A Less Traveled Road to Happiness

Paul WongPaul T. P. Wong
Ph.D. C.Psych
Toronto, Ontario


I am moved and overwhelmed by all the responses I have received since I shared the harrowing story of my struggles with pain. I’m sorry that I don’t have the time and energy to respond to each one who took time to write me, but I want to express my heart-felt gratitude to all those who shared with me what they have gone through.

Together, their stories make a far more compelling case for “dark happiness” and “tragic optimism” than my personal experience. I wish I could have all the responses edited and compiled to benefit more people.

To all those who are concerned about my health, I am pleased to report that I am on the mend. Each day, I am grateful that I am finally freed from the grave stomach pain, even though I am still struggling with health issues.

The joy of rejoining the land of the living

Last Friday evening, I suggested to my wife that we should enjoy a night out after what we had gone through in recent weeks. She decided on an Italian restaurant.

The aroma from the grill already triggered my salivation even before we entered the canopied restaurant door – reflecting a good omen that my appetite had returned!

After we were seated, I began to look around. Even though the decor was upscale and subdued, there was an upbeat buzz and a happy family atmosphere about the place.

On the left across from our table, a pink-cheeked little boy (about 3 years old) was with his mother; he used his hand to fill his mouth with French fries with voracity and concentration. My eyes were affixed on this boy with curly hair. I said to myself: Here is a picture of pure happiness – immediate, simple, innocent, and carefree, unadulterated by awareness of all the evils in this world.

On the right across from our table, there were two elderly couples, well-dressed and genteel; they were smiling and apparently having a good time together. A well known Chinese verse sprang to mind: “The sunset is beautiful beyond compare, but alas the evening is nigh!”

Right next to our table was a family of five, with three teen-aged children; they often burst out laughing as they passed around the pictures they had taken, probably during their vacation. This happy family immediately brought back many memories of my own family dinners in different restaurants.

Oh the sweet-sorrow of childhood memories! Both of my parents were long dead. My oldest brother passed away just a few months ago. My second older brother is dying of cancer. The remaining members of my family have been scattered to the four corners of the world. The good times of family dinners only live on in memory.

The waitress, a cheerful and energetic young lady, jolted me back to the present, as she placed a platter of chicken salad before me. It was a delightful dinner; everything was so delicious and fresh.

For me, eating is more than a culinary pleasure, more than a life-sustaining activity, and more than a family-bonding event. It has become an act of celebration and worship after so many weeks without a proper meal. What a privilege to be able to eat! Food symbolizes all the sacrifices others have made and the blessings I have received!

At the restaurant, I felt like reaching out to all the people sitting around me, and telling them how much I enjoy their company. I curbed my humanistic urge only because I did not want to embarrass my wife, who is, unlike me, always very proper especially in social settings.

All the time we were in the restaurant, I could not help but thinking: How wonderful it would be for the human family to sit around a large dinner table and celebrate life together. Beneath the different identity labels, deep down we are all human beings, sharing the same hopes and fears.

It is truly depressing that there are still so many barriers separating people on the basis of race, religion or ideology!

After dinner, I felt very tired from all the noise; so we decided to call it a night. On the way home, I asked myself sub-vocally: Is fine dining a symbol of the good life or a metaphor for a transitory respite from the noxious world in which we live? Which perspective represents the reality?

The above musing surprises even myself! Perhaps, my mental state indicates that while I enjoy being back to the land of the living, I am still not out of the twilight zone yet. This vantage point gives me a unique perspective on what constitutes happiness and the good life.

Here is my latest thinking on this topic. Once again, I would appreciate critical feedback, especially from happiness researchers.

Living vitally in a noxious world

Recently, I am troubled by the ubiquitous presence of the noxious world, which has affected so many of my friends.

When it rains, it pours. Problems tend to occur in bundles, as in the case of Job in the Old Testament. Just within last week, I received so many bad news from people I know well; here are just a few examples:

A brilliant research career coming to an end

Yesterday I received an email from a friend who had just gone through chemotherapy for the second time. He referred to it as “a very hard journey.” To make things worse, his wife has just been diagnosed with cancer.

Less then two years ago, he was the paragon of vitality and optimism, crisscrossing the globe and thriving on giving invited lectures and keynote addresses. He has reached the zenith of his career, having collected many honors and awards. He is widely cited and recognized as the authority in his field. But now, he is going through physical and psychic pain and facing an uncertain future. He is frustrated with losing the grip on his life, especially in keeping up with research and publication.

I immediately wrote him back, sharing with him my own struggle with cancer, validating his lasting impact on neuroscience, and offering to pray for him. As a strong empiricist who only believes that the positivist methodology is the best solution for all problems, how would he react to my prayer support?

