Another Look at Happiness

I know, you’re thinking that we’ve covered happiness up one side and down another. And we have, BUT, I was finishing the book Sapiens when I discovered that writer Yuval Noah Harari has a chapter on the subject. What he has to say turned out to be quite interesting and I thought it would be worth recording it and adding it to our previous discussions. He poses the question that he says is rarely asked: “Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment?…Have the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live?…If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry?” It’s a troubling query to consider.

He covers a lot of ground in this chapter and mentions many factors that have been viewed as contributing to the happiness of sapiens.  (In this book he identifies humans as belonging to the species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man). Furthermore, he adds that he uses “the term ‘Sapiens’ to denote members of the species Homo sapiens, while reserving the term ‘human’ to refer to all extant members of the genus Homo.” The book depends a lot on scientific data and knowledge for its arguments.)

Among the multiple processes Harari discusses in connection with happiness is the conclusion of some studies that “happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness…As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.” (I have mentioned some of this before.)

As for the matter of happiness and marriage, Harari takes on the notion that people who are married tend to register themselves as happier than those who are not. His interpretation of why research finds that married people are happier is that it’s not necessarily due to the married state producing their happiness, but rather that being a happy person by nature leads to being married because happy people are more attractive spouses. He adds that biochemistry is only one aspect of happiness and that psychological and sociological factors also contribute so that “somebody born with an average of level five happiness [on a scale of ten] would never dance wildly in the streets. But a good marriage should enable her to enjoy level seven from time to time, and to avoid the despondency of level three.”

Ultimately, Harari notes that from the times of Apollo (thousands of years BCE) it was believed that “the average person is ignorant of his true self, and is therefore likely to be ignorant of true happiness.” Moreover, “the main question is whether people know the truth about themselves,” and we have no evidence that contemporary people have any better understanding of that truth than those from ancient time had.

Oddly enough, Harari explains that Buddhism has elevated happiness to a position of higher importance than most religions and has studied its essence and causes for centuries. What Buddhism has concluded is that happiness is ephemeral and chasing happiness is the root of suffering. Therefore, Buddhists make every effort to detach themselves from their impermanent feelings and try to stop pursuing them. You live in the moment, which means accepting your feelings without craving any of them. Thus, true happiness is independent of our inner feelings. The relentless pursuit of particular feelings is a misery trap.

Since this is a blog about Doc Martin, I want to bring this discussion back to some of these issues as they impact the show. Let’s dispense with the subject of Buddhism first. From the earliest episodes of the show we have been aware of the Buddhas in Martin Ellingham’s office, and now and then those Buddha figurines are handled with some prominence. Edith notices one of the Buddhas when she’s in Martin’s office and recollects that they were together when he bought it. Soon after that we see him separate out that Buddha from the rest of his possessions being loaded onto a moving van and place it in the backseat of his car. It isn’t long before the rocky ride to catch up to Louisa causes a bottle of vodka to smash into the Buddha, yet the figurine remains in the car even as Louisa and the baby are seated with it in the backseat. No one mentions it, however. And now, in S8, we have the Vicar ask Martin if he practices Buddhism.

I speculated about some possible explanations for the Buddhas in a previous post, and I remain a bit unsure if there is any real meaning behind them. I hate to make too much of something that could simply be what could be called a MacGuffin, or a thing of value that declines in importance but may reappear later in the story. I really don’t know what the purpose of the Buddhas in this show is, but it’s fun to find a way to apply them, so here goes:

When Martin is flummoxed by why people always have to be happy and has trouble figuring out why it should matter if he’s happy, the reason could be that he has a psychological impediment to knowing his own feelings, and that he has repressed his desire to be happy because of his childhood and his parents’ obvious disregard for his happiness. Or the whole subject of pursuing happiness, which Louisa considers important, is being depicted as a fruitless endeavor, as Buddhism teaches. By S7 he has given up his clocks, which used to be a source of pleasure (or at least accomplishment and sublimation). His self-abnegation might be a sign that he wants to detach from some of his worldly things in an effort to get more in touch with his feelings.

