I wanted to post an addendum to my previous post about the American Dream, but I’m not going to. It got wordy and boring. I was running in circles trying to patch up holes that either can’t be patched, or that don’t need to be. I can’t think of every thing that needs to be said, nor can I string it all together in a sensible way… so use your own awesome thinking brains to do that, as needed, for yourselves.
This post, then, will be its own bumbling analysis of the murky nature of happiness, to which the American Dream often seems directed.
Before we get to that, a few points from my ill-fated addendum:
1. I do in fact think the “American Dream” approach sucks, as is.
2. I used the term “American Dream” because it plugs us right into the mindset of “Why is living in America desirable?” and because the term itself can accommodate myriad answers to that question.
3. We cannot pursue unity through an ethos that encourages limitless material acquisition. Think of “manifest destiny.” That fucked up, and continues to fuck up, millions of native people and their communities. If we apply that on an individual basis, we’re making a promise to each other to be really shitty friends.
I finished another book last week. And then another one three days later.
I use audiobooks, by the way. They’re my new craze.
While landscaping – assuming no one tries to talk to me or anything stupid like that – I can log seven solid hours of auditory book reading each day.
Talk about edumuhcated.
The first was Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert.
As is noted in the introduction, or the foreword, or whatever he calls it, this is not a guide to happiness. It’s a collection of surveys and studies, and consequent discoveries, that help explain why we are not happy, especially in situations in which we most expect to be happy. One big shocker Gilbert drops is that buying new shit doesn’t make anyone happy. There is also a decent amount of attention paid to the fact that we are fucking TERRIBLE at even describing what happiness is.
The best summation of its findings I could muster might be: We suck at predicting our own happiness, so try new things and suffer – your memories will bring you happiness. Also, being around people you value matters more than basically everything.
The second book I finished was Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis.
It turns out Michael Lewis has written a literal shitload of books, including pop culture icons like The Blind Side, Moneyball, and that other one.
Flash Boys, like many of his books, is about finance. It details the struggles of a few guys who stumbled into the inner circle of Wall Street, realized how fucked it was (the word “rigged” is used many times), and then attempted to create a solution, via a new stock exchange with new rules.
They left high-paying jobs and constantly turned down offers for even higher-paying jobs to do something they thought worthwhile – leveling the investing playing field.
I’m not sure what my takeaway is from this one. Maybe that means I shouldn’t be writing a blog post right now.
I guess it was cool to hear about people with all the knowledge and access they needed to milk the markets for staggering wealth, who instead used that knowledge and access to challenge the established order. Rage against the machine and all that.
I guess that’s my takeaway from life so far – I’m more personally successful when I challenge common life-logic. (When I say “personally successful,” I mean I can sit back as the observer of my choices and say, “Good looks. Keep it up, homeslice.”) I’m no maverick, but I do try to stay alert for any signs I’m slipping into the jetstream of easy choices. I try to make sure I’m doing things I care about, instead of boring things that might bring me rewards other people care about.
I’ve also noticed – touching back on Stumbling on Happiness – that suffering does improve my outlook. Just today I had to shovel sludge (which probably contained decomposed animals, judging by the ungodly amount of hair in there) out of a drained pool, and then spray acid on the walls and pressure-wash it. It was revolting and hot and quite the opposite of comfortable, but I was smiling and laughing the whole time. I kept thinking to myself, “Dreams do come true.” Haha, I’m laughing even now. I was so entertained by the whole scene. It was miserable and amazing.
By the way, if you’re wondering why a landscaper would be cleaning out a pool, join the fucking club.
Related to suffering, I’ve likewise noticed that loosening my grip on safety greatly increases the likelihood of my happiness. From driving across the country (alone or with friends), to moving to Wyoming, to spending a Winter in Puerto Rico, to publishing my sick thoughts on this back-alley internet smut board, some of my most enjoyable experiences have been the result of jettisoning comfort and safety. None of these choices were easy or predictable, but that’s exactly why they have been so valuable. Safety is safe (you’re welcome for that) and predictable – you know what you’re going to get, so risk is minimal. And obviously, since you know what you’re going to get, you have no surprises, no new experiences, and you learn nothing. Taking risks, on the other hand, allows you to learn and be surprised, and to have a bit of pride that you sacked up and did something you wanted to do, despite the risks.
The next book I started, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande, has a lot to say about this very idea (Yea, I’m really jacked up on how these books keep flowing into each other). I’m a little more than halfway finished, but thus far, Gawande is exploring the efficacy of different types of care for the elderly, in all states of physical and mental health. What he’s found is that while children prioritize safety for their aged parents (they want to make sure they’re in good hands so they don’t have to worry about them), the parents themselves totally fucking hate it.
They don’t want to be locked into strict nursing home schedules of waking up, eating, taking medicine, knitting shitty scarves, and dozing off watching Matlock. They don’t want to be confined to wheelchairs, even if they might wipe out three times on the way to the bathroom. They don’t want someone telling them they can’t slug margaritas just because they have diabetes (that’s not a quote, but I didn’t make it up – it’s in the book). What the elderly want is to live, and to live with the autonomy to take any risks they damn well please, though maybe with someone around to help them up when they do (figuratively) eat shit on the way to the bathroom.
Communities for the elderly that have relaxed the facility-resident relationship, and thus the rules and regimentation therein, have seen significant improvement in the residents’ engagement with each other and life in general, and in their life spans as well.
Something else Gawande found is that people like to have purpose. He cites several experiments in which dogs or cats or birds, and in one case all three, were brought into nursing homes or assisted-living facilities as pets. Residents who previously couldn’t be bothered to leave their rooms were suddenly volunteering to walk the dogs. People who barely spoke were bonding over care of the cats or the birds. And again, death rates dropped.
I’m twenty six. I’m not old, but I also like having the autonomy to make my own schedule and take risks as I see fit. I also like having a purpose. Unfortunately, I occasionally try to take these things away from myself.
I lock myself into responsibilities I later regret. I play it safe because I need to save money or because “I should really start getting my shit together.” I take on too few responsibilities and then sit around staring at the walls, wondering why life is so boring.
I don’t think I’m alone there. I think we all sabotage our own happiness, at one time or another. I can’t say for sure why we do this, but I feel like it has to do with thinking too damn much. You can’t reason out how to take a risk because you just see the risks. You can’t use reason to make friends – “He plays volleyball, like me, and also enjoys funny videos of cats. I bet we’ll be best pals!”
No, it doesn’t work like that. That guy’s a total dick, by the way.
Happiness can’t be reasoned out. This should be obvious since, again, we can’t even say what the fuck it is. It’s a feeling. It’s a surge of excitement and enjoyment that accompanies the most expansive experiences of our lives.
I really don’t know where to end this. I’m not going to tell you how to be happy because that would be just about the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever done.
Let’s just promise ourselves we won’t settle. For anything. Let’s keep moving, internally and externally. Let’s keep trying on new thought patterns and ideas. Let’s keep meeting people and trying to understand them. Let’s keep taking risks that feel right because they feel right. Let’s use our lives to make shit better for people we care about, so they can make things better for people they care about. It’ll be just like Pay It Forward, except hopefully Haley Joel Osment won’t get stabbed in the end!