Tuesday, February 24, 2009


(Originally posted as three separate entries)

After a time he chose to be happy, which is always preferable.
-- Julio Cortazar, Acephalia

When sickness got the better of me, it was with relief that I finished up my last news article and put my job aside—for just a short time, I thought. I was exhausted and my head ached constantly, but still I tried to spend as much time as I could scrawling out drafts of short stories in a notebook. I told myself that this was more restful than writing articles, even though I had to keep every muscle clenched as I strained beyond my capacity to sit upright in a chair.

As a newspaper reporter and the winner of a handful of poetry awards, I thought of myself primarily as a writer. To be a real writer and not just a reporter was more an ambition than a reality, but that was where my heart lay. Since I could remember, I had been a hard worker and an ardent student, loving to learn and experiencing a deep sense of well-being when I was surrounded by books and writing out sentences of my own. On the flip side, the thought that I might not always write was one of my greatest fears. In college I would become distraught if I went several weeks without writing a poem. I did not know how to be happy without writing.

Conventional wisdom has it that being a workaholic is undesirable, but my love for my work has made more and more sense to me in recent days, as I’ve mulled over a section on work in the Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. In his book, Haidt reviews scientific research to explore just exactly what humans can do to achieve happiness. Some of his advice is about nuts and bolts—avoid continuous exposure to loud noise, avoid spending time in traffic—but much of it focuses on the two most important factors in creating happiness: personal relationships and work.

This is work, of course, in the broadest sense of the word. It might very well be selling refrigerators or writing software code, but it is also playing sports, cooking, taking care of children, dancing, writing, carpentry, etc. Meaningful work is as important to people as love is. When we are immersed in complex and challenging work, we are as happy or happier than when we are eating caviar or making snow angels.

So it makes perfect sense that in 1999, although I no longer had the energy to race around doing research and interviews for news articles, I tried to do what would make me happy—keep writing. However, as I strained to sit in that straight-backed chair at the pine table in a small house in Mexico City, I grew more and more exhausted. As the weeks went by I wrote for shorter and shorter stretches of time, with longer breaks in between.

Soon I moved back to the US to live with my parents, having abandoned any hope of a quick return to journalism. And yet I thought of everything in terms of gathering enough strength to write. The moment I felt a little better, I went to the computer. In less than an hour I would be in a state of utter frustration, my head hurting and my mind in despair. I saw all the flaws in what I’d tried to write, but couldn’t keep my thoughts straight long enough to fix anything.

In time I realized that I was wasting those few precious hours when I felt OK on something that drained my energy. And just as draining was the thinking, waiting, and yearning for the chance to write. I would be better off focusing on what my body needed, which was rest, and more than rest—exactly what I didn’t know, but it was time I dedicated myself to finding out, without having my heart in a different place. In order to do that, I decided I would not write until I was better.

So it was that my greatest fear came to pass: I gave up writing.


What does it mean to stop working?

Before reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis, I thought of it in concrete terms. Obviously, it meant giving up my source of income. For me, this had happened long before I gave up writing altogether. When I stopped working as a reporter and my money ran out and it no longer made sense for me to stay in Mexico, I moved back to my parents’ house. While for many people this might be the greatest blow, to me at the time it was not. If I had known I was going back to my parents’ house for the next five years, and to financial dependence on them for the next ten, I would have felt differently about it, but at the time I thought I would be with them for a few months at most, until I got well again.

Of course, work also gives us a certain, specific status, and connects us to a social network. I used to think of work and writing primarily in these terms. The illness left me helpless and jobless, while my friends graduated from grad school and got jobs, or left their jobs for school, moved away from DC, moved back to DC, got married. I stayed frozen in time—no job, no higher degree, no wedding and soon enough not even a boyfriend.

The simple question “what do you do?” which popped out at me every time I met someone, became the bane of my existence. “What do you do?” can simply be an attempt to make small talk, but it also means “who are you?” and “where do you stand in the social fabric?” When I stopped writing, I lost, in essence, my title. I lost my place in the world.

But I had always known that writing was more, even, than that. When I stopped writing I experienced a fundamental change that went beyond status or even self-esteem. Something at the core of my being had fallen down dead, irretrievable except in some dream future I dangled before myself merely for the sake of keeping going.


Whether or not it is crass to reduce our emotions to biochemistry, I learned from reading The Happiness Hypothesis that writing had been my daily source of dopamine, the neurotransmitter our brain releases when we are working that makes us feel rewarded—not by the outcome but by the process of our work. It is dopamine that brings that deep feeling of contentment I always associated with writing. When I was left without the daily happiness that writing gave me, and without the hope that I would feel it any time soon, I had to figure out how to be OK without it.

