Posts Tagged 'happiness'

The Peak Of Happiness

I recently asked a good friend how happy he was on a scale of 0 to 10. He only had to think for a few seconds. “A five,” he said. “You?”

“I’m at 9 or 10,” I replied. Interestingly, he makes about twice as much money as I do, and even likes his job (as do I). The social sciences have studied happiness quite thoroughly, so what have they learned about what makes us happy? Plenty, but the single viewing- lens I’ll choose for today is the year in which people in the U.S. reported their highest level of happiness, which was 1957.
In 1957 people did less T.V.-watching, more reading and more bridge-playing with friends and neighbors than now. They ate more meals together at home and did less dining out. They voted more. They walked and used public transit more, owned fewer cars per household, and did less driving. They bought fewer clothes. In fact, Americans were less affluent and did much less purchasing of most items in general during the time in history in which they reported the most happiness.

Would I want to be living in 1957? Absolutely not. Back then our culture was stiflingly homogeneous and repressive of women and minorites. I don’t believe in idolizing ‘good old days’ that really never were, but instead, in learning all we can from our history. In its favor (if you care about social justice in addition to happiness) 1957 America had a strikingly smaller gap between rich and poor than it does now. Of course in all times and places, if your survival needs are not met, you have no chance of happiness. Incomes were much more moderate than now during the peak of happiness in the U.S.

All the above makes it unsurprising that I report twice as much happiness as my friend who earns twice what I earn. (Note: he is single and I would like to set him up with a cool single woman. Any ideas?)

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Unclothing The Horse and Juliet Schor

My husband Thor and I went to the Illahee lecture last night here in Portland. Juliet Schor spoke, a sociologist and economist from Harvard University. She was excellent, and one of the most salient takeaways for me was on clothes. (It’s only fair to report Thor has sometimes termed me ‘a bit of a clothes horse’.)

Ms. Schor reported that in 1991 we in the U.S. bought an average of 34 garments per year (not counting socks or hose). In 2001 that number increased to 52. That’s an average of a new garment every week, when we can’t even wear more than three or four at one time. Moreover, the millions of tons of surplus discarded clothing we have been shipping out to other countries has been climbing even faster. And fashion cycles have escalated, spurring an artificial need to buy.

Where am I in all this excess consumption that drains the earth’s resources? Well, even though my household income has become high, my shopping habits have changed little from my starving-artist days, i.e. I still shop mostly at Goodwill. But I shop too much (at least I did until my long commute kicked in two weeks ago) and I’m frequently needing to give little-used clothes away. And nobody even needs those clothes!

Used clothes in large quantities doesn’t equal less consumption. I’m part of that absurd statistic. This clothes horse needs some unclothing.

Biodiesel, Carpooling and Happiness

In my ongoing quest for the diamond-cut life of happiness without excess consumption, I notice a couple of things.

Many non-mainstream choices I make, like carpooling, increase my happiness. (This gang of public-interest attorneys I’ve gotten mixed up with is turning out to be a hoot. So-o-o-o much more fun than driving alone.) Other choices my household makes, like heating our house with biodiesel, has a fairly neutral daily impact on our lives, aside from knowing we’ve reduced our emissions, which knowledge makes us happy when it happens to cross our minds.

My thought here is that it’s easy to live inside the box of mainstream choices without even considering whether the greener or lower-consumption choice could be a happier one. Most people in our country commute alone and emit lots of carbon as they heat their homes — without even expecting any satisfaction from either of those activities. In fact, it’s normal to complain about commuting and heating bills. I think we should raise our expectations for our own happiness.

Research on happiness states that the single biggest predictor of it is the number and quality of the relationships we have with others. Interesting that relationships are something we earn with our behaviors, like kindness, and are not something we can buy or consume. Going outside the box of mainstream commercialism is looking more and more like a well-kept secret. I think we should all be blowing the lid off it.

What Is The Diamond-Cut Life?

My blog The Diamond-Cut Life is about chiseling our consumption down to the core of happiness. What do we really need to consume and do in order to have both happiness and integrity in the face of global warming?

In other words, how can each of us give legs to sustainability?

I think that joy for most human beings comes from honest work, friendship, connection to nature, sharing resources and even (perish the thought) using our bodies instead of machines whenever possible. Given that global warming is the problem of our time, my focus is on living in solutions rather than complaining about the problem. Please comment on my posts so that we are all putting our heads together.