He has decided that his marriage to Louisa requires him to make her happy as much as he can, and he is shown making efforts to arrange lunches and dinners, accept her decisions on JH and her own future, and restrain his typical inclination to object to the car she wants to buy. I can’t say that he is necessarily more aware of his inner feelings, but his consistent argument against being concerned about pursuing happiness could be seen as aligning with Buddhist principles. Furthermore, I have to wonder if Louisa is actually happy, or happier than before, now that Martin is preferencing her over other things.

Insofar as marriage is concerned, we might be able to argue that Louisa’s innate sense of happiness that we witnessed in the early series helped to make her a more attractive prospect as a spouse, but that wouldn’t work in the case of Martin. However, it may be that because he has been with Louisa he is now having a reduced risk of depression and a heightened ability to be at a higher level of happiness. Thus we hear him say he’s glad to be in Portwenn at the end of S8. And Louisa’s pursuit of happiness has perhaps concluded because it was making her miserable.

Residing in a small, self-contained community with very little contact with the rest of the country, much less the world, makes life much less complicated. Staying in Portwenn gives Martin a greater chance of doing what he likes to do, which is taking care of medical problems of all kinds, while being married with a child. He can shut out the outside world for the most part, his expenses are low, and, under these circumstances he can be as happy as he could ever be. Louisa has found the “right” man, has had the child she’s wanted (and may have more), while continuing to live amongst the community that has been a family for her. She may not be deliriously happy; but she’s content.

There…I have solved every problem: happiness, their marriage, why they want to stay in Portwenn, the possible significance of the Buddhas, the possible reason for the departure of clocks from Martin’s world. Done! 🤭 😜



18 thoughts on “Another Look at Happiness

  1. Amy

    There is so much here for me to chew on and think about, much of it going far beyond Doc Martin. Thank you for this post because happiness has been much on my mind in the last few months.

    For now I want to focus on the connection between Buddhism, happiness, and Doc Martin. Your comments about how Buddhism views happiness brought to mind things that I have learned in my yoga classes about mindfulness—about being in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Those lessons have indeed made me a happier, less anxious person. I can hear my favorite yoga teacher saying, “Focus on your breathing and let everything else go.”

    So how does this relate to DM? I know you are doubtful as to whether the Buddha has any real meaning—any more than the onions or other objects tossed around the sets. But your post makes me think maybe it does. Martin scoffs at the idea of happiness as something that can be achieved by doing things or being with other people in social settings. But maybe he has a different approach to being happy. Maybe he takes a Buddhist path.

    When Louisa asks him early in S3 whether he worries about his life, he says that he tries not to worry about such things. Instead he enjoys his hobby–clocks—and his work. I would imagine that a Buddhist would find focusing on fixing a clock a form of meditation—a form of mindfulness—because you are focused on one thing and not worrying about external matters. I think Martin fixed clocks not to practice his surgical skills but because it made him focus on being in the moment (somewhat ironically since clocks make us aware of moments to come and moments gone by). I don’t think he saw them as worldly things but as pathways to contentment.

    Martin also doesn’t worry about what people think of him nor does he brood about his past. He pretty much does live in the moment. He doesn’t project into the future unlike Louisa who worries about James growing up or about her career. Martin focuses on what is in front of him at that moment—a sick patient, a medical emergency, cooking a meal. Even the way he focuses when he cuts fish has a meditative aspect to it.

    The few times we see Martin really unhappy is when he loses that focus—when his mother tells him she never loved him and when Louisa rejects him first in S3 and then in S6, And each time he responds by pulling into himself, trying to regain his focus on the moment.

    There are at least two times in the show when Martin has said something to the effect of—we are all going to die, just not today. What is the message? Don’t worry about the future—take care of the present. And we know he has a fair amount of disdain for typical Western religious views—he finds Danny’s invocation of God and prayer ridiculous and Tara Newcross’s belief that God wanted her to die also ridiculous. The show mocks two different vicars—one who is a drunkard and the other a pathetic neurotic medication abuser (not to mention the cynical vicar who almost married them in S3).

    Maybe DM is really espousing a Buddhist path to happiness. Maybe Martin really is “happy” being who is without worrying about what’s to come. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t get what Louisa means by happiness because her path to happiness is too external. And maybe in S8 he’s decided that he will accept whatever she wants in her search for happiness because he has already found his own path to happiness, to contentment. Maybe he was depressed in S6 because the noise, the commotion, the clutter, and the visit from his ghastly mother (and ghostly father) pulled him away from being able to focus and live in the moment. Away from his clocks (remember that Louisa was very dismissive and bored when he tried to explain the clocks to her).

