Recipe for a Happy Life – Reflections from a Hospital Ward 1

I am currently privileged to spend several weeks as an in-patient at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Why? I am taking part in a wonderful cutting-edge international research project as a patient – a genuine patient, I should add – in work involving genetic modification of cells in the blood.

A few days before Christmas, I had T-cells extracted from my blood. I am not a medical doctor so forgive me if I get it wrong, but my understanding is that T-cells are cells in the blood associated among other things with the immune system. So it is good that they work properly. If, however, they misbehave then that is deemed by those who know about this sort of thing as (to put it mildly) not so good.

So this project involves guinea-piggy backing folk like me who apparently have some miscreant T-cells (bless their mischievous little hearts!). Providing you get them early enough, using mind bogglingly impressive science, this innovative experimental research entails taking these misbehaving cells out, and (I think in this case I am right in saying) shipping them off to the USA. There they are genetically modified. They are whooshed back again to the UK, and returned into their owners, folk like me. Simple, eh?

Then the doctors stand back to see what happens. I may grow two heads, I may glow in the dark, I could start to behave like Dolly the Sheep. But no science is intrinsically bad science and, so long as the cells are behaving in accordance with something resembling their genetic pattern, I think I at least will count it as a success (or rather, I may, if I have become a sheep, baaa or bleeet it to be a success).

I cannot resist reflecting here that this research involves actually harvesting my T cells and then genetically modifying that harvest. Yes guys – I am now a living and breathing example of what we were all so afraid of 20 years or so ago. Once let loose, I shall be wandering the streets of Bristol as a genetically modified crop!

As I said, I am currently in the hospital being wonderfully and devotedly looked after. I have to say, with all due respect to my lovely family, that I am enjoying some of the happiest and most interesting times and experiences of my life. What a tremendous privilege it all is. Don’t let anyone tell you about crises. Our (normally completely free) National Health Service (NHS) is jaw-droppingly good and we are very, very proud of it (and hence need not worry unduly about that dropping jaw).

I love talking, and telling my jokes and my stories to people who have not heard them before and in this hospital I have a captive audience. There are just so many lovely people – nurses, doctors, ancillary staff – who have never heard my jokes and my stories. As a retired university teacher, I particularly love being around young people. Especially if they hang on my every word. Especially the nurses!

With so many restrictions on my movements and confined full of drugs and unpredictable T-cells to one room for several weeks, one of the things I find myself reflecting on is why on earth I am so happy? Of course, it could be the drugs. Yes, doubtless it is the drugs. Great stuff! I have heard it described as a ‘steroid high’.

Still, if in vino veritas then I am sure there is also something worth knowing to be discovered even in (legally administered) dope as well. In medicamentis veritas?

I am fully aware of the story, recounted by Herodotus, of the early Greek king who seemed to think he was blissfully happy already because of all the wealth, gold, jewels, the property, the slaves, he had. It was the wise philosopher and lawgiver Solon who is said to have observed drily that we should call no one happy before their death. For, he suggested, who knows what the future may bring? At the very least, we might add, the uncertainties of the future should have tainted any present sense of happiness. Especially if you were a very wealthy Greek king.

Indeed, I find echoes of this in the great and perhaps equally wise 20th century Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who suggested that only things which have happened already in our lives are safely tucked away in our past and hence genuine and immutable acquisitions. Hence the aggregate of our happinesses is finally secured when they are all (at least in an earthly sense) past for us, that is, at our death.

And indeed, in the case of our overconfident Greek king, Solon was right. By the time the monarch came to die, defeated by a rival, he no longer had all those things identified previously as giving him such happiness. Oh, but his rival was jolly merry alright!

That said, we have reason to think it possible that the experience gained through the former king’s suffering was conducive to a deeper understanding of happiness, to true wisdom, by the time of his death. I hope it was anyway.

So – with that by way of a preface here are my reflections as an old man in hospital and doubtless starting to glow green in the dark, on what makes for a happy life. Of course these reflections are specific to my own situation and world, but they are perhaps generic enough to apply to others, or at least to be of some interest to folk. If not, then (as many years ago my Tibetan Buddhist lama used to say) no worry. Just let them go and leave them!

Think about the following:

‘He made me feel so very special’.

Aw! – but look, everything that exists is very special!

