Satistfaction Guaranteed (or Your Money Back) the experts say

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.

Read the response of Alex Lang
Read the response of Marty Kaplan
Read the response of Jordan Susman

Lawyer Alex Lang writes, “Having just returned from a three week trip to Israel, what struck me most about your story was the absence of fear” Read on
Marty Kaplan writes, "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. Read on
Marty Kaplan writes, "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. Read on