What price happiness?
It is a question as old as the dinosaurs, as confounding as the lightning speed with which mold grows in an unemptied coffee cup.
Now, at last, comes the elusive answer, slithering out of the dark caves of uncertainty and into the brilliant light of the brave new telephone age: Happiness can be bought for a mere $3 a minute.
I made this discovery recently while perusing the Chicago Reader. A large ad appeared: "911 is fine if you're trapped in a fire, but what if you're trapped in a relationship?"
The smart woman, of course, keeps her emotional back door propped open at all times, precisely so that she can race out of all suffocating relationships pronto.
However, there are those of us occasionally snared in emotional emergencies while our hair's still in curlers, so to speak. For the unprepared among us, there is now a psychological escape that does not require leaving the house, that can in fact be performed while lying in a bathrobe on the sofa with a Patty Duke rerun on the TV.
The solution is called CounseLink. On CounseLink's 900 line, a therapist confers with you for as long as you want and can afford.
Telephone therapy. The most amazing thing about it is that it's been so long in coming.
We are, after all, the by-the-pound salad-bar generation, accustomed to choosing how much we want and therefore how much we pay. We are a jiffy-mart world, too busy to wait. We are 900-number junkies, dialing away dollars to lawyers, accountants, teen idols and naked girls.
And who couldn't use some phone therapy after an evening of phone sex?
Telephone therapy. It costs $3 a minute, which adds up to $180 an hour, two to three times the price of an in-person session with a social worker and far more than an hour phone call to Sri Lanka. But convenience, which is a subset of happiness, has its price.
CounseLink is the brainchild of Richard Chaifetz, a 38-year-old Chicago clinical psychologist. Its goal, says Gerrie Jakobs, the program's administrative director, is "accessibility for the mental health consumer."
(The smart woman consumes mental health whenever she can, because it has fewer calories than a Dove bar and leaves fewer crumbs than rice cakes.)
Ms. Jakobs, who has a master's degree in clinical social work from the University of Chicago, says the service is for those who may be uncomfortable looking a therapist in the eye, who don't want to wait a week for an appointment, who prefer the comforts of home, or who fear running into an acquaintance in the therapist's office.
She notes that all CounseLink's therapists are licensed social workers, psychologists or psychiatrists. When appropriate, callers are referred to other mental health services.
None of that allays the worries of Ronald Davidson, director of public policy for the Mental Health Association in Illinois.
"What's next?" says Davidson. "Are we going to have diagnoses of medical problems by the telephone? People with cancer calling in and describing their symptoms to an off-shore medical school diploma mill?"
He simply doesn't believe that anyone's mental state can be properly evaluated over the telephone. Anne Schiff, a CounseLink counselor, disagrees.
Ms. Schiff, an experienced social worker, says that most callers have narrowly focused problems that can be briefly addressed. "Ann Landers type problems," she says. The phone, she adds, encourages people to get to the point.
She recalls a recent caller. The woman was separated from an abusive alcoholic husband who had given her a sexually transmitted disease he contracted during an affair with another woman.
Should she take him back? the caller wondered.
After only five to seven minutes on the phone, says Ms. Schiff, the woman decided it would be a bad idea.
Ms. Schiff sounds like an intelligent, thoughtful woman, so who knows. Maybe CounseLink has its merits.
Alas, by the time I'd explained even one of my problems, I'd have spent more than the price of a plane ticket to Paris.
For the record, all of the interviews for this story were done by telephone.