In Dashiell Hammet’s classic detective novel The Maltese Falcon, hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade tells a fascinating anecdote about a time he was hired to track down a man named Flitcraft.
Flitcraft was a wealthy and happily married real-estate investor with two boys, a house in the suburbs of Tacoma, and a fondness for golf. One afternoon he left his office downtown Tacoma to go for lunch when a massive beam fell from an office building 10 floors above him and crashed to the sidewalk next to him, nearly killing him.
He never went home; his wife and kids never saw him again.
Instead, that afternoon, Flitcraft went to Seattle and from there took a boat to San Francisco. He wandered around for a few years before eventually drifting back to the Pacific Northwest, where he settled in Spokane, a mere five-hour drive from Tacoma.
Eventually someone informed Mrs. Flitcraft that they had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband, so she hired Sam Spade to track him down.
Here’s what Spade discovered: after returning to the Pacific Northwest, Flitcraft had gotten out of real estate and started a successful car dealership. He remarried a woman very similar to his first wife, had another son, bought a house in the suburbs of Spokane, and returned to playing golf.
In other words, except for a few superficial details, his life was almost identical to the one he had been living before his near-death experience. At the end of the anecdote Sam Spade marvels in his stereotypically hard-boiled fashion, “I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked.”
And that’s the part of it that, personally, I’ve always disliked. I’ve always chafed at this phenomenon that now goes by the name of “hedonic adaptation” or the “hedonic treadmill” but could just as easily be called the Flitcraft Syndrome. I’ve always disliked this annoying tendency we have to “settle back naturally in the same groove” and return to the same basic level of happiness despite major positive or negative life changes.
Don’t get me wrong—I have absolutely no desire to ditch my family and go MIA without a word. None. But I’ll admit that, like Flitcraft, I do occasionally fantasize that some ill-defined yet radical upheaval in my life might just . . . make me happier.
But what if Dashiell Hammett is right and Flitcraft’s fate would await us all? As Spade says of Flitcraft: “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.” In other words, regardless of what the “falling beam” may be in our own lives—a seemingly negative event (like getting paralyzed) or seemingly positive (like winning the lottery)—several famous studies have shown that we have a natural tendency to return to the same level of happiness we were at prior to the major life-event.*
So if it is indeed the case that even after dramatic upheavals in life we, like Flitcraft, just “settle back naturally in the same groove,” well then . . . maybe need to try something different, something that actually works.
Rather than wanting what we haven’t got, like Flitcraft, or not wanting what we haven’t got, like Sinead O’Connor, maybe there’s a way to want what we’ve already got, like . . . like . . . Nasruddin.
Yes, Nasruddin, the wise buffoon or holy fool from all the classic Persian wisdom tales.
Here’s Nasruddin’s technique for rekindling a genuine desire for what we already have:
Nasruddin came across a bereft traveler at a crossroads, sitting disconsolately on the roadside with his baggage, and asked the sorry-looking soul what was bothering him.
“Brother,” sighed the man, “there is not a single thing in life left for me. I have enough money to live comfortably, and I’m traveling only because there is nothing of sufficient interest compelling me to stay home. I realize I seek happiness, but thus far in my long journey I have not found it.”
“Happiness is not where you seek it, but where you find it,” observed Nasruddin.
“Whatever do you mean?” asked the stranger.
Without a word or change of expression, Nasruddin seized the traveler’s belongings and hightailed it down the road, with the man trailing behind him screaming at him to stop. Nasruddin outpaced him and, since he knew the shortcuts, was able to double back behind the man. As Nasruddin approached he saw the traveler was once again sitting on the side of the road, crying with his head in his hands, even more unhappy than before because of the loss of his luggage.
Silently he crept up behind the traveler and placed the bags near him, then moved to a concealed spot to observe. When the miserable man finished weeping and looked around, he couldn’t believe his eyes: there was his baggage, waiting for him. Overjoyed, he ran and grabbed the bags, embracing them to his chest. As the traveler danced and spun around overjoyed at the return of his things, it seemed to Nasruddin that he looked like in an ecstatic dervish, whirling with a bag of laundry in each hand.
“At least,” thought Nasruddin, satisfied with the outcome, “he has discovered one way of producing happiness.”
Nasruddin’s method for “producing happiness” is fairly straightforward: to genuinely appreciate and derive joy from the things you take for granted—whether your “baggage” is your husband or kids, your job or home, your health or your life—all you need is a lived experience of losing them. And then recovering them again.
It’s like that classic Joni Mitchell line: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?” Or as William Irvine writes in A Guide to the Good Life, “The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.”
But notice that, as Nasruddin points out, happiness is indeed “produced” in this tale; it’s not something that can be consumed or sought, and it’s not something that happens by simply letting go. No, things must be taken from us. And then the things we’ve lost must be returned. Nasruddin’s strategy is a set of very deliberate, precise, and active actions.
