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How Do You Get Relief With “Mad Men” Ending?

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How Do You Get Relief With “Mad Men” Ending?

The drive for relief is an escape which imprisons us ever more securely.

Irrelationship—a fun-house mirror corruption of what real caring is. Where does irrelationship come from? What is it about our culture that imprints upon us this irrelationship version of relatedness, leaving us needing one fix after the next to maintain a facsimile of happiness?

In Mad Men’s season six finale, Don Draper asks, “What is happiness?” His answer: “It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Happiness instead of what? Psychological research tells us that striving for happiness does not work. Mauss et al. (2012) studied how trying to be happy ensures unhappiness. They tell us:

Few things seem more natural and functional than wanting to be happy. We suggest that, counter to this intuition, valuing happiness may have some surprising negative consequences. Specifically, because striving for personal gains can damage connections with others and because happiness is usually defined in terms of personal positive feelings (a personal gain) in western contexts, striving for happiness might damage people’s connections with others and make them lonely (p. 908).

Perhaps striving for happiness is really a way to get temporary relief from inner emotional pain related to the loneliness and unresolved bereavement that comes from broken family experiences. Substitute happiness for relief and you are in the eye of the irrelationship hurricane’s song-and-dance routine. Confuse mere relief of suffering with sustainable satisfaction and fulfillment in work and love and you end up a mad person. Mr. Draper, of course, is the poster-child for irrelationship, and Mad Men is a scathing and enlightening commentary on the 20th century standards of human relations that helped get us into our current predicament with each other.

People, places, and things; self, others, and circumstance— in irrelationship there is no acceptance or recognition of the things that are essential to relational life. We are blind to what is real, and blind to our own blindness. We are, together/apart, locked into brainlock ( is external)).

There is no sustained relief in compulsion, and compulsion is at the heart of our song-and-dance routines. Each shot of what seems like relief winds up creating a more pressing need for the next less effective shot of relief. The return on investment (ROI) with relief is always diminishing, each shot giving less of a boost, and heightening the fear of the inevitable end-game of this strategy: it will one day soon completely stop working, without any good alternatives. Somehow, though they make the most sense and have the highest long-term ROI, acceptance, recognition and shifting gears don’t come readily, even when the issues are staring us right in our faces. The drive for relief is an escape which imprisons us ever more securely.

Striving for short-term relief—like Don Draper’s philosophy of happiness—does nothing more than create an ongoing, unending need for more of the same. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that self-medication does indeed serve the purpose of relieving anxiety as long as the chain of fixes doesn’t have any weakest links.

Is that simple formula regarding relief the core of many of our problems? Is that at the core of our compulsive suffering as individuals, pairs, groups, as a culture at large?  Where does it come from? No one seems to be in charge, and there seems to be no reliable authority to turn to for the answers. Ironically, given Mad Men‘s conclusion, we are left wondering: where is the self-help guru who will cure us? Are there no uberparents for us adults? Who is running the show? Seems that there is only us. And this is the unnamable anxiety associated with being an abandoned child.

What a relief it is when we discover that there is some solution to the terror of being without parental supervision, even if it is a solution that only works if we don’t think about the long-term impact. We find relief as children by developing song-and-dance routines to appease our checked-out parents. But, doing so has major consequences for development: It prevents us from thinking ahead, from internalizing good executive functions, and from developing the secure attachment style which we will need when we grow up. This is a growing epidemic we can see practically wherever we look.

In a key sense, we find Don Draper has become the stereotype of the father (circa 1968)—a successful, twice (so far) married, “ad man,” cut off from any consistent experience of real human experience and relatedness. Like the advertisements of the last century, he is a 2D cardboard cut-out of a human being, numb to his corrugated core. In spite of the profound disturbance in his sense of self and relations with others, one night he sees his son tender and kind toward another person. For just a moment, even the infamously shut down Don Draper is cracked open. Is there hope for us all?

