Wednesday, January 30, 2008

States of happiness. Part 2.

To pick up where we left off last time: Finishing 23rd on a list of 178 might not seem that bad. It's just that when you consider what this nation has going for it objectively—the wealth, the opportunity, the sheer diversity of possible lifestyles, wherein just about anybody except serial killers* should be able to find a comfortable niche—you come away wondering how we missed being first or second.

Not to get all sappy and patriotic about it, but it's remarkable what the U.S. has achieved despite being, in global terms, an infant nation: about 300 years of total history under our collective belt, Colonial years included. Today, we are the world's only true superpower. Ninety-five percent of us are employed. Current economic uncertainties notwithstanding, we enjoy, in the overall, a high standard of living. We have available to us an array of consumer products and services that no other nation in the world can equal, or in most cases even approach. Despite the incessant (and, yes, often valid) carping from the Green crowd, we have an abundance of breathtakingly beautiful open spaces for personal or family enjoyment. The menu of sports to be watched or played at almost any level is mind-boggling. So is the cornucopia of other leisure activities, many of which are free.

This may come as a shock to readers who've learned to take at face value ex-candidate John Edwards' perpetual hand-wringing over "the two Americas"**, but in multinational terms, even our poor aren't poor. I'm not out to politicize this post in any way. I'm simply going to list a few facts about "poverty, American-style," as an article in Human Events recently put it. Based on Census Bureau figures and official government benchmarks, here are just a few of the amenities commonly possessed by families living in poverty, as we define it:

* A home of their very own, 46 percent. (The average home owned by an American classified as poor features 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, and both a garage and a porch.)
* A color TV, 97 percent. (Over half own at least two color TVs.)
* A refrigerator, 95 percent.
* Air conditioning, 76 percent.
* A car, almost 75 percent. Almost 30 percent of America's poor own two cars....

You get the picture (and so do they: 62 percent of America's poor also have satellite TV. I don't have satellite TV). Bottom line, we should've at least finished ahead of Bhutan. And if you think I'm making too much of our 23rd-place finish, just Google the question "Why aren't we happy?", as I've done here, and see how many people agree that we're not getting the mileage we should be getting out of the happiness that's there for the taking. That irony was not lost on the Times of India, which, noting America's so-so ranking on the happiness map in an editorial, threw in this zinger: "...even though it was the first republican democracy in the world to incorporate the pursuit of happiness in its Constitution as a worthy national goal."

It becomes hard to avoid certain questions that we've asked before: Could it be that the conscious pursuit of happiness itself causes unhappiness? Is it coincidence that America-the-only-moderately-happy-in-spite-of-itself is also the venue for the most feverish activity of the self-help movement?

I'm not the only one who thinks such questions are worth asking. I linked to this a few posts back, but it bears highlighting again in this context.

I go back, also, to my own piece on happiness, which I'm not going to bother to link anymore: If you teach people to constantly question "how things are going in my life," they're going to find problems (or, worse, invent them). That is not an implied argument for having your head in the sand. I'm not saying, for example, that women who are locked in abusive, unfulfilling marriages should just "learn to make do." I'm saying that everyone who's human and lives a real human life is going to have things missing from it. That is not unhappiness, per se. In most cases, it's just life. The ability to recognize that as life—and not obsess over fixing it, improving it, or even straining for a way to rationalize it—is one of the most important preludes to happiness. If there is a gravest sin of which the Happiness Movement is guilty, it's that of taking people who might have been neutral about their lives and, under the guise of "fully actualizing" them, forcing them to focus primarily on what they don't yet have. (And may never have.) In the name of happiness, then, that movement induces people who see the glass as half-full, or who have no particular feelings on the glass, to see it instead as half-empty. That's unforgivable, in my view.

Let me also say this: A visitor criticized me last time by pointing out what s/he no doubt saw as a "winning" irony: that for a guy who says we talk too much about happiness, I sure talk an awful lot about happiness. With all due respect, that strikes me as a pretty facile interpretation of what I've been trying to accomplish here (and on this blog as a whole). In truth, I'm doing the exact opposite of what the Happiness Movement is doing: I'm telling people who are already thinking far too much about happiness to stop doing that. In a nutshell, my basic argument is this: Most of us have within our grasp the ingredients of a happy life. We have ample happiness available to us, but we don't see it (or appreciate it for what it is) because our eyes are focused much farther down the road (or over the neighbor's fence and into the expanse of his supposedly much greener grass). I'd be, well, happy to stop talking about happiness if I could get everyone else to stop worrying about how happy they are and just live their lives!

