Thursday, November 30, 2006

Today's Ramble - 11/30/06

As I was participating in a voluntary simplicity discussion yesterday, it occurred to me that our country (and the world for that matter) wastes an incomprehensible amount of brain power (intellectual/creative resources) on consuming things. Just think about all of those well-educated lawyers agonizing over which luxury car to buy. Think of the architect and his wife shopping for just the perfect refrigerator for their beach house. How about the human resources director surfing the internet and pouring over catalogs looking for the perfect new wardrobe? I don't have the statistics about shopping at my fingertips, but I know that people spend large amounts of time searching for, looking at, analyzing, and dreaming about things that they would like to own. If this time were spent more productively, how much better would our society be?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Today's Wisdom - 11/29/06

If you can truly and deeply reflect on your life as the following quote from Dr. Seuss directs, you will be a happy person.

"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Today's Ramble - 11/28/06

I heard a couple of interesting stories on NPR this morning on my way to work. The first dealt with carbon credits. It turns out that carbon credit purchasing is exploding at the retail level. People buy these credits to pay for programs that reduce carbon emissions in direct proportion to the amount of pollution their household produces annually. The idea is brilliant. Unfortunately, it is not working well in practice. An expert in England likened the purchasing of carbon credits to a confessional in church. Individuals relieve their guilt about polluting the environment by buying their way out of it. It turns out that very few of them actually do anything about really trying to reduce their footprints on the Earth.

The second story was about how bad traffic has become in Russia. There are three times as many cars on the roads there as during communist rule. People are spending large portions of their incomes for cars, and just sitting in traffic for hours a day. Citizens of Moscow reported much higher levels of stress and anger about getting around the city. It turns out that the fall of the iron curtain and the resultant explosion of free enterprise is having a disruptive influence on these newly "free" citizens.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Today's Ramble - 11/27/06

Tis' the season. Seasonal gift giving contributes significantly to over-consumption, and the psychological damage that can occur as a result. I am a proponent of giving. However, things have really gotten out of control. Juliet Schor's research points out that often times gift giving between spouses ends up (over the years) becoming a way to justify buying expensive gifts for ourselves. Isn't it common for couples to pre-plan their gift giving? I'll get you the iPod, you can get me the watch. I will buy you the diamond earrings, you can buy me the alloy wheels for my car. This is consumptive self-gratification disguised as gift giving.

The same thing occurs when gifts are exchanged between other family members and friends. It can end up being a game of oneupmanship. Of course, the same is true for weddings, baby showers, birthdays, etc. The heavily advertised gift giving season has become almost the antithesis of what gift giving is all about. It is about thoughtfulness and caring. It is a way to show you care about someone, and are thinking about them. When the giving of a gift becomes culturally mandatory, it loses its value as a token of human connection. This is particularly true when the item being offered comes from a lengthy list. For those that cannot compete in this expensive ritual because of limited financial resources, a feeling of inadequacy results. Often times these folks develop very negative feelings about the holiday season. Combined with over-consumption, holiday gift giving is no longer goodwill to all men.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Today's Ramble - 11/26/06

I have had a few days off of work. It has given me a chance to recharge my batteries. It has also given me a chance to feel grateful for all that my life is. Finally, it has given me the chance to read the newspaper cover to cover every day. Here is a summary of a "world gone mad".

1) 400 people waited in line at Walmart at 5:00 am to get the best deal on plastic toys from China.
2) A car buying survey finds that people factor in location and quantity of cup holders in their car-buying decision before considering fuel efficiency.
3) A personal finance columnist, responding to someone with poor credit asking about how to improve it, suggests taking out a high interest loan auto loan to improve her credit score.
4) A new Volvo has a heartbeat detector that informs owners through the key fob that someone is hiding in the backseat (no, I did not make this up).
5) LL Bean will send out 200,000,000 catalogs this year (how many trees is that?).
6) China will add 50 new coal-fired power plants this year (so they can produce all of the crap we buy at Walmart).

And, that's just all that I can remember.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Today's Ramble - 11/22/06

Two of the most interesting hot research areas in psychology are choice and energy. Much research has shown that too many choices in life can create considerable stress. Stress leads to poor health, unhappiness, and so on. Last evening, I participated in an audio discussion with participants in the Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology mentioned that he is very excited about some new research being done that links too many choices to a decrease in energy. This research has also shown a decrease in IQ related to an overwhelming number of choices. This evidence directly supports the idea that consumerism is having a negative impact on our well being. The consumerist world has created even more choices for people, which on the surface, seems like a good thing. It is turning out to not be such a good thing. Not only is a consumerist foray a large user of valuable time, but it turns out to be relieving its practitioners of life energy and intellect. Think about this the next time you go searching for the perfect couch for your living room.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Today's Ramble - 11/21/06

Until we can teach monkeys to read, we are all humans. We contain a complete mix of all of the emotions, both good and bad. Through the identification with and practice of these emotions, we develop a self. This self is experienced and criticized internally and externally (by others). This self identity develops and changes over time. We build character.

