Monday, February 19, 2007

Today's Ramble - 2/19/07

I think there is a link between the realization that our consumer culture is making us sick and the sustainability movement. Our relentless pursuit of prosperity has changed the world from one of scarcity to one of excess. We are genetically wired to compete for resources in a world of scarcity. Yet when our comfort is all but guaranteed by the civilization of excess in which we live, our natural instincts work against us. The discomfort we feel with our lives of excess encourages us to seek answers. As we learn that our actions not only lead to discomfort but to the devastation of the Earth, we strive to live in ways that are sustainable. The argument that we are hopelessly destined to destroy the Earth through our instinctual actions is losing ground. Could it be that the system of life on Earth, of which we are a part, is "telling" us that it is time for us to behave differently? We have "progressed" too far. It is time for respite, renewal and rebirth.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Today's Ramble - 2/12/07

Food for thought. It came as somewhat of a surprise to me that humanity has known that money will not buy happiness for thousands of years (straightforwardly expressed by writings of the ancients). Yet, our species (particularly Americans) continues to believe that it is so. How have we not been able to recognize and absorb this proven fact? Will we ever?

Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert suggests that the reason may be in what he calls the super-replification of beliefs. It is not necessarily the truth of the belief that it important for our species to perpetuate. What is important is that the belief, and the activities associated with it, is a "communication" channel for something that is truly important to our survival. In other words, the social interaction and "progress" (i.e. efficiency) that result from the false-belief that money will buy happiness is what is important. Humans are innately wired to compete, produce, and consume. Our beliefs drive our actions.

The question is then, is it possible for our species to not destroy the Earth? Maybe the planet's destruction is hard-wired into our genetic code. Of course, this intellectual expose is off the subject of happiness somewhat. Yet happiness is a big emotional driver for humans. Our search for happiness, combined with our false-belief that money will buy it, leads us headlong into oblivion. I think we can escape it. Do you?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Today's Ramble - 2/5/07

Today's Ramble comes from Dr. Peter Whybrow, the author of American Mania: When More Is Not Enough. "In achieving material success, we have dramatically changed the social circumstances under which millions of Americans live and work until many, now pushed close to the limits of their physical and mental tolerance, are beginning to lose faith in the time-hallowed narrative of the American Dream - that if you compete, work hard, and pay your taxes, then one day you will be rich and happy. Something is not right. We seem to have lost touch with the purpose of our quest. Increasingly, when the behavioral outcomes of our manic pursuit are measured, it is not happiness that we find but the disturbing trends of rising anxiety, obesity, and greed. In the face of the growing sickness it is time to pause and to reflect."

Friday, February 02, 2007

Today's Ramble - 2/2/07

Adam Smith, the "father" of free market economics, stated the following :

"In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, the poor are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for."

It's ironic, but Adam Smith understood that wealth does not preceed happiness. Even though he was a proponent of progress through free market capitalism, he understood that it was not necessarily a pathway to happiness. Perhaps what he did not understand was how humans would be convinced that their happiness was dependent upon their level of wealth.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Today's Ramble - 1/29/07

One of the things by which I am the most fascinated is how people spend their money. I prefer the term "invest" over "spend". But, regardless, how people invest their money tells a lot about them, and a lot about society in general. I read this weekend in the Oregonian about a couple who had written in to a columnist looking for advice on the best way to reduce their credit card debt. These folks had a combined household income of between $190,000 and $250,000 (depending on the year) and $68,000 in credit card debt. They wrote that they were not able to contribute to a retirement account or save money for college because of the credit card debt cost. The only thing more mind-boggling than this question coming from people with this kind of income is the non-chalance with which the columnist answered the question. It is as if this is an ordinary situation. If it is, can someone please direct me back to Kansas? What in the world do these people invest all of this money in?

My guess is that they are focused on pleasure and status (oh, and a lot of shopping). Yet, the question was not "how can we get better control of our spending?" It was, "should I sell my company stock to pay off our credit card debt?". Obviously, I am only guessing about the financial choices that these folks have made. It could be that they have had exhorbitant medical expenses to cover. The point is, this apparently absurd situation is treated as nothing unusual. I don't know about you, but that tells me that our society's ability to save and control spending is past. We are in for some tough times ahead my friends.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Today's Ramble - 1/25/07

I apologize to my many readers for the delay in posting to the blog. Today's entry has to do with the falsehood of the pursuit of self-realization. We have heard for the past thirty years, at least, that that is our utmost purpose in life - a self-realized person is a happy person. The search for meaning in our lives is important. But it turns out that the relentless pursuit of self-realization (the "me" generation) has resulted ironically in many individuals with low self-esteem and a sense of being "lost".

