Monday, March 30, 2009

What to Want in Life

There's an interesting discussion taking place over at The Moderate Voice about happiness and someone claiming that Americans simply want too much. I added a long comment, which I am copying here.

I'd like to go back to the egalitarian comments in Patrick's original post, as I think this is fundamentally important to happiness. The vast majority of human beings are social animals. We differ in how we express that. For instance, I'm basically introverted and like to have a drink with three friends in a place I can hear their jokes. Others are extroverted and love 80 people they know all having a blasting time. But in the end, we participate in a society. (Sometimes this is expressed religiously in the notion that "heaven" is being in the presence of God, while "hell" is being away from God.)

We measure our success and our worth by how we fit in with our society. If everyone that you consider your community lives in a 5 x 5 straw hut, you often think that's a fine way to live. However, if everyone you know lives in a "McMansion" and you live in a straw hut, it's no longer a fine way to live.

Many people criticize such attitudes, thinking that we should not measure ourselves against others, but I disagree. Humans really are social animals. It's how we survive. By banding together and doing stuff and finding our place. Just think of a single situation. If I were to walk up and give you a bowl of oatmeal, it would be odd, but generally a nice thing to do. But what if I walk up to you when you are with 9 other friends. I give every single one of them a filet mignon with butter dripping, and then I give you a bowl of oatmeal. In the second case, I've given you the same thing but been extremely unfair to you unless I can give you a reason you accept.

I had a conversation once with someone who had visited much poorer places in the world than the U.S., such as West Africa, and their position was that therefore there was no true poverty in the U.S, since the U.S. poor are vastly richer than the poor of Sierra Leone. But I think this misses some of the point. In Sierra Leone, those people are participating in their society as full members with a respected place in it. But many Americans do not see a justifiable reason that they are "lesser" members of their own society.

Finally, and this gets back to many of the comments, I agree that the expectation for more and more Americans has changed to want more than they previously did. This might be tied in part to the decline of the local community that others have discussed. We often don't measure ourselves anymore against our neighbors, but against all the Americans that we see on TV every single day (often presented unrealistically). And so while everyone around you might be in a similar 1500 sq. ft. 2 bedroom home, you don't judge yourself against them, but against the people on TV or in the suburbs or elsewhere. You know that other Americans, who work no harder than you, have a lot more, and you want to have those things, too.

I don't think these things break down neatly along conservative and liberal lines. For instance, many social conservatives see themselves as defenders of the nuclear family and small towns. And yet, I have defended the mega churches to liberal friends quite often, because it is the decline of those exact things which has propelled the growth of the mega churches. People today move around from state to state and find themselves in new towns with no family members and no friends from childhood. There is a huge social vacuum. And so they go to mega churches which provide much of the support that neighbors and grandparents use to provide.


bunnygirl said...

I think your point about TV is spot-on and it's something I've noticed in my own life.

I've never been a big TV-watcher. I'd rather be living my own life than watching others live imaginary ones. The few times I've gotten caught up in regular TV-watching, I've quickly become unhappy with my life, dissatisfied with all the things that were quite adequate to my happiness before. After a couple weeks without TV, the feeling passes and I'm deeply content with my life again.

I think it's no accident that our consumer culture started going out of control as television became accessible to all. Yes, advertising was always there, and movies showed people an unrealistic view of life, but the real explosion in dissatisfaction parallels cheap and ubiquitous televisions. There are other factors at work as well, but I think the influence of TV on our happiness can't be dismissed.

I would challenge any regular TV-watcher to stop for two weeks. Avoid movies made after your elementary years. Stay away from pop-culture magazines, too. See if you don't feel more content with what you have, more oriented toward your true needs rather than the manufactured fantasies of our culture. Then go back to watching TV and see how long before your car, house and wardrobe aren't good enough.

We compare ourselves to others. Unfortunately, we no longer compare ourselves to the very real Mr. and Mrs. Jones next door or the Rodriguez family up the block, but to the fevered imaginings of Hollywood writers trying to make a buck.

pjd said...

