Thursday, August 13, 2009



When I practiced law, I learned the real meaning of the word “unhappiness.” I have garbled memories about my months in practice. Impressions flitter back to me without warning. No matter how they reappear, they put a bitter taste in my mouth. They confirm to me that I made the right decision to abandon the legal profession. They remind me just how awful I felt every day in a law office.

Before I practiced law, I never thought much about the concepts “happiness” and “unhappiness.” In my young mind, happiness was uncomplicated; it simply meant that you generally “felt good” in your circumstances and that “nothing was wrong.” Applying that definition, “unhappiness,” too, was easy to understand. It was just the “opposite of feeling good.” “Unhappiness” depended on “happiness.” If I knew one, I could abstractly imagine the other. I never considered that “unhappiness” could have an independent meaning.

It does. The mere fact that the word “unhappiness” contains the word “happiness” does not mean that “unhappiness” depends on “happiness.” To the contrary, “unhappiness” is a unique, pervasive, all-consuming feeling of malaise that darkens your entire outlook on life. It is not merely the absence of happiness; it is much more. It is a poisonous, enervating, hopeless mental condition. When you are unhappy, life appears bleak and pointless. Days pass slowly, even torturously. You just want to lie down and go to sleep. You expect bad news at every turn. When you are unhappy, you do not think to yourself: “I am not happy.” You think: “I am unhappy; and unhappiness has nothing to do with happiness.”

Practicing law made me unhappy. I could not bear to get up in the morning. I would lie in bed and pray that the minutes on the clock would not pass. From the moment I walked into the office, difficulties arose. My supervisor would yell at me for failing to make a phone call or fax something. She would reject my explanations with vague advice, such as: “You need to do better, remember more and move faster.” Of course, she never told me how to make people answer the phone or return calls. Nor could she tell me how to make the U.S. Mail move more quickly. Whenever I mustered the effort to fulfill her requests, she had a fresh rebuke for me. She called me names and told me she would dock my pay if I kept “fucking things up.” I tried to emphasize that no one had trained me. She told me to train myself by reading a 900-page “best practices manual.”

I felt disillusioned. I entered law practice after a very successful law school career. I thought my academic success would carry over into practice. It did not. Whenever I talked about legal theory, I was told to be quiet and do “case management” instead. That meant making phone calls and setting up appointments with doctors and engineers. Law had nothing to do with my practice. It was an elaborate horse-trading game that happened to revolve around a courthouse. All the while, intimidating people besieged me from all sides. My own supervisor told me I was incompetent. My adversaries called our lawsuits “baseless, stupid and worthy of sanction.” I even made judges angry because my supervisor instructed me to file idiotic motions in court. In short, I was castigated for following orders as often I was for failing to follow them. It was classic Catch-22 material.

My life degenerated into pure negativity. Nothing ever felt right. No matter what I did, I expected to be insulted, censured or criticized. I never received even one encouraging word from anyone. I remember losing interest in everything, even things I really liked. My libido vanished. Lawyers in my firm sympathized with me. But they, too, endured the same hardships I did; they had little time to worry about me.

And I could not escape. I stayed in the office for 11 hours or more for six days a week. I had no vacation time. I received cell phone calls before and after I left the office. The bad news and mean-spirited criticism never ended. Six months into my law practice experience, goodness seemed to have evaporated from my existence. It had become one grim, emasculating failure after another with no end in sight. My boss even reneged on a promise to increase my salary after six months, explaining: “You haven’t earned it yet.”

That’s when I learned what “unhappiness” really meant. I quit. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Since then, life has dealt me more tough cards. But at least I do not face ridicule, scorn and criticism every hour. I happier now than I was when I practiced law. In any event, I know I am not “unhappy” anymore.

Could anyone be happy in such circumstances? I remember something my supervisor said to me one Friday evening. It was about 6 PM. I was working on something that had to be done on Monday; there was still a long way to go. I knew I was going to be back in the office on Saturday, but I wanted to knock some work out before the weekend. Everyone else had gone home except my supervisor. She wanted to leave, too. So she came into my office and said: “Would you wrap it up? You’re cutting into my drinking time.”

I will never forget that. It made me seriously think about life, careers, happiness and success. Here was a successful law firm manager who divided life between “work time,” namely, Monday morning through Friday afternoon, and “drinking time,” namely, Friday afternoon through Sunday evening. When she said “I was cutting into her drinking time,” she implied that she drank at any moment she wasn’t working. For her, life was binary: Working and drinking. She must have liked drinking, because she did not like the fact that I was keeping her at work during her drinking time. If she had liked working, she would not have minded staying at work for a few more hours. But she was upset because I was encroaching on “her time,” and in “her time,” she liked drinking.