Happiness research has shown why this may be so. People need to feel that they exist for something larger than themselves. They need to focus and work on something that provides a common good. Happiness comes from within and without. The two are not in contradiction. It is not one or the other, it is both. Richard Layard boils it all down to a compassion towards oneself and others. What he calls the "Greatest Happiness" is essentially the expression of that ideal. We need each other, not things. Through our relations with others we will attain a higher sense of well-being for ourselves.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Today's Ramble - 1/15/07

Richard Layard, in his excellent book "Happiness: Lessons from a New Science", argues that loss-aversion is an inconvenient fact of human nature. Studies show that, on average, if someone loses $100, his mood worsens twice as much as it would if he gained $100. Studies have also shown happiness falls relatively little (i.e. 2 points) when family income drops by a third. By comparison, a separation results in an 8 point fall. Lay-off or firing results in a 6 point fall. Subjective health down 20% equals a 6 point drop. So, think about spending more time building relationships or getting healthy. The positive impact will be greater than working those extra hours in order to secure a pay increase. If a one-third drop of income is worth 2 points, then a one-third increase is worth 1 point. If a 20% drop in health is worth 6 happiness points, a 20% improvement in health will increase your happiness score by 3 points. That's equal to a doubling of your income! Keep that in mind the next time you think about how you will "spend" your precious time.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Today's Ramble - 1/9/07

As promised, today's ramble has to do with "hope". The ancient Greeks considered hope to be an evil, but a necessary one. Without hope, there is despair. And that is worse. I tend to agree. The word "hope" is used quite loosely in today's language. Hope is indeed a very tricky and potentially insidious belief. Hope can be good. It can strengthen our regard for the goodness of mankind. It can also be bad, very bad. Hope built on desire and wishful thinking disempowers us. Hope without action eventually immobilizes us. Hope and positive thinking are NOT the same thing. Too much hope places our destiny in the hands of others. Positive thinking manifests itself into reality more often as others pick up on our positive energy. The behavior is rewarded. Hope is not rewarded. We must be strong to hope. Negative outcomes from hope should not be personalized. When they are, we defeat ourselves. We can become depressed and unwilling to act for fear that things just won't work out. Apply hope wisely. Know that it can be both noble and evil. Remember, only you choose to feel the way that you do. Don't let false hope get you down.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Today's Ramble - 1/8/07

The temporal component of happiness is a struggle for many of us. Eastern philosophy espouses an emphasis on the here and now - our immediate experiences brings us happiness. This is much easier said than done. Many look to the future for their happiness. This, as it turns out, is ineffective as we end up being way off base in terms of how future experiences will affect our happiness (see Daniel Gilbert link on this blog). Living in the past is equally "dangerous" to our well-being as sentimentality can limit the positive impacts that our current and future experiences have on us. Many of us find ourselves in a void - a place where we relive happy experiences of our past while, at the same time, wish that our futures will bring us the happiness that we crave. The void seems to travel with us through time - we never seem to get to where we want to be. Great thinkers have often written about this. Here are two of my favorites.

1) "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened" - Dr. Suess. The power of this simple phrase is quite extraordinary. It speaks a simple truth about happiness. Yet, truly taking heed to what it says is very difficult indeed.

2) "The man is freed from servile hands of hope to rise or fear to fall, Lord of himself, though not of lands, and having nothing yet hath all" - Sir Henry Wotton. Life without hope is full of despair. Yet a life where hope drives our well-being is destined to be unhappy.

Next time, more on hope...

Friday, January 05, 2007

Today's Ramble - 1/5/07

First, a delayed Happy New Year to my readers out there...

One of the cornerstones of happiness is good health. Everyone knows that good health is the result of a combination of genetics, eating right, exercising, and maintaining a manageable level of stress. At the present time, we cannot do much about our genetic makeup, other than taking certain medications (e.g. cholesterol lowering drugs). The remaining three are well within our power. Unfortunately, our turbo-driven consumer society makes it difficult for us to properly manage these three critical components of good health.

1) Eating right - did you know that Dr. Dean Ornish's heart healthy regimen is based on the subsistence diet of the peasants of China, Brazil, and Egypt? It turns out that the food items that are the most expensive often times turn out to be worst for us. Simple, locally grown, food is likely your best bet. Also, recent studies on caloric intake in rats strongly suggest that moderate, low calorie diets are best for improving energy and lifespan. Under our "more is better" banner, this seems counterintuitive.

2) Exercise takes time. We generally spend too much time working, commuting, and shopping. We must carve out time for exercise. An alternative is to exercise while working, commuting, and shopping. How about speed shopping (running from store to store)?

3) Stress not only negatively impacts our health (heart disease, ulcers, etc.), but it directly impacts our sense of well-being. It is the happiness double-whammy. There are many tips available, such as deep breathing, that can help take the edge off of our stress. For many, however, stress is a chronic condition. In those cases, significant lifestyle changes are necessary. Don't be afraid to change. You may find that you are much happier (and stress free) after you do.