Satisfaction Guaranteed (or Your Money Back)

This month’s Crackpot Theory is a radical departure in style and in content. In other words – it’s about me.

Until recently, I have inhabited a space well outside the mainstream, which is to say I never get an answer right on “Family Feud.” They say “Name a job that’s almost always done by men.” I say “Pimp!” It never makes the survey. And yet, my last few Crackpot Theories have been rated “Sober as a Judge”. A theory I cooked up twenty years ago this week received unexpected validation from the L.A. Times article. What gives?

Let’s begin at the beginning, in Israel, where I made an impromptu visit in 1985 to escape the Christmas traffic in Los Angeles. Why I thought Israel – the actual birthplace of Christ – wouldn’t make a big deal out of his birthday, I don’t know. All I knew was I wanted to go horse-back riding.

Friends had told me about “Vered Ha’galil – a dude ranch between Tiberias and Sfad where you could horseback ride right into the Sea of Galilee. That was all I needed to hear. I hopped on a plane, landed in Jerusalem…and that’s when the trip went south. Well, north actually, but – oh, you know what I mean.

Having heard that Israel has more deaths by automobile than by anything else, I decided to go by bus. The concierge at the hotel wrote down the number of the bus I would need and told me to hurry. It was Shabbat. Buses stopped running at 5:30.

I raced to the bus station to find hundreds of buses and no one who spoke English – or even Yiddish. (Not that it would have helped me if they did speak Yiddish, since the only two phrases I knew – learned at my grandmother’s knee – roughly translate as: “Good for the Jews” and “Bad for the Jews.” But at least I would have felt at home.)

I ran up to person after person, holding up my little scrap of paper with the bus number written on it, my tone of voice increasingly quavery: “Vered Ha’galil”? Finally, someone pointed to a bus. The number matched the number on my slip but it didn’t say “Vered Ha’galil.” Or “Tiberias.” Or “Sfad.”

“Vered Ha’galil”, I asked the driver.

He waved me on board.

As the bus pulled out of the station, it was already dark. Every time we passed a marker for Tiberias, the bus went in the opposite direction. The first time, I asked the woman in front of me, “Vered Ha’galil”? She nodded. By the fourth or fifth time – at which point “quavery” had up-graded to “bleating” – she pretended not to hear. Ditto the other passengers.

Just in case I appear to you now as I did to them – i.e. crazy, keep in mind that Vered Ha’galil is in the Golan Heights – the Gaza of its day. There was shooting going on. Plus, at the rate we were going it would be midnight when we got there. What if there weren’t any taxis?

Indeed it was a quarter to midnight when the bus made a stop. The road was pitch-black, but by the bus’ headlights you could see…nothing. No bus station. No sign. No cabs.

“Vered Ha’galil”, said the bus driver. He motioned me off.

Awash in what I know as “flop sweat”, I saw ahead of me someone else who must have gotten off the bus. At least I hoped he had. Fellow passenger or serial killer – or both – he seemed my only hope. I followed him, into a copse of thickly leaved trees where I quickly lost him. Or he me.

Flailing on through the brush, regardless, I suddenly caught sight of glimpse of light. I approached to see the warmly lit interior of a house. No, a lodge! There it was. Ver’ed Hagalil. And although this was before the whole “Yes!” with the clenched fist/bent elbow thing caught on, I felt exactly what that was designed to express: the thrill of victory!

The next morning – Christmas morning – as I galloped through avocado groves, clinging for dear life to the horn of my saddle whilst the wrangler harangued me with an Anti-Papist screed, my life in Hollywood flashed before my eyes. There I was cushioned from the ordinary stresses of life. The dry-cleaner lost my dry-cleaning? That was the gofer’s gig. Stymied by the labyrinthine menu of options when I called, oh, anyone? Not really – my secretary placed the calls. The insurance company balking at a re-imbursement? Refer to business manager. Let them have the satisfaction of these small victories, I was focused on the BIG one – selling a pilot or getting a script green-lighted or, in lieu of that happy event, seeing somebody else’s script – that had been green-lighted – fall apart. Now we’re talking satisfaction!

Of course, big victories are harder to come by than small victories, the upshot being that you rarely feel satisfied. You’re supposed to find your satisfaction in money. But money is to satisfaction what shoes were to Imelda Marcus – you can never have enough. You’re always going to want more. And more. And…just before my horse plunged into the actual Sea of Galilee, I had an epiphany: Hollywood success was an addiction!

Okay, flash forward to last week when I saw this headline in the LA Times: “For True Fulfillment, Seek Satisfaction, Not Happiness.” I read the article because I had been thinking about happiness, specifically why the Founding Fathers changed John Locke’s definition of human rights – “life, liberty and property” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. (And why the UN Charter changed it once again, to “life, liberty and security of person”. Does anybody know? ) But according to “Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment” by neuroscientist Gregory Berns, happiness and satisfaction are two different things.

Berns uses brain-mapping to explain the phenomenon of satisfaction. Normally, I don’t truck much with brain-mapping. It sounds like phrenology to me and we all know how good that was for the Jews. But okay, there’s a structure in the brain called the striatum which houses more dopamine receptors than any other part of the brain. Dopamine is the feel-good chemical released when something unexpected and challenging occurs. At the same time, the stress of the situation produces cortisol. Something in the interaction of these two chemicals, Berns suggests, produces the feeling I had upon arriving at Vered Ha’galil.