I think there's no better way to close than by invoking my adorable, sweet-natured, deeply religious goddaugther, Lauren (shown on her cell phone, which makes her very happy). When she was small, she used to say now and then, totally out of the blue, "Jesus says, Be happy what you have." While I'm not goin' Mike Huckabee on you here, the expression has obvious value without ever bringing Jesus into it.

Take it from Lauren: Be happy what you have. You probably have a lot more to be happy about than you thought you did.

* and maybe even including them. See, by the way, the new TV series, Dexter, whose dubious hero is a serial killer.
** which of course was already a favorite media story line before Edwards discovered it.


The Crack Emcee said...

Yea, when I was in the Navy and saw people in the Philippines, digging through garbage dumps for their dinner, that made me think a lot about what we call "poverty" back in South Central, L.A., let me tell you. Eating rice for dinner. Entire neighborhoods sharing a single fridge, with ice being treated like an expensive form of ice cream. Mothers escorting their daughters around in dog collars because they can't be trusted not to sell themselves with all the (American) sailors on leave around. It made me sick.

The hostility I faced, when I returned home and brought up the difference to my friends, was blistering too. (Still is.) People here - white and black - do seem to have some special need to see themselves as hurting, oppressed, put-upon, held-down, backed against a wall, etc., and, for the life of me, I don't know why. It seems so opposite of what I think of as The American Character: Hard-working, industrious, etc.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I think it has to do with the 60s and it's identification with the Civil Rights Movement, etc., and some people's idea that, after Watergate, they're *positive* we're all being oppressed by some hidden someone, or something (like, right now, it's supposed to be Bush and the Republicans) they just can't let it go.

I don't know if it's related or not but, as I continue to crawl out of my post-divorce financial trap (I've got a place but still getting a handle on my bills) I notice that, when I have to ask people for assistance, they'll never do what I need to keep the ball rolling, but insist I do what they tell me - no matter how inconvenient. It's weird.

And, finally, about happiness: Last night I got a 3AM call from an old friend, who's also in a financial scrape, just to "talk". As he was going on about whether it was "cool" to call so late, I was glowing, because it's been so long since anyone had treated me as someone they could really confide in. (I'm supposedly "nuts" now, remember,...) We talked until about 6AM, and laughed our asses off, covering every possible topic under the sun. It was truly brilliant. And everything, I think, "life" is supposed to be about.

Steve Salerno said...

A great little self-contained vignette, Crack. Thanks. Now put your ass back on and get some sleep....

roger o'keeffe from nyc said...

Even though you show her on her cellphone, which I thought mildly ironic, your god-daughter is indeed adorable and looks quite sweet. She looks like the kind of girl who would say the words you attribute to her, unlike so many of the spoiled little brats this culture has churned out over the past generation.

At the same time, I'm glad you put some emphasis in this latest blog on the material aspects of happiness. As I've said before I don't think we need to flinch away from those, as if the only things that really matter in life are the sunsets and moonlit walks. Maybe you don't need to drive a Benz to be happy, but it does help to have a car of some kind to drive. You need some base-level degree of security and, dare I even say it, comfort. The starving artist may be validated, but ask him how really happy he is.

Steve Salerno said...

Roger: Tell me about it. In fact, you illuminate one of the central tensions of any "artistic" pursuit. There have been times in my career when I've been a (not quite) starving artist, or at least produced work that pretended to that label, and there have been times in my career when I've been a quite successful "hack" (i.e. taking on projects/assignments that had no aesthetic purpose whatsoever, but provided a nice paycheck). Just about every writer who isn't Norman Mailer or Toni Morrison faces that dilemma now and then: where you're "prostituting" your artistic side in order to pay the bills. And what you imply about validation vs. happiness is very true. It feels quite validating to say, via your work itself or in actual words spoken to some editor or agent, "Look, I wrote this the way I wanted to write it, and I'm proud of my work; take it or leave it." But when you have other people dependent on you for their well-being, you end up unhappy in your state of validation, and even somewhat ashamed of it.

Anonymous said...

Just as a matter of perspective, so few of us are able to "be who we are" in the workplace. Rather than being the world's greatest poet and naturalist, we're editing books on cleaning or vitamins; rather than being the greatest judge since Solomon, we're working shifts at Barnes & Noble or Mack Trucks. As with everything else, it's a question of balance and perspective: Acknowledge that you have to pay the bills, but you also have to be who you are, and make room for your "real" self after work hours so you can keep your dream alive and still keep up to date with your payments. Make your pots or jewelry or take your photos or write your novels, and make sure you make the time to get them into the public eye; someday you may be able to create fulltime--but only if you pave the way in your "spare" time now.

Cosmic Connie said...