As the months became years and my break from writing stretched on, I never shook the feeling that the best, most essential part of me was gone, that I was temporarily a lesser person. And yet losing this one source of happiness forced me to find a different kind of happiness altogether. In all the previous years, when I was able to write, simply existing without writing was not enough for me. I had to write for my life to have meaning. Now I had to learn the value of my existence without writing.

It took a while. It was, in essence, learning to live all over again. Days and hours were no longer the precious raw material I wrung the most out of as I worked to achieve my goals. Instead, my time became as plentiful and abundant as the ocean, and as difficult to use as a stream of water flowing through nothing but my outstretched hands. My body was no longer a wonderful machine at my disposal, but a tiny prison, in charge of me now and relentless when I broke its rules.

Out of force I learned a different happiness. When you are physically unwell from head to toe, you quickly learn that adding unhappiness to the mix is a bad idea. I am not talking about screaming Serenity Now or frantically repeating the words Calm Blue Ocean. Nor was it about finding happiness in a set of good circumstances. I did have my blessings, my parents the first and foremost, but on a daily basis things were pretty bleak. I would have to find happiness in an entirely different way.


Piece by piece I have assembled my happiness, over time, with the patience and determination it takes to learn new habits. Once I accepted my physical and mental limits, I considered what I could do within those limits that made me feel better. I couldn’t walk or run, but most afternoons I could do certain yoga positions, and felt better after, so I did them daily. Whereas before I had mostly preferred time to myself and my inner world, I learned that now I could ill afford to pass up socializing, and I came to appreciate my friends and family in a way that I hadn’t before.

I learned to meditate and do breathing exercises, and gradually increased the time I spent on them each day until I was up to an hour and half. As I meditated, I could feel my thoughts shift towards the positive. Often these thoughts were close to fantasies about what I would do when I got better, but they were positive thoughts nonetheless, so I enjoyed them while they lasted even though I didn’t expect any of them to come true any time soon.

Even my taste in movies and books changed, as I switched from Ana Karenina to Pride and Prejudice, from Wim Wenders to Seinfeld, and from Michel Foucault to PG Wodehouse. I no longer had the luxury to brood or face down the dark side of life. My life was dark enough on its own, I needed anything that would lift my spirits and entertain.

I miss the part of me that ate Foucault for breakfast, but having my literary and cultural horizons expanded has been good. Not only is Wodehouse funny and lighthearted, he is a genius of a writer I would have passed up if I hadn’t become sick. Before I would have scoffed at Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings as low brow or dweebie genre writing. Once I was sick, I read them for entertainment and appreciated them for the masterworks they are.

Another thing happened along the way: I learned to banish dark thoughts. As calmer, more positive thoughts increased, I realized that the times I let myself become upset about my situation were not helping me in the least, so I stopped getting upset. Of course I did have negative thoughts from time to time, but I learned I didn’t need to give in to them. I trained myself to notice when my thoughts became negative and to counteract them by focusing on what was good and what I could do to change things, or at least make myself more comfortable even if I was suffering physically. In time, this habit became second nature to me.

My friend Beth taught me to quilt, and my mother drove me to a drawing class at the neighborhood arts center. When I had a little energy, for about an hour a day, I sat up to draw. The rest of the time, even when I was at my worst and lying in bed, I could usually manage to sew by hand and found comfort in it. Having my hands occupied in slow, rhythmic activity was soothing.

Did these things give me the dopamine I was missing without writing? Yes, to some extent, but it was not about the work itself any more. Sewing was a way to make the time go by, to keep myself calm and happy. I took pride in what I made, but these were hobbies that served my purpose, not callings that bent my life to follow them.

So what does it mean to lose one’s work? In a way, everything. It is fair to say that for many of us, myself included, our work is who we are.

Without writing, I became a different person. Even today, I hardly recognize myself. I have become practical, engaged with the boring minutiae of health-related tasks that before I scarcely would have had patience for. The depth and complexity of thought that writing brought me is still mostly absent while I make my way without writing on a daily basis. If I let myself think about it, it would upset me, but I don’t.

It almost seems at times that I truly don’t feel things, besides perhaps my own physical suffering, as deeply as I did before I became sick. This may be in part because what I have been through physically has been so profound that it has drained me of surfeit emotion. But it is also because I have trained myself to stay happy, to avoid emotional extremes and instead keep my brain on the light side of things. This has been a survival technique, a way to get through many long, lonely years—and who’s to say it’s all that bad.

Although I don’t get to choose what kind of happiness I have, I did, in the end, get to chose to be happy, and that has been enough.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Hi Naomi,
Your post describes what I've come to believe is the key to living a full life.

Though it may not seem like it at the time, it's not what happens to each of us in our lives that's most important. Whether it be pleasure or pain, success or failure, the critical thing is how we react. And in this we *always* have a choice.

I've enjoyed this series of posts.