Despair and Happiness in America and in Medicine

Earlier this month Ross Douthat wrote a piece in The New York Times titled “The Age of American Despair” where he posed the question “Are deaths from drugs and alcohol and suicide a political, economic or spiritual crisis?”

Douthat writes:

“The working shorthand for this crisis is “deaths of despair,” a resonant phrase conjured by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton to describe the sudden rise in deaths from suicide, alcohol and drug abuse since the turn of the millennium.

Now a new report from the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee charts the scale of this increase — a doubling from 22.7 deaths of despair per 100,000 American in 2000 to 45.8 per 100,000 in 2017, easily eclipsing all prior 20th-century highs.

But had deaths of despair remained at 2000-era levels, approximately 70,000 fewer Americans would have died this year alone.”

He imagines what the presidential candidates would say about the cause for this epidemic:

“The Technocrat (voice of Pete Buttigieg): “This is primarily a drug abuse and mental-health crisis, and the only way to solve it is with more and better drug treatment programs, more and better psychiatric care. We’ll save these lives one patient, one addict, one treatment center at a time.”

The Socialist (voice of Bernie Sanders): “This is obviously an economic crisis! People are despairing because their jobs have been outsourced, their wages are stagnant, the rich have hijacked the economy. Tax the plutocrats, raise the minimum wage, give everybody health insurance, and you’ll see this trend reverse.”

The Cultural Healer (voice of Marianne Williamson): “You can’t just medicate this away or solve the problem with wonkery alone. There’s a spiritual void in America, a loss of meaning and metaphysical horizon. The problem is cultural, spiritual, holistic; the solution has to be all three as well.”

Somehow, somewhere I came across a psychiatrist and public speaker named Gordon Livingston, who wrote a lot about grief and happiness. He said this about drug abuse, a year before he died in 2016, but it applies to a lot of things Americans do today:

We can try to turn drug abuse into a disease, but we are just dealing with the larger paradox: the mindless pursuit of pleasure brings pain.

Now, I think drug abuse amounts to a disease because it involves changes in brain function and chemistry, but I do believe his generalization that the harder you pursue pleasure the more elusive it becomes.

Happiness, Livingston said, requires three things: Something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to.

Looking at my own life and career, with the major changes of recent months, I took these three fundamentals to heart – they actually stopped me in my tracks when I first saw this slide on YouTube. These three things are actually so simple and don’t have to cost much, or anything at all, but they are so undeniably necessary for every human being. But how many people can honestly say they have all three, or give much thought to what they are.

This is exactly what I’ve been thinking and doing. I gave up administrative work and focused on the one-on-one work of seeing patients while I also moved back into my little farmhouse that calls out for me to catch up with some “deferred maintenance” (I love American euphemisms). I also carved out the time to do a substantial amount of horse and farm chores.

So I have several things to do that are meaningful to me. And this would be my addition to Dr. Livingston’s list – we have to see meaning in what we do, even if it is a job we don’t love (although I love mine) but we do it because it makes us feel valuable in some way, to society or our family.

And, speaking of family, and of love, I am deepening my relationships with my adult children and their families after years of working too hard with blinders on much of the time. And not everyone can understand this, but I love my Arabian horses and view them as family. Caring for these noble creatures and being in their presence is almost like a higher purpose.

And what I look forward to now is so different from earlier in my life. I wasted so much mental energy making long term plans before. Now at this age, with the biggest long term plan of all (growing old with my wife) suddenly evaporated, my perspective is shorter, allowing me to take in the present, appreciate the moment, in a way that has profoundly grounded me emotionally.

Back to the three fundamentals of happiness:

How many people in today’s society have defined for themselves what these three things are in their own life?

And, for me as a physician, how many patients do I see who suffer from depression, anxiety, addiction, maladjustment or dysfunctional relationships? How can I better, with whatever influence I have in my role as healer or guide, help them see how simple it can actually be to move closer to being happy?

I wrote this in 2012, in a post titled “The Secret of Life“:

Observing which of my patients live well and handle age, illness and adversity the best, I see the power of this every day.

Jungian therapist Robert A. Johnson describes in his book, “Transformation: Understanding the three levels of masculine consciousness”, how the male psyche evolves from simple man (exemplified by Don Quixote), who asks “What’s for dinner?” to complicated man (Hamlet), who asks “What does it all mean?” to enlightened man (Faust), who asks “What’s for dinner?”

(Here I am again, seven years later, realizing how one has to work at this being grounded kind of thing because modern life pulls us in so many distracting directions…)

With everything published these days about physician burnout, I also think Livingston’s three principles of finding happiness can be useful professionally for doctors. Aside from the love we need in our personal lives, I think doctors today have become distracted from the fundamental need to feel love for humankind, empathy with people, who now are increasingly cast as consumers or “populations” in the scripting of our work lives.

(I also, obviously perhaps, think that what we do has become separated from what we were trained to do, hope to do and need to do. The agendas for healthcare today are to a great degree neither our patients’ nor our own and that spells burnout for us and frustration for our patients.)

Our society is a selfish one. Happiness has become a selfish pursuit. The harder we strive for it, the more elusive it becomes and the more despair we feel.

Happiness is like floaters in our eyes: Try to focus on them and they move out of your field of vision. Keep your eyes on what you’re doing and they’ll remain visible slightly in the periphery as long as you don’t think too hard about them.


So here is my happiness recipe for this September Sunday:

I finished my stall cleaning. Soon I’ll make breakfast and if the sun stays around I’ll eat it outside by the horse barn.

My short term goals in life are to catch up on some filing and vacuum the downstairs. And, coming back to me trying to be enlightened man instead of complicated man – what’s for dinner? Grilled salmon and asparagus, my favorite.

I’m not planning tomorrow too hard. Today is today.


2 Responses to “Despair and Happiness in America and in Medicine”

  1. 1 Laura September 16, 2019 at 10:57 am

    Thank you. This really fits with what I’ve been thinking and feeling lately.

  2. 2 mmwm September 18, 2019 at 11:12 am

    I love your blog and am in accord with most of what you say. But this strikes me as off the point:
    The quote from Gordon Livingston: “We can try to turn drug abuse into a disease, but we are just dealing with the larger paradox: the mindless pursuit of pleasure brings pain.” And your comment: “Now, I think drug abuse amounts to a disease because it involves changes in brain function and chemistry, but I do believe his generalization that the harder you pursue pleasure the more elusive it becomes.”

    Suicide, alcohol & other drug abuse, and other addictions stem, in my experience and observation, from a desire to numb or escape pain, not a desire to pursue pleasure. It may sound like two sides of the same coin but I don’t think it is. It’s not selfish or hedonistic to seek relief from pain and trauma.

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