Theory: bringing home less disposable income and owning less crap can raise happiness and reduce stress.
[I apologize. I know that last week I promised that this post would be about how to live like a European in the US, but as always, once I started writing, the post became ridiculously long and unwieldy, so I’ve had to partition it up. The tips to living like a European in the US, are, Buddha willing, coming next week.]
Like many others, I strongly believe that the working/time off/compensation atmosphere in the US has gotten completely out of hand. Sadly, these practices have become so ingrained at this stage that changing things on a large scale will be akin to turning the Titanic with a soup spoon. So, unless we can rally together 50 million Americans with 50 million soup spoons to all row in the same direction at once (that’d be a sight, wouldn’t it?), we’re probably going to have to live like this for the foreseeable future. That said, having now used myself as a test case for nearly two years, I believe that adjustments can be made on an individual basis that will allow people to work less, reduce stress and therefore increase happiness.
Now a certain amount of unlearning needs to be done – more like a ‘brain-rinsing’ than a brainwashing. Anyone born since, oh, World War II, has suffered a lifelong, ceaseless bombardment of social programming by corporations, the media and (particularly from 2001-2008) the government, into believing that we need as much accessories, property, artificial appearances (which I will henceforth cumulatively refer to as ‘crap’), and security as we can afford – often more than we can afford – or we’re failures. And/or doomed. This is, of course, a fallacy perpetrated by legions of profiteering douchebags that want you to act and consume in a manner that’s to their advantage. The thing is that these fallacies have been prominently perpetuated for so long that they are no longer viewed as fallacies, much like many other widespread, long-term myths, like say, the Bible. Well, Jesus hasn’t verifiably appeared to anyone in two millennia, so let’s get started debunking some other deep-rooted fables.
Money = Happiness. The statement “money doesn’t buy happiness” is the overarching principle of Slackerology and the most oft repeated cliché by sellers of happiness (usually right before they ask you for money). Yet by and large, the same people that nod sagely with approval when it’s uttered aren’t taking even the most basics steps to noticeably apply the concept to their own lives. Obviously, a certain amount of money is necessary to maintain reasonable comfort, but beyond a nebulous earnings threshold, which is far lower than most people realize, the diminishing returns of happiness for each grand you bring home drastically declines the further you get from that reasonable level of comfort.
To further my point (ad nauseam), I offer the following:
In a recent interview with Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, a UPI article stated:
“In an economy where people are constantly forced to compete with each other, life and work become a rat race, he says. As people get used to higher income levels, their idea of a sufficient income grows with their income and if this is not anticipated, they will invest more time for work than is good for their happiness.”
It’s taken a couple of frenzied and exhausted generations to prove the rather obvious point, but it’s become clear that placing priority on career, income and ambition over family, relaxation and responsible amounts of wine consumption have brought down happiness levels in the US on a national scale. A 2006 Financial Times article entitled “The hippies were right all along about happiness” reported:
“Politicians mistakenly believe that economic growth makes a nation happier. Western politicians think this way because they were taught to do so. But today there is much statistical and laboratory ¬evidence in favour of a heresy: once a country has filled its larders there is no point in that nation becoming richer. The hippies, the Greens, the road protesters, the downshifters, the slow-food movement – all are having their quiet revenge. Routinely derided, the ideas of these down-to-earth philosophers are being confirmed by new statistical work by psychologists and economists.”
The post “Be True to Yourself – Tyler Durden Style” does a good job of stripping out the primary message from the 1999 film “Fight Club”. Chuck Palahniuk’s point got a little overshadowed by Brad Pitt’s abs and delts, but his base philosophy challenged the prevailing lifestyle pattern of rash consumerism in the US that I refer to as ‘Common Senseless’.
Case in point, as I write this I’m struggling almost singlehandedly against mass Common Senseless with my condo association. Earlier this year, a couple busybodies decided that our hallways needed to be remodeled. Now depending on the strength and perspective of your aesthetic preferences, one might argue that the hallways are a little worn and dated. Fine, everyone has an opinion. However, this remodel that ostensibly satisfies the cosmetic nitpicking of a few people will affect us all in the form of a sizable, one-time assessment to finance the remodel, about $1,200-2,000 per unit. So, the unpopular question I’m pushing forward is do we need to remodel the hallway? Or to put it another way, do we all need to drop a significant amount of money during the nadir of the worst recession that any of us will ever know on superfluous improvements that won’t increase the value of our condos, in an area of the building where we spend about 10 cumulative minutes a week, just to satisfy the whims of a few people preoccupied with putting on airs?
I think questions like this need to be asked of oneself before any purchase larger than a case of Strongbow. Is the hallway carpet torn and peeling up, causing innocent people to spill their wine while walking to the laundry room? Yes please, let’s fix that. Is the hallway carpet not up to an interior designer’s ambiguous standards? Well then, with all due respect, don’t bloody look down.
He/she with the most toys wins. He/she who coined this phrase probably made truckloads of money off the dupes that bought it – and then probably slipped into a fairly serious coke habit. It’s absurd, of course, and anyone saying it out loud with a straight face probably has a bloated trust fund somewhere, but the fact is this instinct was tattooed into the subconscious of western cultures, on all economic levels, decades ago.
