MORTICIANS ARE THE HAPPIEST PEOPLE

October 9, 2004

 

A documentary is being shot across Canada about the pursuit of happiness. It will look at how we struggle for, measure and figure out if we've reached our goal of happiness.

 

As today's Focus cover story demonstrates, the goal is certainly elusive. My patient, who's involved in the film, tells me that the happiest people (at least on paper) are morticians. This isn't as surprising as it seems, given that the same group was also the designated "Type B" population way back in the sixties when two Californian cardiologists were introducing the iconic "Type A" personality into North American culture.

 

According to the doctors, Type B personalities were by definition not type A's. They weren't driven to succeed, they were more placid. They never pushed the "Up" button on the elevator three times and would never experience ulcers, let alone road rage.

 

To the dismay of the researchers, the only group they found that came anywhere close to these characteristics was student morticians. And so they became the hypothetical Type B against which everything we have come to believe about the typical North American personality has been compared.

 

For the record, there have never been any good comparative studies done -- Type A as a descriptive entered the lexicon and stuck.

 

Which brings me back to the pursuit of happiness, which is clearly linked to the lessons learned from being a successful Type A.

 

Why do I say this? While we may all agree that happiness comes from age and experience, it's amazing how often a primary requirement is to be individually successful, goal-driven, directed -- and independent.

 

Recently, a fellow long-distance runner told me that she had decided to return to school in order to reinvent herself. She was a huge success in the law firm where she was a partner. She was engaged in ground-breaking, statute-creating global projects. Since her work was international and Internet-based, it was a 24/7 venture. She was using a BlackBerry when no one knew what its name meant. And she was well paid.

 

But it dawned on her that she had no other life. A vigorous athlete, she had quit the soccer team; a committed churchgoer, she had lost her Sundays. There was no downtime, and the enormous responsibility weighed on her.

 

At some point, it also hit her that the pace of knowledge acquisition in this field was as limitless as the ever-expanding technology. In other words, there was never going to be an end. Once she realized this, her race to an imagined finish was over.

 

It wasn't easy quitting; she truly loved the work and excelled at it. But she felt lost and alone. So she went back to university. Although she keeps a contract at work, offering her expertise to a handful of clients who had come to trust only her, now her goals for a full life and her pursuit of happiness are looking much more attainable, even at less pay and perhaps less prestige.

 

Another of my patients, realizing how all-encompassing her quest for happiness had become, said it isn't hard to leave a job when it doesn't match your values.

 

She has been marketing products for many years, but finally realized that what she was selling wasn't in sync with who she is.

 

A personal coach -- rather than a psychiatrist -- helped her crystallize her values about personal well-being, about physical ability and fitness training, and about involved community living.

 

She is a single mom with little time to spare, but she has gradually morphed into a different version of herself. Now, when she is speaking, you can see and hear all her values. Her decision to leave her job came naturally when she grasped that she wanted to promote what she believed in herself. She is pursuing a new job with confidence and optimism.

 

But often it's the Internet that can best turn far-flung connections into a community of caring, which for some is critical for happiness.

 

When one of my patients signed up for her 35th high-school reunion, she thought it would be a weekend of memories, followed by a swift return to reality. Instead, the reunion's on-line bulletin board brought back to life a community that existed 35 years ago

 

Her classmates live everywhere from Nunavut to Sacramento. But once they reunited in person for two days and had a way of staying in touch, there was a flurry of postings that were the seeds of an ongoing, on-line community of . . . well, of happiness, actually.

 

What else could explain the dozens of e-mail messages sent to an Internet café in Athens during the Paralympics to one of their classmates, a mom with a son on the Canadian swim team.

 

Through the same community, Smokenders takes on a new twist as two or three buddies check in with each other daily, having agreed to the same quitting day. They are also buddies in bad times. It is somehow easier to recount the decline and death of your ailing parent and hit the "Reply to All" button when you know that everyone knows exactly how your mother looked in the good times. A moment of individual tragedy was transformed into a transcontinental wake, and from my patient's perspective, it offers an incredible level of support in the sharing of sadness. Which is a growing form of happiness.

 

In a flash of a "Reply to All," 35 years apart vanish, a new community is created, new ties are bound, new channels are opened and old friendships are picked up where they left off.

 

So what is happiness? If these three patients -- and the Taoists -- have anything to teach us, it's that there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.

Dr. Jean

Marmoreo

 

Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.