But not only has Nature has designed our brains to crave novelty and challenge… As “novelty becomes more routine, so the stakes keep getting raised for more novelty….we must constantly seek higher levels of experience to maintain the same level of satisfaction.”

Okay, so it’s not exactly the same thing as my theory. His is “novelty becomes more routine”; mine is “less opportunity for small victories”. His “higher stakes”, my “more money”. But as far as I’m concerned, this research corroborates the theory I had twenty years ago in Israel. Just as Hollywood success is an addiction, so too is “the pursuit of happiness” – it’s all about the chase.

All of which leads me not to further reflection about John Locke and the Founding Fathers, but to the question with which I began this piece: why, after a lifetime of being Crackpot, have I suddenly made the acquaintance of the Zeitgeist? If it’s a result of my own hard work – having strayed off the main road I hacked through enough underbrush to find my way back – shouldn’t I feel more, well…satisfied? But what other explanation could there for my current standing on the Crackpot Scale? There’s only one I can think of and it’s this month’s Crackpot Theory:

The moon is in the seventh house. Jupiter’s aligned with Mars. It is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

Alex Lang Responds to “Satisfaction Guaranteed”

Having just returned from a three week trip to Israel, what struck me most about your story was the absence of fear. Sure, it was a hassle to get to Vared Ha’Galil; sure, you were schlepping through the backwoods of Israel; sure, you may not get to ride her horse, but you were never genuinely fearful of the people she met along the way. Indeed, when you saw another person, ” a fellow passenger or serial killer—or both” you followed him as he was “your only hope.” I doubt you would have done the same thing in Wyoming, California or North Carolina. It’s odd because traveling in Israel as an American Jew you find yourself doing things you would never do in the United States based on daily fear or paranoia. For example, growing up in California I would not dream of picking up a hitchhiker. In fact, I’d be really surprised if I even know anyone who has picked up a hitchhiker in the last 20 years. Oddly, however, as I was traveling through Israel in a rented car it seemed perfectly natural to pick up a hitchhiking soldiers, on leave for the day or weekend, and give them a ride. Never mind that these 18-20 year-old young men have machine guns, which they bring in your car, and travel in packs. I must admit I did have slight moments of panic where I would think that the young men in the backseat were only dressed as soldiers and were actually terrorists or psycho-killers who would leave us for dead on the side of the road and move on. But those moments would quickly pass—that’s American paranoia, not Israeli reality. This is not to say that there are no Israeli serial-killers (although I know of none). It’s only to say that despite the suicide bombings and presence of machine guns in public places, I oddly never felt safer anywhere in the world.

Alex Lang is a lawyer whose paranoia causes her to avidly avoid local news, films like “The Silence of the Lambs,” and underground parking lots.

Marty Kaplan Responds to “Satisfaction Guaranteed”

When Jefferson worked on the Declaration of Independence, he used as a kind of rough draft the Virginia Declaration of Rights, writen by George Mason, which says “that all men are born equally free and independant [sic], and have certain inherent natural Rights … among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursueing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.”

One theory that a number of historians subscribe to is that Jefferson was trying to cut unnecessary words from the Mason text. In that reading, “happiness” isn’t something different from property; it’s a shorthand that includes “acquiring and possessing” it, as well as safety. In the eighteenth century, happiness—especially when philosophers used it—meant more than pleasure; it was a moral term. A happy life was a virtuous life.

As for your theory, as far as I understand it, it’s Cavafy’s idea in “Ithaca”: the journey, not the arrival, is what matters. There’s a whole academic industry that’s grown up around the meaning and pursuit of happiness. People who equate the accumulation of material goods with happiness are bound to discover that they’re on a “hedonic treadmill”; the more you get, and the more other people get, the more you need more. Desire may be a lovely motivation for success, but it’s also the enemy. My favorite approach is a take on Buddhism: The secret of happiness is to want what you have.

Marty Kaplan, Associate Dean, USC Annenberg School for Communication; Director, The Norman Lear Center; Host of “So What Else Is News?” on Air America Radio.

Jordan Susman Responds to “Satisfaction Guaranteed”

To paraphrase Bill Clinton: the question of whether one is a crackpot depends on the meaning of the word “crackpot.” For some people, a crackpot is anyone who proclaims to have a unifying theory of anything—because clearly no one theory can explain the miracles of existence, consciousness, love and pizza. For others, a crackpot is someone whose favorite game is playing dominoes with their own feces.

For me, a crackpot is someone who never seeks to follow their own bliss. A crackpot seeks the satisfaction s/he thinks s/he should have—not the satisfaction that makes them happy. In fact, the act of following one’s bliss conveys part of your central thesis. It is not assumed, or even hoped that you will reach a destination called “Bliss.” Instead, the satisfaction and the joy come from the following, just as the pursuit of happiness lies in the pursuit.

In your perpetual quest for satisfaction from the halls of Harvard to the shores of Galilee, by my definition, you’re not a crackpot. At least not yet. Therefore, you are sober as a judge.

ps: Vered Ha’galil is actually not in the Golan, but in the Galilee—conveniently located between the Lebanon border and the Golan Heights.

Jordan Susman is a recovering screenwriter and former reporter with the Voice of Israel in Jerusalem.

Drawings by Sonic.

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