(Cassandra Brandt is a regular guest writer for SPINALpedia and a C4 quadriplegic and mom from Arizona. She also writes for Ability360.org and is the author of “Iron Girl: a memoir”)
The thing about chasing happiness is that you’re on a treadmill. Even if you do eventually reach that goal, your mind will tell you it’s not enough and you’re off and running again.
Maybe a treadmill is a confusing analogy considering I’m stuck in this wheelchair, but it’s a cycle nonetheless.
Happiness is seen as the measure and the goal of a good life. We think we’re supposed to be happy.
We imagine something is wrong with us because we aren’t happy. Everyone thinks they must have depression or something. Well, kinda. Most people wouldn’t describe themselves as happy.
When I was first paralyzed I thought to myself that I was going to be miserable in life now. Six years later, on good days I don’t feel any more miserable than I was on legs. There are bad moments and suffering but between those, I find my moods to be pretty similar to pre-injury.
Hedonic adaptation is a theory that posits that people return to their same baseline level of happiness after a traumatic or even a very positive event.
“Some of us have our thermostat set to happy. Some are set to depressed. Meanwhile, others are somewhere in between. When we experience a major event, say winning the lottery or becoming paralysed, our thermostat may temporarily swing up or down. But over time, it returns to its usual setting,” Robert Puff, Psychology Today.
A study using self-reported levels of happiness that is often cited as an example of the hedonic treadmill actually included quads!
In 1978, researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts asked two very disparate groups about the happiness in their lives: recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery whose prizes ranged from $50,000 to $1 million, and recent victims of catastrophic accidents, who were now paraplegic or quadriplegic.
They were asked to rate the amount of pleasure they got from life and quads (and paras) didn’t come up short! We humans are pretty bad at predicting how things will make us feel. We assume winning the lottery will make us happier but it typically doesn’t. And after paralysis a lot of us eventually adapt until we’re as satisfied with life as we always were.
For some people this might seem like nonsense, but this theory rings true for me. I always struggled a bit with anxiety and depression; six years into C4 life it doesn’t seem to be heightened by my injury.
In fact it’s maybe less, because I’ve been forced to learn patience.
I’ve also learned that life isn’t about trying to be happy all the time.
Schopenhauer said aiming at happiness as life goal is futile.
The root of the word happy is fate/luck implying some people are just lucky and get happy but can’t attain it on their own.
If not happiness, what should one strive for?
S said it isn’t happiness but meaning that can build a psychological fortress from which we can navigate the chaotic occurrence of life.
A subjectively meaningful life.
My life matters. My work matters.
The happy times in my life didn’t mold me into the badass woman I am today.
Character can only be developed through disciplined struggle. It isn’t the attainment of goals that builds character. It’s the storms in life that make us.
Do people even know who they really are without weathering a storm?
A good day doesn’t have to be a happy day. Maybe it’s a productive day, or even a sad day that taught an important message. A good life doesn’t have to be a nonstop party. It could be full of suffering. But meaning… a good life means something.
Live a life that’s meaningful TO YOU.
Maybe it’s raising your kids right. Maybe it’s even raising them to value meaningfulness.
For me, it’s helping my daughter through life although she can do it without me now. And it’s taking advantage of the opportunities I have to learn and to pass on knowledge. It’s advocating for causes of equity and justice that I believe in.
I stay busy but not just as a hobby: to produce something that matters. That’s what matters to me when it comes to meaning.
I find meaning in being a mom, grandma, daughter and sister. I find meaning in being a vegetarian. Meaning in the humanist work that I do, bringing donors together with people in need and meaning fighting for disability rights and the rights of other marginalized groups as well as animals and the planet.
My SCI took a lot from me but it didn’t rob me of all this joy I had. Maybe it even showed me what real joy is.
Read Cassandra’s past posts here