The Pursuit of Unhappiness

I fly enough that it became sensible about a decade ago to buy an ongoing membership in my preferred airline’s “club”, which offers peace, quiet and free coffee away from the crush in the terminal. At one of the airline’s hubs, the club was remodelled a few years ago, bringing in very nice furniture, more space, high-quality computer terminals and wi-fi throughout. Travel through the hub became very pleasant for me, and I would sometimes even leave early for the airport to have an extra half hour in the club before a flight. I was perfectly satisfied. But then…

On a coach ticket before a long international flight, I was to my surprise given a free upgrade to business class as a reward for ruining my life by flying on the airline so much. I entered the airline club in my usual fashion, and was presented at check-in with a plastic card imprinted, for no obvious reason, with an arrow. I looked at desk attendant quizzically. “To get into the club”, she said. “This is the club” I responded. She shook her head and pointed to what looked like a glass wall. I walked over and noticed a small box with a slot in it, above which was an engraving similar to the mysterious arrow on the card. Feeling as if I had stumbled into a post-modernized film production of Alice in Wonderland, I put the magic card arrow first into the slot, and the glass wall slid silently aside. I walked through and was greeted by a second desk attendant, at the club inside of the club.

A mile long cornocopia of food and beverages awaited in this sumptious inner sanctum. Premium liquors and high-end wines were on offer at no charge. Solicitious staff members hovered over me, thanking me for flying and asking how they could make me even happier. I sipped a gobsmackingly fine champagne and reclined in a leather chair that cost more than my car, basking in luxury, exclusivity and the sense of having made it. Surely, life could get no better. Indeed, how could I ever have been so easily satisfied before in the crappy, third-rate regular club outside? I became a student of frequent flier programs, and upgraded to international business class on every flight.

And then one day at the club inside the club, the creeping anxiety came. The seed had been planted long ago, when the receipt of that very first magic card had undermined my faith that my own sense of satisfaction was a worthy guide to how happy I could become and what the world could offer to increase my joy. I set down my champagne, suddenly pensive, as the awful, unavoidable question came into my mind:

“Is there a better club inside the club that is inside the club, and why haven’t they let me in?”

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Unhappiness”

  1. Keith, if you really need posh airline clubs to become unhappy, you’re not a true student of the art of self-induced unhappiness. As any true expert knows, all that is required is being in need of a hammer. To wit:

    A man wants to hang a painting. He has the nail, but not the hammer. Therefore it occurs to him to go over to the neighbor and ask him to lend him his hammer. But at this point, doubt sets in. What if he doesn’t want to lend me the hammer? Yesterday he barely spoke to me. Maybe he was in a hurry. Or, perhaps, he holds something against me. But why? I didn’t do anything to him. If he would ask me to lend him something, I would, at once. How can he refuse to lend me his hammer? People like him make other people’s life miserable. Worst, he thinks that I need him because he has a hammer. This is got to stop ! And suddenly the guy runs to the neighbor’s door, rings, and before letting him say anything, he screams: “You can keep your hammer, you bastard.” (Paul Watzlawick, “The Situation Is Hopeless But Not Serious: The Pursuit of Unhappiness”)

  2. There is indeed an ancien regime or Hindu hierarchy of grovel by airlines. I’ve heard that at the very top, where the first-class seat is competing with the private or corporate jet, they will even hold the plane for you. Except that it’s not you.

  3. Drop me a line. I will make a call and get you an extra level or two of club.

  4. > I’ve heard that at the very top, where the first-class seat is
    > competing with the private or corporate jet, they will even
    > hold the plane for you. Except that it’s not you.

    I had one 3 million mile+ coworker whose FF card included the ability to eject already-seated passengers from their seat and take that seat on full flights once or twice per year.


    Admittedly when the airline involved attempted to pull that trick that on my contract-lawyer cousin during the Iceland volcano disruption it didn’t go so well for them…

  5. As always with this sort of thing, the appropriate question is NOT “Is there a better club?”, it is “Why do I care?”

    I think all teenagers spend some fraction of their lives sure that there are actually great parties out there, parties like they see in movies or rap videos, attended by huge numbers of single, scantily clad, nymphomaniacs and strong yet sensitive doctors. Part of growing up is realizing that, no, these parties simply do not exist — that no matter how high up the A-list you climb, even when you’re visiting the Playboy mansion, even you’re at an orgy, life is what it always is. You’re the same person you always were, women are still not going to throw themselves at you, the nicest men you mean are still going to be married.
    However if you’ve actually grown up, instead of living in a perpetual state of adolescence, you realize that it simply doesn’t matter. Movies have magic parties, just like science fiction has magic robots, and D&D has magic wands; but we’re better off optimizing our lives for the world we actually live in, rather than pining for fantasy.

    Likewise — how much are you willing to spend on the travel you engage in? You spend that much, and you get the level of comfort that much money buys you. You’re going to find true happiness by knowing who you are, performing a job you enjoy, and delighting your SO every day, not by fantasizing about drinking a better quality of champagne in the air. In particular, if your budget is not unlimited, you’re probably going to find a lot more happiness by putting up with cheaper (and, yes, less pleasant) travel and then having that money available to smooth over whatever small arguments and disagreements you may have with your SO. Or to put it differently, The $10,000 (first class across the pacific, say) translates into say $25 a day, every day, for a year. And believe me, the pleasure of being able to spend of order $25 every day without thinking about it, on a book you see, or dinner with the SO, or whatever, is vastly higher than the one day’s pleasure of the flight.
    (And, maybe it’s just me, but IMHO saving the $10,000 and the security of knowing that it, and more, is there and available for emergencies, is worth a whole more than the pleasure of spending $25 a day.)

  6. “And believe me, the pleasure of being able to spend of order $25 every day without thinking about it, on a book you see, or dinner with the SO, or whatever, is vastly higher than the one day’s pleasure of the flight.”

    To the very poorest of the kind of people we’re talking about, $25 a day is less than a dollar a day to you. They don’t notice it.

    I have flown overnight transatlantic in business class – not first, but with a flat-bed seat (fully reclining, nice blankets, perfect privacy, and a perfectly edible breakfast) and access to the business class lounge – not the first class lounge, but still, comfy leather chairs, good dinner, newspapers in many languages, wifi and workstations, and a selection of very nice wine, beer, and liquor – and, on arrival, access to showers and a second breakfast if you want, plus car service. Compared to coach class, the experience of flying that way is like the difference between staying at the Ritz and sleeping in a bus station.

    Two thing about luxury: (1) it is exremely easy to get used to and (2) with all these people about telling you how wonderful you are, you soon come to believe it.

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