Satisfaction Versus Happiness, And Change And Finality

A theme for discussion between a good friend and I over the last couple of years has been the existence of a dichotomy between life satisfaction and life happiness. We have been debating whether there is a difference between being satisfied with life and being happy about one’s life. We have discussed whether happiness is possible, and, if so, whether it is a desirable emotional state over an extended period of time. A related idea is whether one should measure the moral quality of one’s life by the metric of happiness (ie, if I am happy, then I live a “good” life and if I am unhappy, then I live a “bad” life).

I can’t say we’ve come to any meaningful conclusions so far and part of the problem seems to be that we can’t even agree on any meaningful definitions. This probably is not a unique or original discussion but we’re not familiar with the literature on it or else skeptical about the approach of some who have made attempts. Normally I am hesitant to engage in philosophical inquiry without agreeing on terms ahead of time but this is too “meta” at this point to do anything but grope around in the dark for a place to start so I’m going to pen a few thoughts as they stand now, as they come to me.

One thing we’ve pondered is whether there is room for any negative emotions in a person who is happy. Does one have to feel and describe oneself as “happy” ALL the time, MOST of the time, A LOT of the time or just SOME of the time to honestly bear the moniker? Does being happy mean ignoring or even repressing the negative emotions one might experience (sadness, anger, disappointment)? This gets at the question of whether happiness is authentic and human– does being happy necessitate disconnecting part of your emotional apparatus and living a kind of emotional lie?

What are the necessary components of a happy person’s life? Can one be happy in poverty? In sickness? In loneliness? Can one be happy in a moment of failure, or a lifetime full of it? Can the stupid be happy? The incompetent? The mean? Are there different varieties of happy, or just one? Different qualities, or just one? Is the happiness of an accomplished, healthy adult the same as the happiness of a decrepit moron? Is a child’s happiness like an adult’s? (And is an adult’s even possible?)

Is happiness possible for everyone, or just a lucky few? Does it come with hard work and discipline or is it connected to the genetic lottery and inbred disposition? A popular idea is that everyone can find work they love that they’re passionate about, yet only few people seem to describe their jobs or careers as emotionally fulfilling. Is happiness like these wonderful jobs or social roles?

Another thing we wonder about is whether happiness comes from accomplishments and milestones, things achieved and earned or accumulated, material or otherwise, or whether happiness is an outcome of process, procedure and the act of living itself? Can one be making progress towards things one wants, without ever getting them, and be happy or does a goal need to be seized to secure happiness along with it?

My friend spent some time reading some Arthur Schopenhauer with his wife and while I haven’t read it, the synopsis I got from him is that life is a living hell and the best one can hope to do is get as far away from the flames as possible. This view of the world might seem reasonable for someone living with chronic hunger, crushing poverty or within an active war zone or communist regime. But is it a reasonable conclusion for a young couple in a major American city who are closer to joining the top 1% than the bottom 1%?

This is where the idea of happiness becomes a moral weapon. If we don’t suffer any particular hardships, but we also don’t find ourselves emotionally fulfilled by our lives, does this mean we are not happy and must compound our circumstances by heaping moral approbation on ourselves for this emotional failure? Could we allow ourselves to acknowledge we are merely satisfied with our lives and get on with living them?

I think about dying (hopefully decades from now) without happiness. Ignoring that death itself doesn’t seem to be a happy circumstance however you go about it, I wonder if reaching that point and having a final or recent thought being “I didn’t manage to achieve happiness over the course of my life” kind of takes whatever satisfaction you might have up to that point away from you at the last moment leaving you with truly nothing. Not your life, not your friends and family, not your wealth and not even a final happy thought before you blink out of existence. (For those who cherish the idea of an afterlife, what if you make it into the kingdom of heaven a moral saint but your soul is plagued by a Woody Allen-esque neurotic paranoia with regards to contentment and joy? I realize the very notion might be blasphemous or at least theologically untenable but work with me here on the existential problem I am grasping at.)

Now what if I reach my point of universal departure and I am not happy, but I am confident my life was a satisfying one? I have no major complaints, I’ve got a few things I care quite a bit about and I learned enough about those things and how I relate to them to effect some kind of meaningful impact according to my values? Should I be disappointed at that point if that was the most I could manage?

I then try to follow this logic back from my eventual time of death to my present existence. Where am I “going”? I won’t know until I get there. What if where I am “going” is where I am right now? And I am not rapturous about life, but I am not miserable?

What if not much changes between now and then? I’m about who I am, I have about what I have, I suffer no major indignities, troubles or traumas and I just keep going about the routine I am in albeit as a slightly older person with each iteration? I dream and scheme, I work toward these goals but I don’t get “there.” Can I be satisfied with a satisfying life? Or must I start chastising myself somewhere down the line for my personal stagnation? Is life that much greater if it’s characterized by greater intensity and frequency over time of a particular pattern I’m engaged in right now? Is one happiness and the other only satisfaction?

I doubt anyone would want to read a book about my life right now. He ate this. He read that. He walked the dog. I might not live a life worth retelling by the time I die, either. Is that some kind of existential problem for me?

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Incoming Library Additions, And Why I Bought Them

I recently purchased 13 books for my library. However, I already regret doing so because I recently finished Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and it helped me to realize I already had a lot of unread books on my shelf that I will realistically never get to read because I’ve lost interest in their subject matter since I purchased them. To add 13 more books to a pile of unread books is wasteful of money and subtly increases my stress as I subconsciously keep track of “my giant stack of unread books.” Instead of reading being a pleasure that I can do when I feel like it, with a book I am currently interested in, I have created the conditions of a never-ending treadmill of progress project. Going forward, I am going to work through as many of these books as I can maintain interest in until one of two things happen: a.) complete the entire stack, at which point I can purchase a new title I am interested in reading, at the time I am interested in reading it or b.) sell/donate/discard all books I have not managed to read before I am overtaken by the impulse to purchase something else, which would serve as a good indicator that I’ve reached the limit of my interest from this current stack.