Why? Because it should be obvious that everything that exists is itself, unique as the individual item it is. It may of course be of a particular type – we might say it shares things in common together with others of that type – but in itself as the existent thing it is, it is unique. Therefore, everything that exists is really special.

It truly is. In its actual, unique, individual existence everything that exists must be really special. It is what it is. Nothing else is. You can’t (by definition, surely?) get more special than that.

Or can you?

Of course, I am also one of those who hold that one way or another everything that exists is uniquely created, ultimately, by God (more on that later). And every single thing God creates, as created, has to be really special. God might be outside time, but in His creative action God does not waste time or space. If something is unique, loved by God into existence – my word, that must be the very peak of specialness, mustn’t it? No – beyond the peak.

That said, things which have been created cannot all be made actually to feel really special. A tree is really special. But it cannot be made to feel really special. Or at least I don’t think it can. And if it can, God only knows what a tree feeling special might actually  be like. For me, at least, such is meaningless. I can get no conceptual handle on it. I don’t even know if a tree feeling special would be a welcome experience for a tree. So I shall discount it here.

Can a cat be made to feel really special? I am British. I am a cat-lover. I mean no insult to our dear feline companions that are central to so many of our lives. And hence so very special to us. A cat too is not like a tree, or (pace Descartes) some sort of mindless automaton. My cat certainly can be made to feel all kinds of things in the sensational and often noisy way that cats feel.

But can a cat have the sort of ‘feel’ that occurs when we say ‘He made me feel so very special’? Can a cat actually, really, feel special? Do you see what I mean?

I am sorry, but I think not. Apart from anything else, feeling really special in this sense meaningful to us cannot be the case for a cat because, I suggest, to feel really special requires a certain type of ability at least potentially to use language, to be able to stand back and reflect on one’s feelings. To say, ‘He made me feel so very special’ involves a degree of abstraction, of necessarily conceptual reflection on previous experiences and events. And it is hard to make sense of undergoing that without at some level the use or the potential use of language. Concepts require language, language employs concepts.  And, folks, well – sorry to shock and disappoint you but while they can communicate nevertheless cats don’t talk!

I think as far as we know currently, only humans can do that. And, to be honest, even the rather dim Chinese officials who ordered the newly occupied Tibetan to ‘feel free’ knew that. They didn’t try the same with their yaks!

Of course, it may in the future turn out to be possible for a human lover to make his or her green googly-eyed partner from Alpha Centauri feel really special, although what that might mean (being eaten by them on their anniversary?) is not yet comprehensible by us. Let us discount that too.

So I think that when we say ‘He made me feel so very special’, we are talking about humans.

To repeat : Every human can be made to feel really special. And hence inasmuch as it lies within our power I want to urge as a major part of my recipe for a happy life, each human being should be made to feel that way. This is because, as we have seen, as a sub-class of things that individually exist every human being actually really is special. Not to realise that is to miss out on the actual truth of things. Let’s not be mediocre. Let’s go for more truth in our lives rather than less.

And it seems to me that most humans can indeed be made to feel really special. I say ‘most’ because I suppose there may be some unfortunate humans whose state of consciousness is such that while (perhaps like a cat?) they can have feelings, they cannot be made to feel really special. But – and note this! – they are nevertheless in themselves, in their very existence, still really special. Of course they are! That is because they are still nevertheless precious and hence lovable individuals created by God.

Oh, but dear friends – I suspect I try your stamina and your patience! You can take only so much. Even my steroids need renewing! This has been by way of a sort-of introduction.

Don’t forget – everyone deserves to be treated for what they are, as really special and unique. They deserve for you to make them feel that way.

Of course, it would be presumptuous of me to try to prescribe in specific terms what that might entail. It is up to you, although not all ways of treating others – even treating others as really special and unique – will be found to be conducive to your happiness. Let alone theirs.

If you want more of my hospital mullings on how to live a happy life – watch this space!

End of part 1 – but you know you want more!

About the Author
Paul Williams is Emeritus Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy and the former Head of Religion and Theology at the University of Bristol, UK. He is the author of many books and articles mainly on Buddhist philosophy, particularly in Tibet and a professed lay member of the Dominican Order (Order of Preachers) of the Roman Catholic Church. Since retirement he has been particularly involved in support for Syrian and Ukrainian refugees in the UK, and since October 7th 2023 in outreach and support where appreciated for Jewish friends and contacts.