May 19, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
Pierre Berge, the long-term lover and business partner of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, has been in the news. Friday marked the U.S. release of a French documentary about the relationship between the two men, and everyone is abuzz about the film’s attention to the frantic 2009 Christie’s mega-auction of the more than 700 art objects the men jointly collected during their 50 years together. The film’s title: L’Amour Fou – in English, Crazy Love.
Saint Laurent was complex, as creative genius often is. The relationship between the two men anything but simple, as relationships mixing the personal and professional rarely are. The art was indeed something – and the auction netted close to $500 million dollars. And Saint Laurent was a colorful public character with an enviable array of riches beyond the astounding collection: he had talent, fame, fortune, physical attractiveness, a profitable outlet for his creative expression, a comfortable life surrounded by beauty, a long-term relationship with someone who cared, influence in his field and beyond, access to people and international opportunities, and more.
I was struck, however, by Berge’s comment in a New York Times interview: Saint Laurent “was a very, very unhappy, unhappy guy.” He lived in misery and depression despite his success – and “even with a wonderful collection.” He eventually descended into alcohol and drugs.
The story begs the 64 thousand dollar question: what does it take to make someone happy? Think about your life. What makes you happy? Chances are your list includes the expected: a good job, family, friends, success, home, life partner, contribution. But even having it all doesn’t assure happiness. Just look at Saint Laurent.
Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert, offers insights into why that is so. Basically, we’re all poor predictors of what will make us happy: choices we make in the short run don’t deliver as anticipated. Couple that with the fact that everyone wants happiness – it ranks above money and health, according to research by University of Illinois professor and happiness guru, Ed Diener – and you can see the problem.
We all want something that we’re not very good at getting for ourselves – and as a result, some version of the Yves Saint Laurent misery story could easily become our own.
Accomplish much. Live out dreams, passions, and talents. Choose a path – and a partner, hobby, and vocation – that we think will make us happy. Work hard. Build a credible and influential track record – and end up unhappy. A sobering thought.
We don’t help the world or ourselves when we’re miserable. And Saint Laurent’s story reminds us that, even if we’re content, we’re apt to run into unhappy others in unexpected places. Fake it ‘til you make it strategies are, well, fake. They can’t be sustained over time. What will get you closer to the happiness prize – and help others do the same?
Research and experience support two routes: (1) embrace mindfulness, and (2) give yourself permission to change, grow, and develop.
You don’t need to be a Zen master to employ the first. Mindfulness is basically training yourself to stay alert to the present and to enjoy it in all its richness.
On any journey, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details and complexity of the travel, focus excessively on the destination – are we there yet? – and fall into complaints about what and how long it takes to arrive.
An alternative: engage every moment of the trip. Enjoy the scenery, the newness of each place, your progress. See detours and delays as opportunities. Find splendor in the rush, the surprises, the unexpected. If Gilbert’s research is right, by the time you arrive at your final destination, you’ll wish you were somewhere else anyway. You might as well enjoy the process of getting there.
Second, give yourself permission to experiment and to change. Deepak Chopra, in Why is God Laughing: The Path to Joy and Spiritual Optimism, makes a case for how fear and ego lock us into patterns of behavior. We keep on doing what we’re doing even if it no longer works for us – or, worse yet, even if it never worked.
Happiness is, after all, more than happy feelings, concludes Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, in his hot, new book Flourish. It’s finding ways to spend time daily on the things that matter – and being honest with ourselves about how we actually use our time and about what really matters most.