    There’s a lot more in your post to tackle, but this was my most immediate reaction.

  2. Post author

    You may be onto something more than I had actually taken seriously. My hedging comes from not feeling sufficiently knowledgable about Buddhism to think I can make a valid assessment, and because I think Philippa dismissed the Buddhas at some point. It is very curious that they put them in his office to begin with and now they sort of have to keep that going. But you have to wonder why they chose Buddhas. And I definitely agree that they don’t appear to have much respect for religion in general, and especially for religious zealots. They do make for some good fodder for humor. They really haven’t done much with the Buddhas other than have them sitting there. Even when he puts the figurine in the car, it gets disregarded for the most part. It’s hard to know what to do with that!

    The clocks are another very curious item. Why did they make so much of his pastime of fixing clocks if they weren’t a symbol for something? And what happened to them now? If he had continued to work on them, his time off from his practice could have been spent on that hobby. I suppose you could argue that having nothing to do was the point, but he did clean his medical utensils. I suppose, like he said to Louisa many series ago, he has found something new.

    BTW, I have always considered Louisa’s reaction to Martin’s effort to tell her about the clock a disappointment in his being so clueless about her romantic overtures. It looked to me like she was coming in to talk to him so that she could interest him in a romantic interlude. She leaned in close and reminded him that it was their anniversary, which he disputed, and then she took some interest in what he was doing until he got so wrapped up in it that he went on and on and the mood was gone. I found it another amusing side of being married to this man who is so literal and never sees the nuances.

  3. Amy

    I agree as to Louisa’s reasons and reactions in that scene; Martin was just completely blind to her subtlety. But I was looking at it from his perspective. He thought she was interested in his clock and was trying to include her, and then she disappeared without a word. He sort of shrugged and went back to the clock, perhaps once again turning inward to find comfort.

    I am not well-versed in Buddhism either, and I don’t want to find some Monarch Notes version summarizing their beliefs. But your descriptions on the blog in this post and in earlier posts and my own understanding from college and other reading does indicate that looking inward and freeing yourself from the desire for external satisfaction are part of the practice of Buddhism.

    I want to think about some of the other points raised in your post—that happiness comes from a fulfilling life and that happy people are more likely to be married (as opposed to married people being more likely to be happy). But I will sleep on it!

  4. Amy

    What does it mean to have a meaningful life in Harari’s view? Does it mean giving back to others? Being involved in community? In charity? In politics? Does it mean having a career or avocation that makes you feel productive? having a family? Does he explain what that means? And how does it tie into his discussion of Buddhism? Would a Buddhist define a meaningful life as being outward and other directed or inner-directed? Or is it both?

    Sorry for all the questions, but I am just confused and thus can’t fit this into our earlier discussions of happiness as that concept relates to DM.

  5. Post author

    Amy, all of your questions are very valid. I think that Harari might have trouble answering that himself. At one point he even questions if life has any meaning. However, if I had to guess after reading the book, I think he would say that a meaningful life for each person would have a subjective aspect to it, and would consist of actively doing whatever gives each person some sense of purpose and value. It could be inner or outer directed. As I suggested, the book refers to scientific causes for practically everything. So when it comes to how nations have developed, for example, he traces the rise of tribes into larger groups that relied on each other for sustenance and then grew into larger communities until they had to find a way to deal with interpersonal concerns that they never had to consider before, etc. He identifies money as the universal religion because it’s built on faith in the value of the currency and because every human life form has become attached to it. The book covers a huge amount of information and, despite having an enormous amount of research and data to substantiate his opinions, there are quite a few places where I would disagree and some of his reviewers have too.

    His chapter on happiness is more a discussion of the variety of ways humans/sapiens have tried to reach that stage. He really doesn’t take a personal stand on it.

    Buddhists, I think, would probably consider a happy state more a state of peace of mind, being at peace in the present. The best thing for people to do is try to avoid craving any particular form of feeling for themselves. Instead you should send kindness to yourself and others. Obviously I am boiling down Buddhism to a very simplistic level. From what I’ve read, Buddhists almost have a sort of ten commandments list that includes eliminating any actions that lead to suffering in either the doer or the recipient.

