Operating on the splintery insight that time flies when you're having fun, it seems pretty clear that even if you can't live forever, you could make yourself miserable enough to make time crawl. Researchers in the OC Weekly DataLab call this hypothetical phenomenon "psychological relativity in time."
We talked with Dr. Douglas Keene, a Tustin and Laguna Hills psychotherapist specializing in relationships and crisis intervention, to find out how clients in his care have made themselves so unhappy that death couldn't come quickly enough.
OC Weekly: You've been practicing for 18 years, and in that time, you've undoubtedly seen some pretty miserable people. Dr. Douglas Keene: That's right, and the key—the common characteristic of all miserable people—is that they've made someone or something outside themselves responsible for their happiness. Would you say time drags for such people?Absolutely. Drags so much that they feel like their lives just won't end?These are people for whom time stands still. You've said they accomplish this amazing feat by handing responsibility for their happiness to someone or something else. Give me an example. Well, let's take a typical couple in crisis. At some point, they've concluded that the basic problem in their relationship is the other person—or, more specifically, something the other person does. I'll hear a woman say, "My boyfriend isn't home enough" or a man say, "My wife doesn't want sex enough." These people are miserable.Really miserable because they've made someone else—someone over whom they have no control, a wife or husband or, to take another common culprit, a boss—responsible for their happiness. So all they have to do in order to stay really miserable is to continue operating that way—making someone else responsible for their happiness. That's right. Sounds difficult to learn.Actually, it's quite easy. American society comes by this sort of victim thinking quite naturally. As long as you see yourself as a victim—of someone or something—you're guaranteed to be unhappy. You'll bitch a lot about how victimized you are. You'll feel weak. You'll feel hurt. You'll feel every bad thing imaginable because you won't feel the one thing you need to be happy. Which is?Self-determination. Power. Control over your own destiny. That's three things.But I use them all to describe a single phenomenon: taking responsibility for what happens to you in your life. Achieve that, and you'll be happy. But of course if you're happy, you'll have fun, and when you're having fun, time flies.Yes, that's one way to look at it. You said your most miserable clients make someone or something outside themselves responsible for their happiness. What kinds of things do people point to and say, "That's the source of my unhappiness"? We all do this sometimes. The weather's bad, so I feel down. I hoped to get a good job, but I didn't. So we're disappointed. But for happy people, these disappointments are temporary. We move on. And miserable people?Miserable people look for an enduring thing outside their control, something they blame for their unwillingness to take responsibility. A painful life experience—like the early death of a parent, for example—or brain chemistry or . . . Brain chemistry? Sure. Research suggests that depressed people show some differences in their brain patterns or chemistry. And it's equally true that medication can alter that chemistry sometimes. Sometimes. But a couple of points here. First, someone who says his wife won't have sex enough might be pointing to a real fact in the real world. That doesn't mean that fact requires or compels unhappiness. It's no more true that the brain-chemistry problem makes you—requires you to be—unhappy. And let me just say one more thing: when it comes to brain chemistry and psychoactive drugs, brain scans show changes when someone's mood—or mental attitude—is changed both with and without drugs. Mental attitude? Sure. Your habits of thinking. If you are convinced that your unhappiness is a result of a chemical imbalance in your brain, then the only remedy available to you is a drug. If you're open to the possibility that your brain chemistry is a product of your mental attitude, then you have other options, options you—and not your doctor or your pharmacist or your pharmaceutical company—control. Again, it comes down to who's responsible: Am I in charge, or is my brain? Do you ever recommend anti-depressants for your clients? Yeah, there are occasions when someone is so damned miserable that I have recommended they get on anti-depressants. And I've always emphasized that these medicines are temporary—not permanent—solutions and that they offer only a window, an opportunity for the person to take charge of his or her attitude. Have you seen many people surrender the enduring pleasures of miserableness for the fleeting pleasures of real happiness? That's an odd way of putting it, but sure. Some people are able to realize that they've spent a good part of their lives seeing themselves as victims. And then you "help" them by helping them become —what did you call it, taking responsibility? Taking responsibility. Exactly. You see, once you take responsibility, you have power. Powerful people—truly powerful people—are rarely unhappy because they change what might otherwise make them unhappy. I once had a client who had a boss she said was a pain in the ass. What was odd was that she had once really liked this boss. I asked her what had changed on her end. The truth of the matter was that her performance had fallen off—she was leaving the office at 3 o'clock instead of 5 p.m. I told her, "My guess is that if you were as eager about your job now as you were when you first took it, you'd like your boss more, you'd like your job more and . . ." She'd be less miserable?She'd be less miserable. Was she?She was determined to believe that the entire problem in her job was that her boss was an ass. She remained miserable. So if you want to hate your job, blame everything on your boss.That's right. And similarly, if you're in a relationship, blame everything—every bad feeling you have —on the other person. That'll make your relationship awful. Forget those wonderful things that brought you together in the first place. Can you give me an example?I had a couple in which the wife had become frustrated with her husband. Every Saturday, he went motocross riding. In the beginning, she found that sexy—you know, adventurous and slightly dangerous. As a wife, she increasingly found it frightening. "Every Saturday, he goes out and risks his neck," she told me. For his part, the husband said his wife was a nag. He told me she dressed in a provocative way and flirted with other men. In the beginning, that was something he liked about her—that she was sexy and other men wanted her. So here they were: two people determined to pin the blame for a lousy relationship on the other person. I'll bet that made time drag.They couldn't wait to be away from each other. Does it ever occur to you that miserableness might be a kind of key to psychological relativity in time?Oh, absolutely. But I think most people would rather be happy, even with the sense that time is flying by. Are most people happy, then?Most of us are happy most of the time. So I guess you'd say time flies for us, and that deep down inside, we'd rather become miserable so that time would slow and our lives would seem to go on forever. Only so we could make our lives seem longer.Yeah, being miserable could sure do that.