Happiness is a very convenient and effective guide for building character. If we get too far from a general feeling of happiness, we can be safe in assuming that something has gone sideways with our self, our character. A perfect example of this is the unsettled and unfulfilling feeling that many of us have after a prolonged focus on consumption and materialism. The greed and sefishness required for us to be "good" consumers leaves us feeling unwhole. A simple steering away from greed and hedonism will lead to a stronger sense of happiness. When this happens, we can be rest assured that we are building good character for ourselves. And, we are setting a good example for those who we affect in our every day living.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Today's Ramble - 11/20/06

For today's Ramble, I am borrowing an idea from Peter Block ( People (and teams of people) often settle on the question of "how?" when working toward a solution. Block argues that "how?" looks for answers outside of us. Focusing on the "how?" is an indirect expression of our doubts. It is a defense against taking action. How many times have you experienced this? It is often times the most experienced people who do this the most (particulaly in a work environment). They know "how?" (or can figure it out fairly easily). Usually what is missing is a lack of commitment to the "what?" or the "why?"

Think about it in the context of your personal life. What are the things in your life that are the most important to you? What defines you? Why to you feel that these things define you? These are questions that have become more and more difficult for many people to answer. I believe that our society's focus on consumption, and the myriad of choices related to the aquisition of goods and services, has taken our attention away from answering the truly important questions in life. We get good at the "how?". So, we apply our "how?" skills to more fundamental questions. We are finding the answers to these questions harder and harder to come by. Peter Block suggests deliberately doing the following:

1) Ask what will it take for me to claim my own freedom and create the experience of my OWN choosing (not the choice between which big screen TV is better).

2) Ask when will I choose to use my talents in service to self and others rather than to hold back and settle.

3) Ask when I finally choose adventure and accept the fact that there is no safe path.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Today's Ramble - 11/9/06

Today's Ramble has to do with the concept of desire. Consumer culture has helped most Americans develop a very strong desire muscle. The constant barrage of advertisements is designed to build this muscle to such as extent that it is impossible to avoid the impulse of buying. In fact, most people's desire muscle is much stronger than their will power muscle. Just take a look at the numbers associated with consumer credit and debt.

A recent study on inner desire has shown that 61% of respondents always have something in mind that they look forward to buying. The "wish lists" contained an average of 6.3 items and were heavily dominated by material possessions. In fact, consumable items outnumbered idealized ideas three to one. For every person dreaming about better health, for example, three were dreaming about that new car. The most interesting finding in this study is that wish lists did not vary by sex, education, income, or standard of living. To use Juliet Schor's words, "consumerism is an equal opportunity ideology".

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Today's Ramble - 11/7/06

First, let me STRONGLY suggest that you read Juliet Schor's "The Overspent American". This book is immensely accessible, thoroughly researched, and mind-bending in its aim. I liken it to "The Matrix" where everyone goes about their business not knowing that they are really on life-support wasting away in a pod in some giant machine.

The primary point of the book is that we, as consumers (and breathers), identify with a lifestyle "reference" group that lives well above our means. She has discovered that this perceived reference group continues to "succeed" to a greater extent than we do. She states that "the sociological trend was the upward shift in consumer aspirations and the vertical stretching out of reference groups." The result is not just a deeply-felt sense of failure, but a real perception that it takes so much more money (and stuff) to make ends meet and be happy. The reference groups commonly identified with by the average middle and upper middle class American has an income that is three, four, or five times his or her own.

The statistics supporting this reference group hypothesis are many. Here are some samples. In 1975, the "good life" meant a vacation home (19% of respondents), a swimming pool (14%), a lot of money (38%), and a happy marriage (84%). In 1991, the "good life" meant a vacation home (35%), a swimming pool (29%), a lot of money (55%), and a happy marriage (77%). I guess we traded in our happy marriage for a swimming pool.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Today's Ramble - 11/1/06

As we start yet another rainy November in the Pacific Northwest, I wanted to cite some lyrics that (for me) perfectly describe our desire to slow down life's hectic pace. These lyrics were written by Neil Peart of Rush.

I turn my back to the wind, to catch my breath, before I start off again
Driven on without a moment to spend, to pass an evening with a drink and a friend
I let my skin get too thin, I'd like to pause, no matter what I pretend
Like some pilgrim who learns to transend, learns to live as if each step was the end

Time stand still
I'm not looking back, but I want to look around me now
See more of the people and the places that surround me now

Freeze this moment a little bit longer
Make each sensation a little bit stronger
Experience slips away....

I turn my face to the sun, close my eyes, let my defenses down
All those wounds that I can't get unwound
I let my past go too fast, no time to pause, if I could slow it all down
Like some captain whose ship runs aground, I can wait until the tide comes around

Make each impression a little bit stronger
Freeze this motion a little bit longer
The innocence slips away....

Summer's going fast, nights growing colder
Children growing up, old friends growing older
Experience slips away....