Saturday, April 03, 2010

Happiness Lost

I've never watched a single episode of ABC's Lost. But I have still managed to accumulate some knowledge of the show over the last five years. Beyond the general premise that a bunch of people are stranded on an island after a plane crash, I'm aware that there are a bunch of numbers that need to be punched in on something, I know that there is some kind of hatch, I know that there is a guy named John Locke (and there is another guy named after another philosopher, but he might be dead). I know there was a guy named Desmond, but he might be dead now. But then again I think there were dead people who are now alive. I know there is a mysterious group of "others" who live on the island. And I'm aware that the characters often have visions or hallucinations that reveal that they were connected even before the plane crash. And there was once a polar bear on the island, I think.

The reason I know these things is because fans of the show are unafraid to discuss plot points with each other in public, or on-line, such as in facebook status updates. Why do people who watch Lost talk to each other about Lost? There can be only one reason-- it must make them happy to do so. But what is inherently pleasing about talking about a show that from all outward appearances is patently ridiculous?

According to this New York Times article, the answer may be found in a recent study, (which I found to be so interesting that I feel it justifies my use of the annoying term "recent study"). The study's conclusion: the more you engage in "small talk," the less happy you are, and the more that you have "deep discussion" the happier you become. The author of the study (Matthias Mehl) offers an explanatory theory: “By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world.”

The world of Lost is, from all accounts, even more chaotic than our real-life existence. But on a weekly basis, viewers of the show are given just enough fodder to fashion theories that may give structure and meaning to this dreamed-up world. And then to take those theories and engage with the theories of others brings a whole new dimension of pleasure to the interpretive experience. And there is an added benefit to this as well, as further explicated by Dr. Mehl in discussing why deep conversation leads to happiness: "interpersonally, as you find this meaning, you bond with your interactive partner, and we know that interpersonal connection and integration is a core fundamental foundation of happiness.”

But there is of course a difference between a discussion about meaning in Lost and meaning in real life. There are no stakes in our investment in Lost. We have nothing to lose if we are wrong, but nothing to gain if we are right. Therefore, the construction of meaning is its own intrinsic reward. Meanwhile, the conversations we have about meaning in the larger drama we call "real life" are laced with consequences and fraught with peril. We might offend those we engage with. We might end up confronting things we don't want to confront. And we might end up acknowledging realities that once acknowledged, would force us to re-consider our very identities and make us alter behaviors that we are in no hurry to alter. It's much safer to comment on that beautiful weather we've been having. But perhaps it takes more than sunny skies (and commenting on sunny skies) to make us happy. Maybe we need something a little deeper, starting with the acknowledgement that we have some things in common with the passengers of Flight 815.


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