Interesting. I love your example of the oatmeal. (By the way, my kids wouldn't think you were doing them any favors bringing them oatmeal in the first place.)

One problem with the "wanting more" in America is that Americans tend to compare only up the social structure and never down. I know people who have a 2800 square foot house for a family of four and think that's not enough space. They have three cars and a boat. They travel to Hawaii frequently and eat out quite often at fancy restaurants. Their 2800 sqft house is in one of the more expensive towns in the Bay Area. Yet they would never think of themselves as "rich." Why? Because they work hard, and they see that around them are wealthier people. There are also people with much less wealth around them (e.g., me and most of our friends), yet they still don't consider themselves "rich." Rich is always someone else.

I don't think this is uniquely American; I think it is a side effect of a comfortable lifestyle in a wealthy society.

How I bridge your argument with what I hear from others is this: Wanting more is not a moral evil or a character flaw; it just is; it's our nature. But it's important to recognize that obtaining more is not necessarily a path to contentment and happiness, even though it's our nature to want more. I do firmly believe that greater happiness comes when people make an active choice to ignore the greed urge, to ignore who has fillet and who has oatmeal. Some call it "living in the now" perhaps. Some call it "being thankful for what you have."

Whatever you call it, it is an intellectual choice, an act of will to adjust your outlook and pursue what makes you individually happiest.

In your oatmeal/fillet example: If me and my nine friends had no reason to expect anything at all from you, and you brought all that food, then I, as the recipient of the oatmeal, would conclude two things:
1. You are a very nice person for giving us all something we have no reason to expect.
2. You consider me a very good friend because you know I can see past the oatmeal and accept the lesser gift while the others would throw hissy fits.
3. The other nine "friends" are total schmucks for not sharing a few bites of their fillets with me.

pjd said...

Oops, errata:
"me and my nine friends" should be "my nine friends and I"... I've been spending too much time with my 12 year old son, I guess.

Also, I miscounted, claiming I had only two conclusions when clearly there are three.

I apologize for the inconvenience. Carry on.

blogless troll said...

Whatever you call it, it is an intellectual choice, an act of will to adjust your outlook and pursue what makes you individually happiest.

I completely 100% agree with this, and that's really all there is to it as far as happiness goes.

There's nothing wrong with wanting things, whether they be actual things or achieving personal goals or whatever. For some people it's the pursuit of a thing that makes them happy, and when they finally get that thing they find yet another thing to pursue. Who the hell is Moderate Voice Patrick or anyone else to tell them it doesn't make them happy? I don't have much patience for the "We Need To [insert hare-brained idea here]" crowd because their solutions usually involve imposing their own worldviews on others.

There's also a big difference between wanting things and feeling entitled to things. If you feel entitled to things you're never going to be happy.

I agree with the TV thing up to a point, but I generally only watch sports and the local news, and I only watch the news to heckle the stupid anchor bots (which makes me happy), so maybe I don't watch enough of it to affect my mood/outlook.

Anyway, great post. And my reaction to the filet mignon dripping with butter/oatmeal scenario would be: Wow, Paca really cares about my cardiovascular health, but why does he want to slowly clog my 9 friends' arteries?

Robin S. said...

You've got a lot of good stuff in this post. I've read it twice without commenting because there's a breadth to what you've written and I can't capture all I'm thinking in a short comment.

I do agree that happiness (or what passes for it) is driven by our comparison to others. It's not actual happiness - more of a "I'd be happy if only I had THAT" kind of thing, and that feeds into the crap we see on TV, what others seem to have that we don't have, etc. After a while, I think a feeling of entitlement takes over - We SHOULD have this, dammit, and why don't we?

In the 70s, in the neighborhood where I grew up, it was paycheck to paycheck world. Everyone in my known universe lived in it - small houses, halfway broke so no big spending kinds of lives. I remember when thing started changing - when just about everyone they should start having bigger and better and they 'deserved' it - it hit in the 80s with new housing developments - children of the people in the little box houses having homes close to twice the size of their parents, and much larger mortgages to match. Not sure that made anyone happier, but they looked like they were, and that seemed to be the point. The looking good thing of the consumer culture.