April 29, 2013
If there were some secret formula for happiness, whoever discovers it would surely make a fortune. The MBA grads had written their final exam. One more day of classes remained. So the students and their prof attempted to tabulate the formula for human happiness. Philosophers have pondered it, poets have mused over it and psychologists have analyzed it. Now the number-crunchers have come up with a profit and loss statement where the bottom line is happiness.
They decided there were three sources of happiness revenue: Genetic, Circumstantial, and Relationships.
Circumstantial happiness was defined as that happiness derived from the accident of birth, such as being born in a well-off country. It was assigned a meagre 10% of the happiness quotient. I know from my own observation that people in the slums of Mumbai are as happy, if not happier, than the residents of Beverly Hills. As long as the basics of food, shelter and security are met, the luxury with which these are addressed only adds an incremental percentage to overall happiness. Other circumstantial factors might included being born male in a patriarchal society. Being heterosexual almost anywhere. Being tall, good looking, and is many places, white.
It turns out that in study after study, these types of factors certainly contribute to an easier life, but they do not in themselves make a person happier or more miserable. I am always amused by people who invest in new noses, boobs, even increasing their height. Initially they experience a boost in happiness, but it declines sharply. It is ironic that their return of happiness turns out to be more short lived than the torturous pain and the financial burden.
In my family we have strong cultural myth that marrying into a good family is vital for a happy life. But now we have the spectacular example Princess Diana to answer that. Despite her high status marriage, we know she was far from happy. It is far preferable being single than trapped in a miserable marriage.
Other common circumstances widely believed as necessary for happiness include: a suitable education, a respectable career (which of course brings with it designer clothes and fancy cars). Yes, they add something to the happiness quotient initially, but soon the novelty wears out. The human brain is highly elastic, hence it adapts to the new circumstances. I was impressed that these newly minted MBAs were aware that the euphoria of their achievement will fade. I am glad they are prepared for the reality that in a few years they will be no happier than they were prior to spending the $100 grand in tuition.
Having children then, will that make a person fulfilled for life? It seems the happiness that children bring is offset by the lifelong worry for their safety, the stress of good parenting and financial worries of providing for them. I cannot imagine the horror of those parents whose children go missing. Add to that fear, parents have to worry about what kind of world their children are about to inherit. Food shortages, water shortages, even breathable air will be a luxury in the not too distant future. On balance, the asset of having children are entirely offset by the liabilities. Childless people live as long as parents, and they report being just as fulfilled.
Relationships: The grads decided that a whopping 40% of the happiness revenue comes from non-material things such as being connected to others through family, friendships, and hobbies. This includes volunteer work which feeds a feeling of worth and of giving back to the community.
Genetic: To which they assigned the remaining 50% of happiness revenue. Basically, they argued, some people are born psychologically better equipped to be more happy than others. Some are naturally optimistic, cheerful, easy-going, while others are more serious, rigid, predisposed to depression or anger. The grads saw these as unchangeable, and hence genetic.
Yikes! A bit too fatalistic. Perhaps we do not come into this world with our personality traits cast in stone. Perhaps we learn them as a response to whatever happens to us in life. But that does not mean they are unchangeable. The grads had assigned a whopping 40% share of happiness to Relationships, but I wonder if they had stopped to dig a little deeper? Don’t all relationships (not just romantic ones) teach us much about ourselves and our character traits? Relationships shed a light on our unconscious habits, traits, feelings and bias. In that dance to make relationships work, we are compelled to examine and change, to adapt, to learn new skills and traits. We mature because of our spouses, we grow to appreciate diversity because of our colleagues and neighbours.
Our minds, if we give them attention, can be rewired and reprogrammed. The grads themselves admitted that the human brain is highly elastic. So why would the disposition to happiness be an exception to this?
Rather, isn’t happiness the default setting of the human mind? Whenever an emotion or situation takes us away from this default we describe ourselves as being “upset”, “disturbed.” When we are angry, we are “unbalanced”. Fear makes us “unhinged.” Insults make us “out-of sorts.” Just as health is the default of the body, happiness is the default of the mind.