I am sure this is a common sentiment. But what does it really say about happiness and success in America? People are so proud of their jobs, especially people—like my supervisor—who achieve prominence and wealth. Yet despite this pride, they always yearn for days off so they can go get drunk. People say they love their work. But if they would prefer drinking to work, are they really being honest with themselves? Sigmund Freud wrote that intoxication is the “purest, most effective method” by which to ward off unhappiness. Civilization and its Discontents, S. 44 (Fischer Verlag, 10th Ed. 2007). Drinking “drowns cares.” If my supervisor loved drinking, she must have had “cares” she wanted to “drown.” This showed me that, beneath the collected exterior, she was somehow unhappy, too. She may not have been abjectly unhappy, but she must have been unhappy enough to want to drink as soon as she got home on Friday night. My unhappiness sprang both from my ill treatment and my disillusionment with a profession that cared nothing for the principles I struggled so long to master. My supervisor’s unhappiness came from some other source. I do not know what made her unhappy. She was powerful and had much more money than I did. She commanded people around the office and owned three apartments. Yet she was upset with me because I delayed her weekly rendezvous with the bottle.

Can we ever really find happiness in employment? It seems that every working person “lives for the weekend.” I know I do whenever I work a “traditional job.” I do not delude myself by saying “I love my job.” I do not like being a servant. I do not like sacrificing my time for a few dollars. Sure, in many cases it is necessary to sacrifice time for money. But that does not mean I like it. That is why I meticulously count the days toward Friday. During the week, a part of my mind always resents the idea that I am stuck doing someone else’s bidding for a shekel or two. Friday, however, represents a liberation from service. Working people divide their mental lives between weekdays and weekends. Weekdays are boring, stressful and unsatisfying. Weekends are exciting, free and fun-filled. The human brain does not like stress, obligation and constraint. Yet it loves freedom and fun. If it came between weekdays and weekends—and if money were not an issue—everyone would choose the weekend: Who would willingly face stress and obligation if there were no compensation for the pain? That is just the way our minds work. It is easier to be happy when you do not face stress, ridicule and failure. Even if you do not face extreme pressure at work, you still have to show up and sit in one place for over eight hours a day. Your brain would much rather be doing other things during that time, like drinking, sunbathing, shopping or surfing. That’s just the way we are, no matter how much guilt-ridden social programming we’ve absorbed to the contrary. We are trained to say “we love to work at traditional jobs.” But this is self-delusion.

Ironically, traditional jobs tend strongly to induce unhappiness. They consume time, leaving only limited opportunities for personal satisfactions. The fact that so many people—even wildly successful people—yearn to drink on Friday night is compelling evidence that people would “rather not be working” if they had the choice. More to the point, the persistent mental distinction between “workday drab” and “weekend fun” vibrantly illustrates that employment makes people unhappy. Workdays are “unhappy time” and weekends are “happy time.” It is childishly simple, yet accurate. “Weekend fun” makes us “happy.” “Weekday drab” runs us down, then thirst for “fun.” Without sufficient “fun” in our lives, we are not “happy.” We may not be truly “unhappy,” but we set ourselves up for unhappiness.

All this makes me wonder whether our entire social program even cares whether people achieve happiness. We learn to work at traditional jobs. We hear rhetoric about it all the time. It is “good” to have a stable job. It is “good” to know your place in the workplace hierarchy. It is “good” to spend your best years serving some company’s economic interests. And it is “good” to make money in the process. We hear that it is important to “be happy.” But how can we be happy if we spend 72% of our lives (ie, 5 days from every 7) wishing it were the weekend? Is it “good” to be happy only 28% of the time? Against this background, it almost seems revolutionary to want happiness 100% of the time. No offense to office workers, but if you say you are “100% happy” at your job copying papers, answering phones, staring at spreadsheets, delivering coffee and cataloging documents, I don’t believe you. I know that every Wednesday morning you secretly say to yourself: “Only two more days to go….only two more days to go.”

Happiness should not be a revolutionary sentiment. I made it my goal in life. I have experienced unhappiness. It is deeply unsettling. It makes you doubt life altogether. It makes you just want to give up. Still, avoiding unhappiness is more difficult than it seems. In our society, we learn to serve. We learn to spend our time to benefit others in order to win some monetary reward. Only a few have the freedom to spend their time as they please. But happiness lies in the power to say: “I will do what I want to do.” On weekends, working people say: “I will do what I want to do,” and they do what they want. On weekdays, they say: “I must” and they do not do what they want to do.

This is not a good recipe for happiness. Yet this is the program we’ve received from day one. When we sit in an office dreaming about the weekend, we understand just how little time we have to be happy in this world. Freud put it best when he said: “Our chances for happiness are already limited by our constitution as living organisms. But it is much less difficult to experience unhappiness.” Civilization and its Discontents, S. 43 (my translation) (Fischer Verlag, 10th ed. 2007).

When we divide our time between “work days” and “drinking days,” we obviously don’t like the work days as much as the drinking days. Yet we work much more often than we drink. Where does that leave us? Or do we drink because we work? If we do, what does that say about work? Should we defend it so proudly?


Timoteo said...

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of, happiness. I guess it kind of IS the way they portray it on Boston Legal.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

You're more right than you know. Lawyers are among the most substance-abusing, drunken professions in the world. Starting in our first year in law school, we got warnings about it. After law school, the Bar Association told us there was an "Alcoholics Hotline." Basically, lawyers go to work from morning to night, argue, bicker, try to make money, find new clients then get drunk at any moment they aren't doing the other things I mentioned.