What's also noteworthy is that many if not most of today's leading SHAM/selfish-help/New-Wage gurus are in fact pushing the gratitude idea (i.e., start with being grateful for what you already have). Rhonda Byrne is even selling a leather-bound "Gratitude Journal" to "Secret" fans now. Exploitation issues aside, the reminder to be grateful is, IMO, excellent advice, which most of us forget all too often.

On the surface, then, it would seem the gratitude SHAMsters are right in sync with the ideas you expressed on this post and elsewhere on your blog.

Yet at the same time that they are preaching gratitude, they are also preaching, "You can -- and DESERVE to -- have it all. You can do, be, or have ANYTHING you want." And there is the implicit if not explicit message that if you don't happen to want a lot more than you already have, you are an underachiever or slacker, or at the very least you have poor self-esteem.

I know of more than one of these gurus who claim to have reached a rarefied state of achievement and happiness, and yet they keep striving for more, more, more -- while, of course, encouraging their target audience to want more, more, more right along with them. One of them likes to quote a friend of his who says, "I'm totally satisfied; I just want more!"

The gurus' message always seems to be that once you're in the zone (and they, of course, can sell you books and products and services to get you in the zone), happiness is effortless and miracles are everyday occurrences. Of course, they always present it as a win-win situation.

Yet -- and this comes back to the old collateral-damage issue discussed at length on this blog -- many of these pathologically happy souls have left incredible wreckage behind in their lives. If they talk about their pasts at all they put a positive spin on it as they do everything else they utter. Sure, bad stuff happened in the past; loved ones may have been cast aside, and some have even died... but meanwhile, the gurus' adventures continue.

I guess I'm not really saying anything new here, just reinforcing the idea that the SHAM/New-Wage-inspired obsession over the pursuit of happiness has, in many ways, helped create our society of malcontents.

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, Connie, thank you for making that all-important point: that the pursuit of individual happiness cannot be assessed in a vacuum; it must be balanced by the impact that the enhancement of one's own happiness has on others. The final irony of this whole deal is that the individual obsessed with his own fulfillment may suffer (and/or inflict) a double-whammy: He plays havoc with the hearts and minds of those who depend on him, and in the end, it doesn't even make him happier!

Anonymous said...

It's one thing to say "Be happy, be grateful, be content with who you are/what you have." It's quite another to say "Be happy, be grateful, be content with who you are/what you have, and, oh by the way, pay me and I'll show you how to do all that." It's that last bit that reveals the self-help profiteers for who they really are, whether they're preaching the mantra of more or are simply preaching.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of art,somewhere along the way, society began to think commerce and art did not go hand in hand. When you speak of "artists" who do not get paid for their "art," you might want to mention whether or not they have any talent. A lot of people "think" they are talented artists, but really are just hacks who are pursuing a hobby. In the last couple of decades, everyone thinks they are artistic and talented and the next Van Gogh. Van Gogh was an abnomally and the exception to the rule. Artistic genius is usually recognized in its own time, but this fact usually gets bypassed to assuge someone's ego. Prince comes to mind right now as a musical genius in our time. The Roman Catholic Church sponsored a great deal of the art that influences Western culture today and it was not all religious. This an example of commerce and art meeting. Of course, you had to have training and talent to be employed by the Vatican. Now if you tell someone they do not have talent in a certain artistic area, it is if you are telling them they have no worth as a human being. As an artist, I wish I could be a CPA and have a regular job, but I am not built that way and believe me I have tried. I have a number of jobs that pay the bills and I keep honing my craft in my spare time. It kills me to hear of "self-taught" artists who think they are the next Picasso or Michelangelo. Picasso was a trained artist, as was Michaelangelo. Toni Morrison spent years sculpting her art and has advanced degrees. She did not write Beloved overnight. Monkeys can paint and type, but that does not make them artists. As far as happy, I am a happy and content person who pursues my art and pays my bills. My side jobs do not define me, but I am a born artist and come from a family of artists.

Steve Salerno said...

This is a very complex topic with many sub-topics that are complex in their own right. Your opening thought seems to imply that, in the final analysis, you can tell whether people are truly talented by whether or not their "art" connects/sells. If that were the case, then the best artists in any given realm would seem to be those with the strongest sales figures. And if that is true, then I guess Rhonda Byrne is the best writer working in America today, inasmuch as her book, The Secret, outsold just about anything else last year.

I don't think it's ever quite that simple, in any aesthetic realm. I'm not sure who gets to decide "what's art," but it can't just come down to sales figures. (Is John Legend among the best American singers today? I don't think so. In fact, I'm pretty sure he isn't. But he sure sells.) On the other hand, it seems to me that one cannot plausibly take the elitist position, either: that "real art" is inaccessible to the great unwashed masses, and is really only appreciated by other great artists.