The hidden fallout from the toy-collecting approach to life is that every item and square inch of property you buy requires maintenance in the form of additional time and money. Whether we’re talking the cumulative 20 minutes per year you spend dusting your display case of dolphin glass figurines or the untold hours and cash that goes into maintaining your swimming pool and Hummer each week, this is time you could have spent relaxing and money that you had to work more hours to earn. All of this unnecessary effort, preoccupation and stress contributes to the eventual detriment of your personal relationships, health and happiness. Again, to quote Tyler Durden, “The things you own, end up owning you”. You gotta admit the guy is pretty astute for someone who’s been punched in the face so frequently.
Time is money. In fact, time is happiness. Money, to a certain degree, facilitates happiness in the form of basic comfort, convenience and security, but as I stated above, a nebulous threshold of ideal happiness occurs at a surprisingly low income level. Pushing beyond that ideal is possible, naturally, and can temporarily effect heightened happiness levels (say, a week of four-star touring around Paris), but this requires you to work harder and earn more money to achieve these ever fainter and infrequent boosts in happiness. I’m of the opinion that we often achieve and shoot right past our ideal happiness threshold without realizing it, until our declining years when the inevitable exercise of taking measure of one’s life occurs and all too frequently the regrets pile up (if one is to believe any programming on the Lifetime Channel, anyway).
Let’s take, for example, our cars. For many people, cars are truly indispensable time and labor-saving tools, but the perception of ‘indispensable’ is misleading. Without a car, you’d obviously be dependent on public transport, or, for the more active, your legs and a bicycle. Depending on the city that you live in, your location in that city and the number of people in your household, this could range from slightly inconvenient to catastrophic. Let’s look at the inconvenienced half of this scale.
What are some of the primary drawbacks of a car-free lifestyle?
1) Time wasted sitting at bus stops and on trundling buses.
2) The inconvenience and irritation of planning everything around a public transport timetable.
3) Accomplishing errands (eg grocery shopping).
4) “I just can’t live without my car!”
5) The guy sitting next to me smells like garlic and pee.
Well, I’d counter with the following (respectively):
1) How much time did you waste working to earn the money to pay for your car, gas, insurance, maintenance and parking?
2) How much inconvenience and irritation do you experience with breakdowns, accidents, looking for parking, receiving and paying for parking/speeding tickets and attending to car-related paperwork (eg tabs, insurance)?
3) How many of those errands can realistically be accomplished within walking distance (one mile or less) of your home?
4) Let me introduce you to about 350 million Europeans that are getting by just fine (yes, this is a tease for next week’s post).
5) I have no answer for your neighbor’s disagreeable pong.
Cars are easily one of the top money pits in our lives. Those people that have sabotaged themselves by living in the sprawling suburbs where nothing is within walking distance and public transport is thin to nonexistent are of course deservedly screwed, otherwise when you crunch the numbers I think many people will find that they come out far ahead in time and, obviously, money at the end of the month by not owning a car. Plus, you get the added benefit of being healthier with all the supplementary exercise you get from walking, biking and carrying your groceries a few blocks.
Last one, I swear…
You and/or a loved one will be seriously injured or die violently if you don’t [fill in the blank] immediately!!! Fear is the most recent and most motivating fallacy of the bunch. This tactic is being used to sell you overblown or completely unnecessary products and services (bullet-proof, laser-guided, super-robot security), insurance (“Experts say the sun will go supernova sometime in the next five billion years. Don’t be caught unprotected!”), get you to watch certain news shows (“An apple a day may kill you! Tune in at 10:00 for details!”), and generally control your lives (“Orange alert! Red alert! DEFCON 20!! Lady, drop the breast milk or I’ll shoot! Aiiig!!).
Unsurprisingly, with lies and anxiety being fair game for driving marketing campaigns, copious time and money goes into keeping us safe. The world is indisputably a rapidly changing and very different place than 1000, 200, 50 or even 10 years ago, but when you see fear being used to sell something, 99 times out 100 you can dismiss it by simply asking yourself “Has this apparent looming misfortune ever happened to anyone that I’ve ever met?” Another good test is asking yourself, “How do the people in [god forsaken place] deal with [ominous illness/disaster in question]?” The answer, all too frequently, is that they don’t. Primarily because they’re a little busy trying to feed their families or overthrow their dictator, but also because most of these potential calamities only befall about one person in a million and no sane person should preoccupy themselves with those odds. You might as well use that time and energy planning how to spend your lottery winnings. But since common sense doesn’t push product as effectively, we’ve been reduced to this.
Here’s a very short, but not remotely comprehensive list of truths about your health and security:
• Unless you have a private art gallery worth millions, you probably don’t need a state of the art security system and service.
• If you live in a place where common theft is a problem, a good idea is to not give anyone an excuse to rob you, chiefly by not filling your home with luxury items.
• With some very notable exceptions, most of the things that you’re encouraged to insure are things you didn’t actually need in the first place.
• Instead of sinking money into vitamins, pills, health club memberships, food fads, at-home fitness books/videos/equipment, etc, you can satisfy nearly all your health needs with moderate, non-exotic exercise (walking, running, biking) and a reasonable diet.
• You can inflict the same amount of damage by jamming your fingers into an attacker’s eyes than with any handheld weapon (stun gun, mace, firearm). Moreover, it takes less time to poke a finger than dig through your purse or jacket for said weapon. Finally, and it bears repeating, you’re more likely to shoot a loved one than an intruder.
Next week, using the sage common sense that I’ve exhaustively detailed above, I’ll illustrate how one can live like a European in the US by selectively dismissing false necessities.