    But Harari is not necessarily proposing that we become Buddhists. The Buddhism part of his chapter has to do with the fact that they made a study of happiness, and then I figured it could play a role in our discussions of Doc Martin because of all the Buddhas in Martin Ellingham’s office, etc. Maybe you could look back on my post on Buddhism for some background info.

  6. Kathy

    Lots of food for thought, and fun, in your posts here. I really have nothing to add, but wanted to say that I find this post illuminating, not just as it relates to ‘Doc Martin’, but to life in general. Thanks to both Karen and Amy for your thoughtful analysis.

  7. Post author

    Thanks to you Kathy! These discussions are one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed doing this blog.

  8. Amy

    My guess is that if Buddhism has any role in the show, it is also understood on a pretty superficial level. I’ve never seen anything that suggests that Martin and Philippa are Buddhists, but maybe they have taken to heart some tenets of Buddhism and have introduced them very subtly into the show. After all, neither MC or DM seems willing to give up their pursuit of creature comforts.

    The book sounds interesting, but I tend to be skeptical of anyone who tries to find meta-theories for everything. Money as a religion? Yes, some do worship material wealth, but I think on the most basic level, money is universal because it is an efficient way to distribute goods and services, not because it provides a means of explaining the universe or sorting out good from evil or any of the other roles that religion generally plays.

    Thanks for answering my questions!

  9. Sherry

    I was curious to see exactly when the golden Buddha statuette first appears in DM, so I went right back and watched the first episode again (Going Bodmin). And there it was, in the scene where Bert and Al are repairing the basin/tap in Martin’s consulting room and Martin is unpacking things from boxes. He is seen carrying it and I almost missed it because it is in the background and is in the shot only fleetingly. So the Buddha has been a feature right from the beginning. It wasn’t an afterthought.

    It would obviously be very difficult to identify who introduced the Buddha into the series or even why it was introduced at all. Any one of the main actors, the creator of the series, Dominic Minghella or even Ben Bolt, the first director could have made it a feature. I know that some directors like to plant what they call Easter Eggs in their work – little inside jokes (which we discussed elsewhere recently – the onions, the Star of David etc.) – I don’t consider the Buddha to be one of them though, rather it is almost a kind of watermark in the series. It is always there but is never referred to (until much later) and is not really part of the story line.

    The fact that it has a prominent place in ME’s consulting room is significant. It is not in the living room or the kitchen or the bedroom but in the one room where Martin holds sway and where he is in control. This is his domain and the Buddha is directly linked to Martin and is part of his backstory. He has had it for years. Edith mentions that it has been “20 years” when she visits him in his consulting room (that puts him in his early twenties) and she is somehow familiar with it or was even with him when he acquired it – while in medical school maybe?

    To my knowledge only Edith and Rosie Edwards the vicar ever refer directly to the Buddha statuette – and on both occasions Martin does not acknowledge or respond in any way. The only other time it features is when he is moving back to London and he tells the removal man to be careful with it and then takes it from him and secures it on the back seat of his car.

    It certainly has become a talking point but unless someone from Buffalo Pictures let’s us in on the secret, it will probably never be explained.

  10. Amy

    Wow, I had not noticed it in that first episode. I agree, Sherry, it’s too deliberate and obvious to have been just a joke among the producers. But who from the original team—producers, directors, writers, and actors—is still involved in the show? Perhaps it meant something to Minghella and the others just kept it rolling as a goof or tease.

  11. Sherry

    Most of the main cast is still involved and so are Philippa Braithwaite, (Producer) Mark Crowdy (Producer) and Sandy Poustie (associate Producer). Ben Bolt has been associated on and off all the way through to 2011 (according to the IMDB website credits). Colin Towns, who wrote the music, is also still involved but is unlikely to appear much on the set. Dominic Minghella, although not directly involved, still gets credited in every episode as the creator of the series but he was a writer only up until series 2.

    Amy you might be right about them just keeping it going once they’d started – that it became almost a mascot of sorts.

