Art & Development

Happiness and pathology

My art has concerned happiness for the past two years, so I was fascinated to learn about a man who is forced to avoid joy and pleasure.

Neurologist Matt Frerking suffers from narcolepsy with catoplexy, a disease that results in momentarily losing the ability to move one’s muscles. In his case, the attacks are triggered by strong positive emotions. As Chris Higgins, the storyteller, narrated on This American Life (Episode #409, “Held Hostage”, originally aired June 4, 2010):

When Matt gets really happy—when he feels the warm fuzzy stuff—he becomes paralyzed by his emotions. Literally. Paralyzed.

Since I’m also interested in knickknacks and decorations, and how important and valuable they are, it was fascinating to hear this:


It can be a triggering condition just to discuss [looking at a wedding photo.]


At this moment, Matt is having an attack… Think about this: Matt had this attack while he was talking about a photo he has never seen. If just talking about a picture can cause this, imagine the other things Matt has to avoid.

It’s this kind of deep personal meaning invested in personal effects that fascinates me. How can an object can be invested with such strong memory, emotion and meaning, and yet be distinguished from art?

Higgins goes on to describe further negative impacts of the disease on Frerking’s life:

After living with this disease for four years, with being punished every time he experiences happiness, Matt’s adapted, though the way he has adapted is sad: He tries to enjoy things less. He told me he tries to think of himself as a robot, and not engage too emotionally. He’s told me he even has to be careful how he speaks, not to get too enthusiastic or worked up.

I find this tremendously tragic—and ironic, considering how much some of my past work advocated for modest pleasure. Certainly I was not talking about moderation in lieu of irrational exuberance, nor for the hostages of such diseases. If you are in good health, be grateful. It allows you the ability to feel as much happiness and express as much exuberance as you like.

Higgins ends on an optimistic note:

But it’s important to point out, even though Matt is being trained by his brain everyday not to feel these emotions, he still has them…. Although Matt tries to avoid happiness, it’s still part of his life. He’s proof that you can’t avoid happiness, it’ll still find you no matter what.


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