In the episode, “The Flood” from season six, Don says to his wife:

“No. I don’t think I ever wanted to be the man who loves children. But from the moment they’re born, that baby comes out and you act proud and excited, hand out cigars. But you don’t feel anything. Especially if you had a difficultchildhood. You want to love them but you don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem. Then one day they get older, and you see them do something and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have, and it feels like your heart is going to explode.”

Is this not exactly what we’ve been protecting ourselves from—the heart explosion? Are the show’s writers and producers trying to say something, to do something to us, even trying to be (gulp) therapeutic?

In the series final, Don’s spiritual leader says,

“The new day brings new hope. For the lives we’ve led, the lives we get to leave. A new day, new ideas. A new you. The new day brings new hope. For the lives we’ve led, the lives we get to leave. A new day, new ideas. A new you.”

…Om mane padme hum. Om mane padme hum. Om mane padme hum…( is external))

Yes, according to an Esalen-like philosphical-spiritual perspective, Don gets to—we get to—experience relief as we engage in the routines that separate us from our experience of ourselves and each other: who we’ve been, who we no longer are. The new you is relieved of the burdens that intimate relationship require. Perhaps, in that, we get to experience the relief as that which protects us from emotional investment, meaning, love, mutuality, all that messy business. This keeps the stakes low so that we’ll have less to lose when we eventually, inevitably, lose each other.

For just a moment there in season six of the wildly popular, Mad Men, Don Draper couldfeel paternal pride for his son and, maybe, realize what the cost of relief (often through addictions, sex, alcohol, etc.) had been.

Is there hope in the popularity of Mad Men—are we learning and growing from the intelligent and insightful depictions of irrelationship ever more common in media, or is our fixation on depictions of this problem another defense, a way to get rid of it by projecting it onto the TV screen so we don’t actually have to deal with it (but still delude ourselves into believing that we are)? Has it all just been another form of short-term relief? Was it all just another bastardized saccharine jingle like the final song of the series: I’d like to teach the world to sing ( is external))?

Don’s parting words, “People just come and go, and no one says goodbye”—neither fully materializing (into real relationship via intimacy, vulnerability and compassionate empathy) nor completely gone (and so we are now safe from the harm that’s been done and so able to lower our defenses)—perhaps sums up the whole show.

So, that was pretty heavy—now what’s on TV?


Mauss, I. B., Savino, N. S., Anderson, C. L., Weisbuch, M. Tamir, M.. Laudenslager, M. L. (2012). The pursuit of happiness can be lonelyEmotion, 12 (5), 908-912.

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[Mark Borg]

Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D. is a community psychologist and psychoanalyst, founding partner of The Community Consulting Group, and a supervisor of psychotherapy at the William Alanson White Institute. He has written extensively about the intersection of psychoanalysis and community crisis intervention. He is in private practice in New York City. Grant H. Brenner, MD is a psychiatrist in private practice, specializing in treating mood and anxiety disorders and the complex problems which may arise in adulthood from developmental childhood trauma. He works from a humanistic and integrative perspective, recognizing that each person requires an comprehensive assessment and individualized treatment plan, and that often different types of treatment are sometimes necessary to explore before finding an approach which works. At the same time, he values evidence-based approaches and stays current with new developments. He uses various approaches including talk therapy, medications, and interventional psychiatric approaches such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and neurofeedback. He is a volunteer and Board member of the not-for-profit organization Disaster Psychiatry Outreach. He teaches and supervises, and is a faculty member of the Mount Sinai Hospital and Director of the Trauma Service of the William Alanson White Institute. He is an editor of and author in the book Creating Spiritual and Psychological Resilience: Integrating Care in Disaster Relief Work, and the author of several papers and book chapters. Daniel Berry, RN, MHA has practiced as a Registered Nurse in New York City since 1987. Working in in-patient, home care and community settings, his work has taken him into some of the city's most privileged households as well as some of its most underprivileged housing projects. He is currently the Assistant Director of Nursing for Risk Management at a public hospital serving homeless and undocumented victims of street violence, drug addiction and severe traumatic injuries.

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