliss.

    So, here, it will have to be something else, since those beautiful trails will necessarily have to be somewhat rare experiences.

  5. What an insight that the psychiatric field is so confident it can measure depression, but not happiness!

    I now chalk up a lot of the lurching emotions/grave unhappiness of early youth to hormones--there was literally no cure for that type of sting of social humiliation, for the most arbitrary infraction of being "geeky," etc.
    But the curse contains the blessing--at a crisis junction in my 20s, I said to myself, hmmmm, let's see--$700 will get me 7 sessions with a shrink in whom I won't have much confidence anyway--or, $700 bucks will fly me to Buenos Aires, Argentina where I can stay on the cheap with a friend, taste the world's primo espresso, and never mind if I look utterly foolish trying to learn the tango, since I am a foreigner in a foreign country--all of which I did, finding the proverbial moments of "flow" you speak of, as well as overcoming all sorts of adversities--challenge being necessary to happiness too.

    Then, as the hormones subsided, the thrill-seeking of my 20s led to easier placation reading and serving people, which gives me as much "happiness" as the incessant adventures of my youth. Now I worry I will have to watch my daughter's pain, and only hope she will survive the harsh tumult of youth to find more peace and grace in middle age, as I have....not that my advice will help in anyway...she'll have to figure out what works for her...!

  6. I look forward to watching this movie, thank you!

    One of my first patients for psychiatry in medical school asked me the classic question, "Do you think I am crazy?" To which I replied, "I sure hope so!"

    Reflecting on this later, I wondered if the difference between these patients and me was that they fought their insanity while I tended to enjoy mine?

  7. I don’t think we’re talking about outright insanity here as much as personal idiosyncrasies and how we accept them. Much of psychotherapy amounts to gradually persuading people that they are okay.

    I have a friend, still beautiful at seventy, who was her high school’s homecoming queen. She remembers standing on a parade float with her “court,” waving to the crowd. But she miserable, since she was sure she’d been selected queen because she was actually ugly, and people felt sorry for her.

    That’s how we all are as adolescents, right? No matter how we present ourselves, it ain’t right. In fact, one mark of maturity is self-acceptance, feeling easier about ourselves. Like Dr. J points out, his patients come to him because they’re fighting their “insanity” while he enjoys his.

  8. See also:

    "12 Things Happy People Do Differently"