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.