Today’s post is the eighteenth installment of my serialized novel Poets, Artists, Lovers (PAL).
You have all the previous installments HERE.
And here’s the whole novel, with the various Amazon links and a book description.
Please note that these posts go online on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I will then take them down a month afterward. Enjoy!
#18: “Happiness and health. Almost as hard to find as happiness and virtue”
The following week Henriette visited Ela again. “So how do you understand this love through reason?” she asked her friend as they discussed Plato’s rational love of beauty. “Doesn’t love come from the heart?” She refilled her plate with cooled Galia melon cubes from a bowl in the middle of the large round table of Ela’s bedroom.
“In my view, it can also start with a three-pronged awareness,” Ela began, once again in lecture mode, a stance she had honed through many book reviews. “You take mental notes of what makes you happy: the smells of nature, the beauty of flowers, a hug, a good book, a painting, and so on. Then you feed your sensitivity to beauty by learning more about these things: about flowers, literature, paintings, hugs, and so on. Thirdly, you learn about the hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel happy and/or in love, and you figure out ways to produce more of those as well. You may not want a lot of norepinephrine or estrogen and testosterone, but you may want more dopamine and oxytocin, a.k.a. the ‘hug hormone,’ or serotonin and endorphins,” Ela said.
“What a cold way of looking at things,” Henriette said, putting her fork down.
“But it makes sense,” Ela replied with a smile. “The small discoveries in beautiful things trigger dopamine, and dopamine makes you more alert to details. It all works.”
“That’s wild, though,” Henriette said, shaking her head in dismay.
“Because apart from the oxytocin, you can increase the levels of all the other chemicals by yourself.”
“But that’s the idea,” Ela insisted, helping herself to more melon. “To live in love and happiness in a way that benefits other people rather than expect them to make you happy.”
Henriette smiled, perplexed, and pondered out loud her own notions of love and happiness. Love, in her view, was about sharing your journey to self-fulfillment and purpose with someone else and growing stronger together in the face of life’s pain. Happiness seemed to her more complicated. While it was often fueled by different varieties of love, it was also in great measure about finding beauty in things—as Ela was saying. But there was more to happiness than that. What Ela failed to consider was the beauty of happiness that defeats our mental strategies: happiness that just happens upon us, in ways we barely understand, when we achieve a good balance of body, mind, and soul.
“But how do you see this love through reason benefit other people?” Henriette then asked.
“You discover more beauty around you and become more responsible to nature, to the beauty in other people. Your eyes open. And your heart,” Ela said, her lips curled into a small smile.
“It’s an intriguing theory,” Henriette relented, taking a deep breath as she leaned back in her chair. “Even though it sounds like a rationalization of what the hippies were trying to do, minus the drugs. The caveat, of course, is that someone has to deal with the least savory aspects of existence, or else we wouldn’t have lawyers and government officials.”
“Yes, but they need to care more for nature and beauty too,” Ela said, fired up.
“Yeah, well . . . maybe they don’t need that as much,” Henriette said sarcastically.
“But everybody does,” Ela countered. She was on a roll now. “You can’t have happiness without it. And is happiness that useless nowadays, with all the diseases we’re facing? Because happiness is not just that, a measure of how joyful and contented we feel in our skin and mind; it also correlates to how healthy and good we are. And if we’re not very healthy and good, we can’t do that much good, can we, no matter how talented we are.”
“But you’re being idealistic again. You’re assuming that happier people do more good than less happy people,” Henriette argued.
“But it’s true. I read it somewhere. They’ve done psychological studies on it. Happier people are more altruistic,” Ela asserted. She served Henriette more melon and then took the last few pieces herself.
“Maybe those who are more altruistic are kinder to begin with,” Henriette put in.
Ela took a deep breath, sat back in her chair, and then leaned forward again. “Maybe. I forgot about it, but I’d thought of that too. But to go back to what I was saying, there’s now this whole new field in psychology showing the positive impact happiness has at the workplace and in society. Happier people are not only more generous with their money, time, and energy but also better at relationships—which makes for happier workplaces, social networks, families, children. And happier people are also better leaders, more eager to take on challenges, more creative at solving problems, and more resilient in the face of adversity. What does all this say to you?”
“That happiness has been underrated?” Henriette quipped.
Ela smiled. “That happiness can be a means to so many other good things at the workplace, community, and society level.”
“And why is that so interesting?”
“It’s interesting because Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics saw happiness as the ultimate goal. But now psychologists say that happiness is desirable for the sake of other things as well,” Ela reiterated.
