How to Handle Bad Luck
For thousands of years, wise observers have pointed out that whatever's in charge of the universe "maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." And for thousands of years, the rest of us have answered: "Wait—what?" No matter how routinely it happens, we're shocked and appalled to see good folks shivering in downpours of ill fortune while their villainous, luxuriantly tanned enemies send postcards from sunbaked beaches.
Perhaps this indignation arises from some innate sense of justice. That's what the French doctor Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard started testing in 1801, when he took on the care of Victor, a "wild child" who'd spent an estimated seven of his first 12 years in the woods (being raised by wolves...or squirrels—we'll never really know). Victor had only a rudimentary understanding of human language and social convention. Yet when Itard experimented by punishing him for behavior that usually earned him a reward, the poor child struggled mightily against his punishment.
Whether or not we're born with it, we're certainly socialized into the belief that the nickels and dimes of virtuous acts will drop snack-size potato chip bags of happiness into our lives. Our parents offer praise for obedience; our bosses give productive employees promotions and unproductive ones pink slips; our courts (at least try to) punish misbehavers and recompense the wronged. And of course, an endless stream of books, movies and TV shows offers us narratives in which the good guys win, over and over, while the bad guys ingloriously fail.
No wonder we're stunned when we follow the path of compliance into catastrophe. This doesn't feel like bad luck; it's like an unfathomable malfunction that, in the words of Anne Lamott, "would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish." While we're coping with our misfortune—the cancer, the divorce, the bankruptcy—we may also lose faith in the basic rightness of life itself. Some of us spend years kicking the cosmic vending machine, raging at anyone (parents, psychiatrists, lovers, politicians) who might be in a position to cough up the happiness we've paid for, or at least give us our money back.
Of course, like any impossible task, this effort produces only exhaustion and despair. At some point, even the strongest burn out. Maybe you've reached this limit, plunging from violent outrage into numb nonresistance. Or perhaps—especially if your suffering has been intense—you've tried to find relief. Maybe you finally went to a therapist, or learned to meditate, or found yourself downward-dogging away in the yoga pants you swore you'd never wear.
These kinds of responses teach us to stop attacking the imaginary vending machine; instead, we sit down beside it, in all our furious disappointment, waiting for new insight to arise. And here's the thing—though this approach won't prevent a lifelong do-gooder from getting cancer or keep a lightning bolt from striking down the nicest person in town, that insight will arise. Following paths of stillness and curiosity, rather than rage and despair, we eventually make a fascinating discovery: Although the righteousness-reward theory hasn't worked for us so far, it contains a bright thread of truth. There is a kind of virtue that really does buy happiness. The problem is, we've been taught to use the wrong kind of virtue and expect the wrong kind of reward. We've been plunking euros into a machine geared for dollars, expecting chocolate from a machine that contains only fresh fruit. To get the machine functioning correctly, we need to tweak a couple of definitions.
Let's consider virtue first. Most of us have been taught that it's a trait synonymous with adherence to social rules: our family's way of loving, our peer group's way of achieving, our social class's politics and manners. We think it's virtuous to do what other people want. We may believe this so deeply that we override our innate inclinations. Psychologist Stanley Milgram famously designed a study in which a researcher instructed ordinary people to administer painful electric shocks to a fellow study participant (actually there were no shocks; the subject was an actor pretending to be in pain). Even when they heard a fellow human screaming and begging for mercy, many people went on shocking him just because a scientist intoned, "The experiment requires that you continue." Following rules? Not always virtuous, it seems.
Now consider happiness. You may believe it comes from external phenomena: praise, money, status, adoration. But even when we attain these things, the happiness they create is temporary and unreliable. External rewards may bring a surge of elation, but it quickly fades, leaving the millionaire still fearing financial loss, the beloved actor still suicidal, the aging supermodel still hating her body. If you've experienced this pattern—effort, followed by achievement, followed by elation, followed by a letdown—you may still be tenaciously striving, thinking just a little more money, fame or beauty will make you happy. Observe the evidence. Save your strength.