I have been wrestling with this question for some time: Where do people find comfort and hope in the darkest hour of their lives, if they believe that material is the only thing that matters, and God is nothing more than a convenient social construction? Could they find ultimate meaning and unwavering faith on their death-beds without believing in a supernatural and transcendental reality?

A young mother diagnosed with breast cancer

Just a few minutes ago, another friend sent me an update of the medical status of his wife who was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks ago: “The condition is worse than we had hoped, but not as bad as we had feared, so we're experiencing a mix of relief, hope, and trepidation as we look at a difficult road ahead. The bottom line is that the cancer is an invasive type, is spreading within the breast, and is present in the lymph nodes under her arm and possibly in those on the other side of her breast. It is estimated to be a late stage 2 or a stage 3 cancer.”
This news made me feel very sad and helpless. All I could offer them is my prayers and moral support.

Many years ago my research assistant Betty died of breast cancer. Two days before she died, I visited her in the hospital. A beautiful woman was reduced to a 70-lb skinny bald-headed child in a fetal position! That image still haunts me whenever I hear about breast-cancer.

I still remember what Betty said to me after radical mastectomy: “There are two kinds of people in this world: the normal people and the cancer patients. Normal people do not understand what we cancer patients are going through.”

Now, I fully understand what she meant – she was talking about the parallel universe! Yes, cancer changes people in a fundamental way. For those living in the light of terminal cancer, their ultimate concerns and life goals are very different from those who are still preoccupied with personal happiness and career success.

Struck by lightning from a sunny sky

Two days ago, my son’s future father-in-law underwent an 8-hour surgery to remove two cancerous tumors from his brain. Half of his body remained paralyzed, and the prognosis was not good.

Less than two weeks prior, the whole family was still caught up in the excitement of preparing for the forthcoming wedding of their only daughter to my son. Suddenly, as if struck by a thunderbolt on a bright and sunny day, he became paralyzed and was rushed to the hospital. He is only 61 years young, a strong and healthy mountain climer! Brain scan revealed two tumors. Surgery confirmed that the tumors were cancerous.

No one is immune from suffering, not even innocent children. How could we reach out to those plunged into the noxious world without any warning? How could we reduce their pain and uplift their spirit?

My son said that the situation was very serious and the only hope that sustained them was their faith in Jesus.

Who can understand the power and mystery of faith? People can rationalize faith in cognitive and scientific terms. They can explain away all miracles. But for those going through hell, as I once did, the only thing that matters is faith.

Too young to die

In the first lecture of my Death and Dying Course way back in January, I asked my students a pointed question: “If you were told by the doctors that you have an inoperable cancer and you only have one year to live, how would you live your life? Would you live differently?”

Little did I know that one young woman in my class was actually facing this very challenge!

Yesterday, when I started reading her class project, I was shocked to discover that throughout the semester, she was dying of brain cancer. Her project is entitled: Requiem: A search for meaning. It was a collection of her journal entries, poems, prayers, pictures and other neat creative expressions. The subtitle of her project: “This is my story about the desperate search to hold on to life while preparing for the next.”

On her first journal entry dated May 12, 2007, she wrote: “I went in to the doctors today and they had my test results. They figured out why I have such bad headaches and it is because I have a tumor pressing on my brain. The doctors say it is inoperable… They’ve told me that I only have a year max to live my life, but that in the final few months, it will get worse and I’ll start feeling worse. How can I feel worse than how I am feeling now?”

Now is April 12, 2008. She is only 22 years old! All through the semester, she has been involved in volley ball, drama, and choir, in addition to her full course load. In her second journal entry dated May 16, 2007, she wrote: “I’m going to live everyday to the fullest. I’m going to seek joy in everything that I do and I’m going to be happy and positive! I’m going to be as normal as possible.”

Of course, it has not been easy trying to be happy and positive in a noxious world of chronic suffering and impending death. Her struggle is nothing short of being heroic. I keep on returning to her journal, and trying to feel her pain as she struggles between yearning for love and the fear of breaking her lover’s heart; between longing for her dreams to be fulfilled and realizing the hopelessness of the situation.

Towards the end, she wrote: “I’m running out of time to live, running out of love to give, and running out of life within. God help me!” What has kept her going throughout her suffering is God’s promise, framed in the form of a letter to her from her Heavenly Father:

“I didn’t promise you days without pain, laugher without sorrow, sun without rain, but I did promise you strength for the day, comfort for the tears and light for the way. Your journey is not over yet, it’s only beginning! So stay strong, stay the course and find joy in what I offer you each and every day.”

At the end of her project, she wrote a letter to all her beloved friends:

“Let me take this time to apologize to you for not telling you about my illness. I only wanted to protect you all from the sadness I knew you would each face had I told you ahead of time of my departure.

I want to thank you for your friendship and that even though I am no longer a part of this world; will never forget all that you were to me.