  12. Post author

    Ok everyone. In order to put this issue to rest, while exchanging holiday greetings with a person who I have gotten to know well and who has worked with Buffalo Pictures for the past 6 years, I asked her about it. I try very hard NOT to talk to her about Doc Martin questions very much; however, she is a script editor and has assisted Philippa for much of her time working at their company. When I posed the question about the Buddhas, she acknowledged that many viewers have sent in questions about them. She was not involved when Minghella began the project, but since she’s been there, no one has ever taken any time to discuss the significance of the Buddhas in relation to the story. She says they’re simply an ornament and their only use is to offset ME’s rejection of all things alternative to regular medical practices. To quote her: “He does not believe in homeopathy or alternative medicine YET he has an ornament in his office.” They use it to create some humor. She also suggests that viewers can take what they want from it, but as for the purposes of the production company, it has no significance.

    I would take this as another way of reminding us that we are doing much more deep thinking about this show than the writers or producers do, and that’s very typical of writers for TV shows. I would also say that authors of great fiction have often included all sorts of symbols and ideas in their books without conscious intention, and they are very often impressed with what readers find.

    So, at least for now, we should be satisfied that the Buddhas are meant to just add some humor. And I guess I can be a tad pleased that I was always a little uneasy about making too much of them.

  13. Santa Traugott

    Note the it is the laughing Buddha. It is at least ironic, considering the defnitely non-laughing aspect of its owner.

    My impression from the set design in the first series at least is that some of the furniture in the living area had a vaguely Eastern vibe. The Buddha fits with that. I think it’s just part of that general esthetic.

    The Buddha, or rather the piece of set design, which is what it is, is not totally random. It’s meant to contribute to an overall impression, as is, generally speaking, every other piece of set design. At least in its original incarnation.

  14. Post author

    Yes. There may have been a decision by the set designer or the director, or whoever, that these ornaments were ironic and amusing considering the overall mindset of the main protagonist. Once they used it, they just kept it going. Sometimes what happens is that they are forced to retain something even though they aren’t completely happy with it anymore. In this case, I think they put Buddhas into the set and then found that people wondered about them, and that led to them deciding to keep them as an oddity and a source of humor. Nothing more.

  15. Sherry

    Thanks for getting more of an insider insight on this Karen. The Buddha might just be part of the decor but it seems so out of character for the Doc it was bound to cause speculation. I think it adds an enigmatic dimension to DM’s character and for the purposes of TV drama(dy) that’s not a bad thing.

    Santa I agree with your statement though that it’s not totally random. When setting up shots for scenes, the Director and the Director of Photography would know precisely what appears in every single shot and would be very aware of what is visible in the background and what it portrays to the viewer (and so would the continuity people – from scene to scene, series to series they would ask the question about whether the Buddha remains – and it has remained for 8 series over 13 years). The Buddha would not just have started off as a random prop. It is not a lamp or a carpet that could be seen as a functional prop. It makes a statement.

    But enough! Thanks to Karen we can now put the Buddha issue to rest.

  16. Amy

    I’m with Sherry here. I don’t care what the official line—these choices are deliberate. Now they may not have some deeper meaning, but they at least mean that the writers or producers or directors have decided to jerk the viewers around just for fun. I imagine it’s like a cat playing with its prey rather than killing it mercifully. All of this makes me feel quite abused as a viewer—the deliberate decision to withhold any signs of affection between Martin and Louisa and the planting of fake “symbols” just to poke fun at the viewers. If they have no other value, then they are deliberately mocking us for our interest in their show. Or to return to the cat metaphor—they are biting the hands that feed them. I find that incredibly insulting.

  17. Post author

    Whoa, I wouldn’t go that far! What they are doing is having fun with the set and the viewers. The Buddha isn’t a fake symbol; it just doesn’t have as deep a meaning as we wanted to give it. Instead, for them, it is simply something that provides more irony to the show rather than an object that symbolizes some deeper meaning.

    They have every right to add humor wherever they find it and to use props in ironic ways rather than complex ways. I continue to consider this show more of a comedy than a drama, and their comedic sensibilities may be different from yours or mine.

    As we’ve noted, there are many times when we’re pretty sure something’s meant to be funny but we don’t laugh. Or the show tries too hard to be funny and becomes farcical instead. I think we can all agree that humor is a tricky thing and finding the sweet spot can be extremely hard. This show has its own special comedic twist that both adds to its charm and offers unique challenges.

    From their perspective they are writing a show about a quirky man in a quirky village with all sorts of odd events that drive the story.

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