If that is true, then surely happiness lies somewhere below the surface turbulence of the mind. Rather than trying to quell the disturbances, shouldn’t we be searching the still, calm depths of awareness? Isn’t that where we might discover happiness?
March 18, 2013
Lloyd is a poet who lives in shelters, yet he refuses to accept government assistance or pity. He pays his $10-per-night fee at the shelter by selling poetry chapbooks on the streets. The poetry is his own and the man knows how to write. He should: he has a B.A. in English Literature and he was mentored by Irving Layton, one of Canada’s most brilliant poets. When asked why he refuses government welfare, he jokes it is his bourgeois upbringing.
Being a product of the middle-class myself I understood what he meant. For those born rich, money is as mundane as tap water. Those without also do not get worked up about where the next meal is coming from, or how they will make rent. For them it is just how life has always been. It is those of us in the middle who bear the extraordinary burden of money. It so dominates our lives that we do not even notice its power, except perhaps in a crisis.
This is tax season (or as I call it, Accountant’s Christmas) and people like us stress to gather all of the receipts and we jump through hoops navigating the tax forms which seem to get more convoluted by the year.
I took some time from worrying about the consequences of not filling in Box#68 to ponder the bigger picture. Given that money is imaginary, it struck me as ludicrous that to be so fussed about it. Money has reality and value only because we humans decided it has. Our pets do not stress about it. All of us are born without personal wealth, and we certainly leave this world without it. But in-between, o boy!, does it ever matter.
It determines how we are treated. It dictates whom we attract as friends and spouses. It decides how much power and influence we sway in nearly every area of life(including in court). It unleashes powerful passions of greed, envy, hubris and domination. Yet money is as imaginary as those borders between nations when viewed from space. But try to opt out of the system of money and you find yourself booted from the human race. As has happened to Lloyd.
Actually, Lloyd reminds me somewhat of Hindu sadhus or hermits. They are individuals for whom the desire to transcend the passions of the mind is so intense that they abandon their homes, their families and their wealth. By eschewing money, they seek to gain true freedom. They subsist on the currency of kindness. In return for food they trade spiritual counsel, and solace to the grieved. Perhaps the most famous sadhu of all time is the Buddha, who succeeded spectacularly in supplanting goodness as a global currency.
Which brings me back to Box#68 of my tax return. Is there a way in which I can borrow that attitude of those sadhus but still participate in this monetary merry-go-round of taxes and mortgages and insurance?
It is a tough experiment but necessary for the good of my well-being. I seem to have a high tolerance for emotional and physical pain, but financial woes really leave me anxious and exhausted. So now I am questioning whether I have given the concept of money more value in than it deserves? Perhaps if I too replaced the dollar for goodness as my currency of choice, at least within my consciousness, I may get less worked-up about it.
I would like to believe that the universe operates on a quid pro quo system, i.e. it pays back exactly what you pay out. If you move about like a total A-hole, well guess what bud, it is how you will be paid back. If karma exists for the bad, then surely the converse has to hold true? If you do good to others, goodness is paid back to you?
I was reminded of this just this week at the homeless shelter. A smart-looking young man in a business suit requested a hair trim. I thought to myself: who does he think he is? I donate this service to the homeless, not to jerks in business suits. Luckily I held my tongue. As I trimmed his hair he began speaking. He had recently returned from the Congo where he was doing humanitarian volunteer work for the past year. After two-hundred resumes being submitted, he had finally landed a job. His suit was $15 from a charity shop. He wanted to make a good impression on his first day on the job, but with two dollars left to his name, he did not imagine he would ever find a barber to trim his hair. He happened to drop by at the shelter to thank someone when he spotted me and the sign for free haircuts. Co-incidence? Or is it the grand barter of the universe? Was this young man owed goodness because he had paid out enough of it into the world?
I believe the latter. It occurred to me that this young man just confirmed for me what I had been thinking. He paid me for his haircut with this confirmation. Quid pro quo. Each time I struggle with the latest tax bureaucracy, I will think of him. I will tell myself these are only numbers. In the grand scheme of things, they have no meaning. Help will come from unexpected places when needed. Meanwhile, just keep putting out goodness into the world regardless.