If I have but one prayer for you, it is that you remember me in all that you do and that my life was a reflection of Jesus. Please do not shed tears over my death, but remain joyous in the knowledge that one journey has ended and another has begun for me.

I have finally returned home and I eagerly await your return as well, but until then, I shall leave you with a few words to ponder:

"All stories, even the ones we love, must eventually come to an end, and when they do, it’s only an opportunity for another to begin.”

My tears well up as I ponder her words. She has discovered the less traveled road to happiness in the light of her suffering and death.

Rick Warren’s noxious world

On Sunday, when my heart was heavy with all the bad news, the pastor preached on suffering. He quoted extensively from Rick Warren ‘s interview with Paul Bradshaw:

“This past year has been the greatest year of my life but also the toughest, with my wife, Kay, getting cancer. I used to think that life was hills and valleys - you go through a dark time, then you got to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don't believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it's kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on.

We discovered quickly that in spite of the prayers of hundreds of thousands of people, God was not going to heal Kay or make it easy for her. It has been very difficult for her, and yet God has strengthened her character, given her a ministry of helping other people, given her a testimony, drawn her closer to Him and to people...You have to learn to deal with both the good and the bad of life.”

Rick Warren is the founder of a mega church and a best-selling author. His Purpose-Driven Life has sold more than 15 million copies. He too has come to the conclusion that one cannot wish away or pray away the bad things in life, and that the noxious world is simply part of life.

Towards a balanced model of positive psychology

The above cases have made it abundantly clear one cannot exclusively focus on positive traits, positive experiences and positive affects. No matter how hard we try to avoid any reference to negativity, we cannot avoid it. No matter how hard we try to think positive, the noxious world can totally disrupt our normal lives in a blink of an eye.

I never thought about getting cancer, but I did. In all the stories I have just reported, none of them expected cancer, but cancer happened to them anyway. There are macro and micro forces that can severely limit personal agency and freedom of choice. Some people are genetically predisposed to cancer. Others are born and raised in a war-torn area, where death lurks at every corner. Even in the best of possible worlds, there are limitations to positive thinking, because at the end it will not spare people from suffering and death.

Accepting the grim reality

A balanced model of positive psychology accepts the dark sides of human existence and embraces the existential givens as an inherent part of life. It makes you feel good to focus on the positive, but it makes you resilient to also pay attention to the negative.

Suffering is real and it is not something in your mind -- it ravages your body and devastates your world as you know it. It leaves deep, gashing wounds on your body and your mind. And death is real – it will terminate your physical life, no matter how hard you try to keep physically and mentally fit.

Instead of focusing on positive traits, positive experiences and positive affects, the balanced model of positive psychology, the balanced model aims to make lives better for all people regardless of their circumstances. The balanced model is for the disenfranchised as much as it is for the privileged; for the noxious world as much as it is for the normal world.

While practicing a balanced model, one is grounded in reality and at the same time headed toward an ideal. One may never arrive at the preferred destination, but must feel happy for not surrendering to fate. It is in the midst of suffering that one discovers the less traveled road to happiness.

A different kind of happiness

The kind of happiness one finds in the noxious world is qualitatively and quantitative different from what people generally experience in the normal world.

It is difficult to understand dark happiness without personally experiencing it. It is like a lone star in a dark sky, a little wild flower beside a pile of wreckage, or a little silent stream in a desert.

But it is always there for those who dare to choose the narrow and rocky road; it is always there for those whose minds have been enlightened. Here are a few descriptors of dark happiness:

  1. It is contemplative and deep rather than energetic and upbeat.
  2. It is spiritual and compassionate rather than materialistic and competitive.
  3. It is easily contented with any reduction of pain or a return to some resemblance of normal life.
  4. It is primarily interested in maintaining a sense of equanimity no matter what happens.
  5. It seeks to wrestle some meaning from life in order to make suffering more bearable.
  6. It is rooted in faith, which is based on both beliefs and lived experiences.
  7. It is courageous and it confronts life’s adversities head-on.
  8. It is persistent and it never gives up on life.
  9. It expands your mind to transcendental and mystical realms.
  10. It approaches life with open hands and generous hearts.
  11. It hopes for the best but prepares for the worst.
  12. It says “yes” to life, even when life stinks.
  13. It is a balancing act between hope and despair, happiness and sorrow.
  14. It is a special gift in your desperation.
  15. It is resting in grace when everything else has failed you.
  16. It is singing praises while tears trickle down your cheeks.
  17. It is the feeling of being blessed while in the depth of mourning.

Is the above a description of my own emotional state, or is it a general portrait of dark happiness? I don’t know and would love to find out from others on the less traveled road.

But one thing I know for sure – no matter how unhappy or dissatisfied I am with the world condition or with my own life situation, there is always a special music in my heart – all is well with my soul, as long as I keep the faith.

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