Anyone else want in on this? This topic has fascinated me for years, and I'm never quite sure how I, myself, feel.

Anonymous said...

You totally missed my point. Prince has had quite a few bombs as far as sales go, but few would say he is not a musical genius. Few people fall into the Prince or Toni Morrison catagories, most fall between genius and bad. I am commenting on the idea that everyone thinks what they write, paint, or create falls into the "I am a misunderstood genious" realm. There is some sort of cultural mystique about being an artist that everyone wants to say they are. People are creative, but that does not make everyone an artist. You can be creative changing a tire or being a CPA, but that does not mean your memoir should be read by the masses and applauded or you should get a book deal for it. The "L" word, luck not love, plays a big part in whether or not you will be able to make money in your chosen art. This has historical precedence. The Dutch wanted still lifes in the 1600's and Rhembrandt decided to go in a different direction and died bankrupt. The Dutch still thought he was a genious at the time, but just didn't want to buy his paintings. Rhembrandt's bad business sense was Judith Leyster's chance to shine and female painters did quite well with still lifes. So if you are a decent artist and do the work necessary, you will be "discovered." Maybe the reason most are not "discovered" is due to the fact there is nothing to "discover."

Anonymous said...

BTW, self-helpers mostly write non-fiction and Toni Morrison is a fiction writer. I put Toni Morrison in the literary artist catagory. You are talking about two entirely different beasts when discussing non-fiction writing with literary writing.

Steve Salerno said...

You're pretty sure of yourself in all of your determinations, and I think you should consider that perhaps you're the one offering the superficial analysis here. There is no difference, necessarily, between fiction and nonfiction if what we're talking about is the impact on/effect on the consumer. Which is a "better" painting? A painting that people consider beautiful and nicely interpretive of life? Or a painting that--somehow, if it were possible--motivates people to make important changes in their lives? Is something an "important literary work" because it contains many nice turns of phrase and offers well-formed characters in an engaging story line Or is something more of a literary work of art if it actually improves our lives, or our outlook on life itself? Which is the "better" movie? Sophie's Choice, which was a "brilliant" rendering of the dualities in human nature that left most viewers with a sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs? Or Happy Feet, which had no pretensions of anything but left people in a bubbly frame of mind? Who gets to make those calls? And in setting ourselves up as the arbiters of same, are we not being just a little bit arrogant and self-centered?

Anonymous said...

So the Secret will be taught to ninth graders instead of Romeo and Juliette? Time is the arbitrator of art. Art does not have to make you happy. So what if Sophie's Choice made you queasy? That seemed to be the goal of the filmmaker and it influence you, because you used it as an example. Art is not always about making the observer happy.

Steve Salerno said...

But which is the more valuable in human terms? Is it better to be made to think? Or to be made happy? Would those of us who spend good time (and voluminous amounts of it) trying to "enrich" people by making them think actually be performing a more valued service to society simply by making them smile/laugh?

And how do you reconcile your two statements, "Artistic genius is usually recognized in its own time" (from your earlier comment) and "Time is the arbitrator [sic] of art"? Which is it?

Anonymous said...

>>>Artistic genius is usually recognized in its own time

Did you mean to type that? Because it's simply just not true.

I think the term "happiness" might be misunderstood in a societal context. I like the term "slack." There is far less slack in America than there used to be.

I don't want to seem to be painting everything with a glowing brush, but it was nonetheless true that at one time a person could join a company and eventually rise through the ranks to head that company because he knew *the company*. With the rise of a "professional managerial class," a wedge was placed between those aspiring at the bottom and those at the top. More than a wedge, in fact: an outright roadblock.

See Katherine Newman in "Falling from Grace," the chapter about the Singer Sewing Machine Company and its ruination by just such a "management class."

I think most people felt happier in the early 1960s because they could envision an exciting future for themselves, whether or not it was actually possible.

Today, people feel the pressure of everyone else against them and can't point to any particular reason. But I think that's a major part of it: they sense advancement is now only for a select few -- and they were never given a voice in the matter.

Anonymous said...

Mike Cane, what a very true observation. I've seen that phenomenon bring ruination to companies I've worked for, as well. And of course there's the disillusionment and cynicism of the non-managerial employees who feel unvalued and shut out. I suppose the good that's come of this is the rise of small, creative, independent businesses--usually developed by laid-off employees and worked from home, at least initially. In a way, this mimics the Great Depression, when many great companies got their start because out-of-work people put their genius hats on and invented things, from board games like Monopoly to candy bars, that are still porduced and enjoyed to this day.