“In 1926, more than a decade before a team of Harvard psychologists commenced history’s longest and most revelatory study of human happiness and half a century before the humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm penned his classic on the art of living, the British psychoanalyst and writer Marion Milner (February 1, 1900–May 29, 1998) undertook a seven-year experiment in living, aimed at unpeeling the existential rind of all we chronically mistake for fulfillment — prestige, pleasure, popularity — to reveal the succulent, pulsating core of what makes for genuine happiness. Along her journey of “doubts, delays, and expeditions on false trails,” which she chronicled in a diary with a field scientist’s rigor of observation, Milner ultimately discovered that we are beings profoundly different from what we imagine ourselves to be — that the things we pursue most frantically are the least likely to give us lasting joy and contentment, but there are other, truer things that we can train ourselves to attend to in the elusive pursuit of happiness.
In 1934, under the pen name Joanna Field, Milner released the results of her inquiry in A Life of One’s Own (public library) — a small, enormously insightful book, beloved by W.H. Auden and titled in homage to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, published three years after Milner began her existential experiment. Milner would go on to fill her ninety-eight years with life of uncommon contentment, informed by her learnings from this intensive seven-year self-examination.
In the preface to the original edition, Milner admonishes:
Let no one think it is an easy way because it is concerned with moments of happiness rather than with stern duty or high moral endeavour. For what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values. And finally, let no one undertake such an experiment who is not prepared to find himself more of a fool than he thought.
This disorienting yet illuminating task of turning the mind’s eye inward requires a practice of recalibrating our conditioned perception. Drawing on Descartes’s tenets of critical thinking, she set out to doubt her most fundamental assumptions about what made her happy, trying to learn not from reason alone but from the life of the senses. Half a century before Annie Dillard offered her beautiful lens on the two ways of seeing, Milner writes:
As soon as I began to study my perception, to look at my own experience, I found that there were different ways of perceiving and that the different ways provided me with different facts. There was a narrow focus which meant seeing life as if from blinkers and with the centre of awareness in my head; and there was a wide focus which meant knowing with the whole of my body, a way of looking which quite altered my perception of whatever I saw. And I found that the narrow focus way was the way of reason. If one was in the habit of arguing about life it was very difficult not to approach sensation with the same concentrated attention and so shut out its width and depth and height. But it was the wide focus way that made me happy.
She reflects on the sense of extreme alienation and the terror of missing out she felt at the outset of the experiment, at twenty-six:”