A key purpose for the Happiness Project is to be able to cope well with difficult events when, inevitably, they happen.
Well, bad news has come. My sister has diabetes.
The news unfolded slowly. At first, the doctors thought she had Type 2, even though she doesn’t fit the usual profile—she’s young, thin, fit. That diagnosis was a blow, but two things cushioned it.
First, she’d been feeling lousy, and getting her blood sugar under control made her feel much better. So the diagnosis gave her an immediate boost. Also, we were all relieved she didn’t have Type 1, which requires daily insulin shots and can’t be remedied by diet and exercise (some Type 2 cases can be).
Well—she does have Type 1. And the times we’d said “Thank goodness it isn’t Type 1!” made the diagnosis seem all the worse.
So how to cope? She’s so far away—she’s in L.A., I’m in New York—I felt helpless. What to do? I bought a book to understand the issues (I admit that I got Diabetes for Dummies, but it was just the right thing for my level). I investigated the state of medical research, and that was encouraging.
It took me a while to grasp just how tough diabetes is. I thought you had to eat healthfully, exercise, and give yourself a daily shot; I assumed that taking the shot and never eating dessert were the toughest parts. But it turns out that, for my sister at least, those aren’t the real challenges.
What’s harder is the constant monitoring and adjustment—her blood sugar is up, or worse, it’s down. And even when she eats the same things, her body may react differently, so she can’t just settle on a routine. The response isn’t predictable.
With a writing partner, my sister writes for the TV cop drama The Shield and is writing the sequel to her new young-adult novel, Bass-Ackwards and Belly Up. So she’s typing for about 10 hours each day. Already her fingers are sore from being pricked for blood tests. Not a big deal when you think about complications like amputation and blindness, but it’s the kind of minor discomfort that can make you crazy.
And diabetes is relentless. There’s no respite. My sister’s getting married in May, and she can’t have a raucous, indulgent bachelorette party or eat a big piece of wedding cake. She can’t take a day off for her birthday or New Year’s.
Her doctor told her, “I can help you manage it, but I can’t get that monkey off your back.” My sister says she’s fine day-to-day, but thinking about the years stretching ahead makes her feel overwhelmed. And all the complications that can arise …
Daniel Gilbert’s new book Stumbling on Happiness explains that when we’re faced with serious setbacks, a mechanism which he calls the “psychological immune system” kicks in to help us make the best of it, to help us see ways in which a situation has positive aspects.
I could feel myself starting to do this. “Well, you’ll be eating well and exercising regularly,” I said to her. “Once you get this under control, you’ll do great.”
Also, people feel more fortunate and happier when they compare themselves to those who are worse off than those who are better off. My sister deployed this strategy.
“Yes,” she said. “And think about all the other things it could have been. It could be a lot worse.”
What she didn’t say, and I didn’t say, was that it could have been a lot worse – but it could have been nothing at all.
After college, my roommate was in a bad car accident, and I flew out to Hawaii to see her. She was wearing a halo brace with bolts drilled into her skull.
“Do you feel lucky to be alive?” I asked.
“Well, actually,” she said, “I feel like I really wish I hadn’t been in a damn car crash.”
It’s not easy always to stay focused on the positive. Psychological immune system–do your stuff.