What My Blind Dog Max Taught Me About Happiness

Am I Really Blind?

Max, my Jack Russel Terrier, is blind. That’s old news, as he lost his sight ten years ago. At least, I thought, his lifeless eyes would never give him a problem. But then, I was surprised and terrified when one of his eyes turned completely black like coal last week. I rushed to the emergency veterinarian hospital. The vet looked at him and, turning pale, said. “Run, run to Cornell Hospital in Stanford. Run now. He is in terrible pain, and we may have to remove the eye.”  Once at the hospital, the nurse grabbed Max’s leash and disappeared behind white doors. I waited for three endless hours. I cried and prayed. The normal pressure for a dog’s eye is 14. Max showed 48. They tried drops, which fortunately lowered the pressure to normal parameters. Max needs eye drops twice a day for the rest of his life.

Max lost his sight at the age of two to a congenital disease. I wondered, what can a blind dog do with his life? Is Max ever going to be a happy dog? I walked Max twice a day. To be more precise, that mass of pure muscle and passion walked me. People laughed, seeing me struggle to keep my balance as Max pulled. I was astonished. Max’s demeanor after his blindness never changed. He walked and enjoyed each inch of our journey with the utmost zest. His nose now led the way. And what about his favorite pastime of retrieving a ball? How could he bring back a now invisible ball? Max listened to each subtle bounce. His ears tracked the trajectory of the ball. Challenging all odds, he would find the ball, returning it to me. Max had lost his sight but not his love for life.

Of Lottery Winners and Paraplegics

Since the beginning of Positive Psychology two decades ago, we have made substantial progress in the science of happiness. One significant discovery is “the adaptation principle.” As Jonathan Haidt explains in his wonderful “The Happiness Hypothesis,” when asked about the best and worst that could happen to them, people respond by winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed from the neck down.

I once saw an interview with a lottery winner. The journalist asked, ‘what are you planning now.” The winner answered, “tomorrow morning, I will quit my job, pay my credit card debt and mortgage, buy the car of my dreams, and then travel the world.” Well, studies reveal that the fun dissipates after an average of six months.

Many lottery winners become unhappily rich. The new becomes the old, even boring. The external has shifted, but the internal remains frozen in unhappiness. Fear of being poor, anxiety, and panic attacks remain as alive as before the lucky day.

But what about the person with paraplegia? At first, they experience a happiness nose dive. Life seems finished. There is nothing to look forward to. But then, a small victory happens. They learn how to master a speedy electric chair which runs faster than those walking. Taking a bath with an adapted shower is celebrated. Unlike the lottery winner, they have no place but to go up. And that’s precisely the problem. They may settle for the small, though important small steps, giving up expectations. They succumb to a new low base-line.  

Though winning the lottery is preferred to happiness, practical differences seem minor. In both cases, the adaptation principle runs with full force. We judge our happiness and well-being according to the state to which we have become accustomed. Success moves us to an ever-higher target, and setbacks reset us to lower expectations. Both winners and losers are limited to their perceived limitations. We are never satisfied because we either get too much or feel deprived, expecting little. Then, how can we overcome this trap?  

The Solution: Be Like a Dog

Blind Max retrieves the ball, places it by my feet, and mischievously tilts his head to the side. He looks so cute. Wait a minute! He is pulling my leg. He can’t see me! And then I remembered what my vet said a decade ago, “don’t worry, dogs do not know they are going blind. He will just continue his life.” Max’s secret is that he is happy being a dog no matter what. Retrieving balls and going on long walks expressed his “dogness.” His happiness is free from circumstances. It is intrinsic to his Self. Yes, he is slower and has to work harder than other dogs to find the ball. But pursuing the ball was never questioned. The external reality adjusted to him more than he to it. Yes, he adapted. But not in who he was but in the strategies in pursuing his life. Looking for the ball was more important than getting it.

When I was arrested and diagnosed with bipolar, I fell into a deep depression. I spent months paralyzed on a couch. But at 11:15 AM every day, Max would visit me. “Hey, Alfredo he would say with his blind eyes, it is time to walk.” I fulfilled my solemn obligation toward my friend no matter how I felt. He was my stronger medicine, my bridge to life. The blind and depressed bipolar hit the streets with joy.

You may lose so many things. Sometimes you may win. Life may hurt you. Life may blind you. Blessings may become routine and unnoticed. So, set your happiness thermostat now. Seek what is worthwhile at this very moment. If you notice what is meaningful now, you may not even notice what befalls you, and you may run after the simple ball of life forever with the same zest, happy and fulfilled.

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