“I think you lost sight of what Aristotle means by happiness,” Henriette said, her eyes alight with amusement. “He uses the term eudaimonia, which means having a good daimon, or guiding spirit. And he uses it to refer not only to this approximation of what we call happiness but also to the thoughts and actions that derive from it—from a place of good spirit and virtue.”
“Oh. Well then, forget Aristotle,” Ela said, dismissing her previous argument with conviction. “I’ll have to rewrite that review, by the way.” She halted and explained, “I used that argument in a review.” She then looked intently at Henriette. “But since when are you so conversant with Aristotle?”
“Oh, I’m not. But you know how Alice says that philosophy enriches her art history. She keeps giving me books to read now, saying I should be more like Har. Apparently she really liked Har.” She gave Alice one of her ready grins.
“How is Har?” Ela asked, interested.
“He’s good,” Henriette said distractedly, glancing out the window at the tart cherry tree in fruit in the small front yard. “But to return to happiness and better creativity and resilience and leadership and all that, I imagine few people think about it this way. It’s more companies trying to boost productivity, that sort of thing,” Henriette said, forking another piece of melon.
“You’re right. Another difficulty is that people are often stuck in a rut and don’t think much of what could make them both happier and healthier, and how that could benefit other people.”
“Happiness and health. Almost as hard to find as happiness and virtue,” Henriette quipped.
“I think it can be found,” Ela said with resolution.
“By the way, how are your French classes going?” Henriette asked.
“They’re going okay,” Ela responded. “I was hoping to get to study with a native speaker, the way Anca did with Alain back in the nineties. But I’d rather not study with Alain. He seems rather wild.”
“Anca says there’s a French guy at Arte as well, but he doesn’t teach beginners. I figured I’d study with Anca for a while.”
Anca had been teaching at the Arte Educational Center for a year when Ela asked her to tutor her in French, and as she was back on her game as a teacher, she agreed.
Then Marcel found out about it. “You want to give Ela French lessons?” he asked one morning as Anca was getting ready to go to work.
“Yes,” Anca responded, looking out the kitchen window.
“Aren’t you trying to do too much?” Marcel went on, feeling a bit heated. “You’ve taken on translating again, and now this. Why do you do it?” He took a drag off his cigarette. “To annoy me?”
“You kill me with your smoking,” Anca said, waving away the tobacco fumes.
Marcel put out his cigarette. “You haven’t answered my question.”
Anca found it hard to look at her boyfriend. “You know why I do it,” she said after a long moment. “You know me.”
He lit up another cigarette absentmindedly.
“And I know you too,” Anca went on. “You’re so much more than this.”
“He’s so twisted,” Anca told Alice when they met in the city for coffee that day at lunch. “He resents me for living with him in a house I had no merit in building, but he also doesn’t want me to give him back the money. I told him once that I’d like to be able to pay him back, in time, for each day of living there, and he said it wouldn’t count, because without him I would still be paying rent. I don’t know what he wants from me! How I could make it right, I mean. And it’s not even his money. His parents sold their downtown apartment and some artwork and built this house. And bought an apartment for themselves and his grandma.” She ran a hand through her short hair. “There’s no way out of this, and it’s ruining our whole relationship.”
“It also seems to be ruining your life. I noticed you’re always thinking of ways to make more money,” Alice said.
“Yes, but I’ve always been that way,” Anca said, sighing. “We were so much happier before. He didn’t question my feelings for him. Now he’s picking on Phil. He’s so insecure. I don’t even know how to behave anymore. And the more I try to make money, the more I resent him for being so complacent.” She lay back in her chair.
“How is he being complacent?” Alice asked.
“He’s content to be just a high school teacher. He doesn’t give private lessons, he doesn’t translate, even though he’s more talented at languages than I am. . . . And he doesn’t cook, either. He’s too much of a man. And when we split the receipts, he pays me only for produce and other foodstuffs. My time and effort don’t count.”
“Then don’t cook,” Alice said, slowly breaking a piece off her croissant. “For a while, at least, until he sees what it feels like to go through a week or two without real food.” She tasted her croissant, crispy on the outside and smooth, stretchy, buttery on the inside. “You could eat in town. You have the money.”
“I could . . .”
“If all else fails, you can leave him,” Alice said, looking sternly at her friend. “Speaking of which, why don’t you leave him? For a trial period.”
“Because it could turn out to be for good,” Anca said. “And I’ve invested too much in this relationship.”
“Really?” Alice said, in mock surprise. “That’s your argument?”
“I love him,” Anca said powerfully. “Not for what he is now, but for what he was and what I think he can be again. He’s not being himself these days. He’s either trying too hard or sabotaging any chance at happiness.”
“If you say so,” Alice put in, skeptical.
To be continued . . .