My backgrouond? My opinion pieces have been published in the International Herald Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle. I’ve done projects for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, and I won the Program of the Year award for a car-trip-reduction program I led and expanded in 2007.

I have a B.S. in Sociology from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and an M.S. in Counseling Psychology from California State University, Fullerton. My wonderful husband Thor Hinckley heads the nation’s leading renewable energy program at Portland General Electric.

Consuming Jesus

My definition of happiness — the diamond-cut life — involves integrity as well as joy. And integrity was what I heard from evangelical Dr. Paul Metzger as he confronted the shortcomings of conservative Christianity in his book Consuming Jesus at his reading and discussion at Powells Books here in Portland the night before last.

The major shortcoming of modern evangelism and particularly megachurches is “giving people what they want, when they want it, at the lowest possible cost,” in Dr. Metzger’s view. He points out that this is a far cry from what Jesus taught, which was, rather, to be humble, serve the poor, and find joy not through consumption but through sacrificial love. Actually, Dr. Metzger used the phrase “joy through suffering.”

Interestingly, I didn’t once hear the word ‘sustainability’ in his talk. And it’s just as interesting that I’ve never once heard the words “joy through suffering” as I’ve listened to speakers on sustainability. Yet both viewpoints, right and left, decry the corruption of instant gratification at any cost. The former just see it as endangering individual’s souls, while the latter see it as endangering all of Creation. The left simply calls it the planet, not Creation.

Both movements — evangelical Christianity and sustainability — are seeking a kind of transformation. (Dr. Metzger teased us he’d do an altar call, but managed to refrain.) Due to his brave, constructive criticism of his own camp, I came away from the author’s reading of Consuming Jesus with real respect for a conservative evangelical.

Green Into Gold: Breaking Free of Credit Cards

Confession: I am a former credit-card addict. Many years ago I racked up huge debts, played all the games of transferring my balances, thought I was very smart, la la la.

Today I have zero debt, and am much happier. (Smarter, too.) I think many others could be happier in this area, as well. I suggest we all break free of credit cards and stop using them.

How do credit cards relate to treading lightly on the earth and lowering our carbon footprint? There’s a huge correlation between buying what we can’t afford and tearing through resources the earth can’t afford. We in the U.S. are 4% of the world’s population but use 25% of its resources. (This isn’t helping our global popularity, either.) And our level of consumer debt is the highest it’s ever been.

The positive thing is that there’s a large and beautiful intersection between fiscal responsibility and environmental responsibility. This is what I mean by turning green (a low-impact lifestyle) into gold (personal solvency and prosperity). Living within our means is a kindness both to ourselves and to all other species. To do that, we break free of credit cards (different from debit cards, where we are spending funds we actually have).

I realize that deep green (environmental) readers may think I’m going far afield with this topic of our personal finances. But I see our nation’s debting frenzy to be deeply enmeshed with environmental destruction and also global warming. We need to take everything down several notches, from spending to consumption to extraction of resources like oil and timber. It will make us happier overall. It helps us craft a diamond-cut life. It is also the only realistic path, in my, view, to sustainability.

Next post: My Top Five recommendations for how to break free of credit cards, based on how I did it.

The Inconvenient Truth of the Diamond-Cut Life

Bad news here for the advertising industry, but good news for human beings and all other species. Research from many countries shows that after people’s survival needs and some reasonable pleasure needs are met, consumption piled-higher-and-deeper does NOT create more happiness. Rich is not great. Greed is not cool. Working harder might be moving you backward.

Inconvenient, at least for 20th century notions of economic growth and GDP, but true.

Hence my embracing of the diamond-cut life (partly inspired by Jared Diamond, whose latest book is Collapse). If happiness can be symbolized by a diamond that gets cut from the surrounding cultural rock of over-consumption, which things cut from our lives can best craft the diamond? What are the best uses of our time?

I want to hear from other people about their experiences. What’s true for me is that I am genuinely happy, as my household consumes significantly less than the average U.S. home. The real rock we’ve cut away is the need to impress anyone on material terms. Our house is small and modestly furnished but we host lots of visitors. I buy my clothes at Goodwill and look just fine. Our only car is a 15 year old Nissan Sentra that mostly guards the house while we take the bus to work.

Think of how little control corporations would have over us if we decided to put “time management ” in service to human happiness and conserving the earth’s resources rather than doing more work in less time to make more money to buy more stuff. Which reminds me of a favorite group whose motto is “More fun, less stuff”: Center for New American Dream.