As is often the case, the bereft traveler’s pursuit of happiness is, ironically, the very thing that blinds him to the fact that he already possesses the means to be happy. We don’t need anything else. We just need a new relationship to what we already have. And if we can do this with simple items like luggage, then presumably all we have to do is apply the same practice in order to appreciate bigger-ticket items, just as the traveler, by the end of this tale, has the means to value both his wealth (“I have enough money to live comfortably”) and his home (which he left because there was “nothing of sufficient interest compelling [him] to stay home.”)
But how many of us are really willing to give up what we’ve got, even if we know damn well we’re taking it for granted? It’s just too risky, isn’t it? While Nasruddin’s method is certainly a lot less reckless and objectionable than Flitcraft’s gambit, it’s still a bit unnerving. Are you ready to go around giving up all the things in your life you take for granted just so you might be able renew your appreciation of them? And don’t forget that after Nasruddin steals the traveler’s bags, the traveler is “even more unhappy” than before. Who’s willing to put up with that, especially if we’re not even sure our “bags” are ever going to be replaced? Better the devil you know and all that stuff, right?
Okay, then maybe what we need is a practice that will allow us to relinquish and then recover what we’re taking for granted without actually having to relinquish anything. What if our appreciation of even the simplest things in our lives can be dramatically heightened by an imaginative experience of their loss and recovery? What if we could do to ourselves what Nasruddin does to the bereft traveler, without really having to do anything at all? As luck would have it, Anita Barrows offers us just such a practice in her haunting poem “Lessons from Darkness”:
Everything you love will perish. Try saying this to yourself
at breakfast, watching the amber-colored tea
swirl in the teapot. Try it on the tree, the clouds, the dog
asleep under the table, the sparrow taking a bath
in the neighbor’s gutter. A magician’s act: Presto!
On a morning you feel open enough to embrace it
imagine it gone. Then pack the child’s lunch: smooth the thick
peanut butter, the jeweled raspberry preserves,
over the bread. Tell yourself the world
must go on forever. This is why
you feed her, imagining the day—orderly—
unfolding, imagining what you teach her
is true. Is something she will use. This is why, later, you will go out
into the garden, among the calendula, rosemary, hibiscus,
run your finger along the trunk of hawthorn
as though it were the body
of a lover, thinking of the child
on the steps of the schoolyard, eating her sandwich. Thinking nothing,
transparent air, where her hands are.
Now you might find the idea of contemplating the death of your loved ones, or even your beloved things, depressing or even downright morbid. But what if one way to be truly alive and live in genuine appreciation and gratitude is precisely by making it your business, every once in a while, to do exactly this?
The practice is a simple one, with deep and ancient roots in both Stoic** and Buddhist*** philosophy and, through them, in contemporary Humanistic psychology:****
1. First, wait for a morning on which you feel “open enough.”
2. Then, starting with small inanimate objects like the tea swirling in a teapot, or a tree, or some clouds, remind yourself that “everything you love will perish” and “imagine them gone.”
3. Now, in a sort of graded-exposure exercise, do the same thing with sentient beings like the dog under the table or the sparrow in your neighbor’s gutter.
4. Finally, move on to someone you love, like a daughter, or granddaughter, or niece, and imagine her on the steps of her schoolyard, eating something like a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich you made for her. Then imagine her gone: “Think nothing, transparent air, where her hands are.”
Why would anyone do such a thing?
Because it’s true, for one thing. As Paul Newman says in Hud, “No one gets out of life alive.” And because, for another, it has the power to unlock our full appreciation and love by disclosing the true poignancy and preciousness of life.
Besides, when’s the last time you erotically caressed a hawthorn tree?
* See, for example, this classic 1978 study “Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?” by a trio of researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts: http://psycnet.apa.org/record/1980-01001-001
** For instance, in one of the most controversial passages in Stoic literature, the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus says, “What harm is there while you are kissing your child to say softly, ‘Tomorrow you will die;’ and likewise to your friend, ‘Tomorrow either you or I will go away, and we shall see each other no more.” (Discourses, 3.24.84-8) Similarly, in his essay “On Tranquility,” the Roman Stoic Seneca writes, “Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune.” In his letter “To Marcia” Seneca also writes, “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” (Seneca, “To Marcia,” IX.5)
*** In Psychotherapy Without the Self, for example, Mark Epstein recounts a much-loved anecdote when the renowned meditation master Ajahn Chah was asked to explain the Buddha’s teaching, and he offered the following object-lesson:
He motioned to a glass sitting to one side of him. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course’. But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”
**** As Robert Emmons points out in his book Gratitude Works! late in his life the celebrated Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote, “It is vital that people count their blessings, to appreciate what they possess without having to undergo its actual loss. . . . One method is to imagine that someone you care about might die or will die soon. Think as vividly as you can how you would feel, what you would truly lose, and about how you would be sorry.”
Barrows, Anita. 2016. We are the Hunger. American Fork, Utah: Kelsay Books.
Epstein, Mark. 2008. Psychotherapy Without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
Hammett, Dashiell. 1929. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Suresha, Ron. 2010. The Uncommon Sense of the Immortal Mullah Nasruddin: Stories, Jests, and Donkey Tales of the Beloved Persian Folk Hero. Maple Shade, New Jersey: Lethe Press.