I have noticed that despite having access to an Amazon Prime account, I almost NEVER use the Prime, 2-day shipping feature. I am always happy to wait 3, 5 or sometimes even more days for books to arrive because I am usually in the middle of several books when I order another, and I have another reserve of several titles unread as well so I never worry about lost reading time. That should’ve been a good indication to me that there was something seriously wasteful in my habit!

That is my plan going forward. In the meantime, I thought it’d be good to record the titles I purchased along with the reason I purchased them. I want to formulate my interest as a question or questions I hope the book will help me answer. After all, this is why we read books– to answer questions we have about the book’s subject matter. I would like to develop the habit going forward of being more aware of my own questions and perceived purpose in reading books, especially to compare against on the occasion that a book positively surprises me and gets me thinking about a question I didn’t have before I arrived at it.

Here are my new books due to arrive soon:

  1. The School Revolution, by Ron Paul; we plan to homeschool our children, but could there ever be a (private) group schooling solution which would meet our family and social needs? I am interested in building alternative educational institutions that can “compete” the state and quasi-state institutions out of existence, is there merit to this idea and has Ron Paul thought through potential models for this that I could consider in my own efforts?
  2. How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell; I read and enjoyed Studwell’s Asian Godfathers and I want to know more about the managed economy models of southeast Asia, what is the true extent of “free market” influence in these major economies and how does it factor in to their growth stories since the 1960s?
  3. Elevating Child Care, by Janet Lansbury; I am interested in “Respect For Infant Education” as I have seen how transformative it is for parent-child relationships and child development after observing friends who use it in their families, what are the principles of RIE and what solutions and strategies does it offer for common parenting situations with infants?
  4. Before The Dawn by Nicholas Wade; what role did genetics and evolution play in early human history and what kind of evolution or genetic change is occurring in modern times and populations? What is the significance of race, genetically?
  5. The 10,000 Year Explosion, by Cochran and Harpending; how have changes in human technological know-how and social organization influenced human genetics at an individual or population level? What feedback loops exist such that genetic changes might result in further changes in technology and social organization?
  6. The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley; I am often mistaken for a pessimist and surely there is a lot to worry about for anyone who is rational and pays attention, but what is there to be optimistic about and why? What is the philosophical relationship between economic development and evolution?
  7. The Secret of Childhood, by Maria Montessori; what is childhood “really about”? What kinds of things are children capable of that we take for granted? How could I parent my future child with greater empathy for their capabilities and individual purpose?
  8. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, by Gordon Wood; was the American Revolution truly a “revolution”, politically and intellectually? What were the principles of government the “Founders” were truly after and why did they think this was an improvement over historical despotisms and English parliamentarism? If republicanism represents a true break with the political past, why isn’t it more common in history?
  9. Hive Mind, by Garrett Jones; is it more important to be part of a high IQ community, or to have a high IQ yourself? Can culture impact IQ (and raise it)? Could one consciously build a community or culture of high IQ people? What kind of outcomes or behaviors might be predictable in such a circumstance? Are IQs increasing or decreasing in the modern era and what is the consequence? Should I try to emigrate to a high IQ place and if so, where is that?
  10. The WikiLeaks Files, by WikiLeaks/Julian Assange; what are some of the high-level takeaways from the major WikiLeaks cable collections to date? How does one effectively search and scrutinize these cables for ones own research purposes? What does the information contained within these cables imply for the actual practice of global governance and foreign policy?
  11. Anarchy, State and Utopia, by Robert Nozick; is there a logically-consistent philosophical case for a minimalist government? Why is it intellectually superior to a private property society?
  12. Invisible Wealth, by Kling and Schulz; why do political borders and different legal systems seem to have such disparate impacts on economic development? Which follows which, the culture/political system or the economy? How sound is the idea of “competition amongst governments” and why don’t we see more countries’ policies moving toward a “developed” mean?
  13. The Logic of Collective Action, by Mancur Olson; what does the logic of collective action say about corporate governance structures in private companies? What warnings or limitations does it reveal for the conduct of public governance?

Review – The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

by Marie Kondo, published 2014

This is a work of philosophy under cover of personal organization and household habit. The question at the center of the book is “Why do you own what you own?” Put more bluntly, it is, “Why do you have so much stuff you don’t use and never will?” If those don’t seem like profound questions, maybe you don’t live your life and enjoy your material existence in a thoughtful way.

The book’s weakness, ironically, is in the specific tidying, folding and organizing methods Kondo advocates. Reading on Kindle, I did not find any helpful pictures or diagrams (but thankfully, there is a wealth of videos on YouTube where people have demonstrated her techniques) and I found the text-explanations of how to fold or where to store different things in a closet generally confusing. I believe my confusion will be relieved with some practice and patience in experimenting with different techniques over time. But if you’re hoping to learn the “KonMari Method” for folding, storing and the like, I don’t think this book is the best resource.

Instead, the book’s strength is its principles– always key to the strength of any philosophical work. Kondo suggests a general method for tidying one’s living space– start with your own possessions, then move to shared possessions; begin with clothes, then work through to other easily accumulated items such as books, kitchen and toilet supplies and finally to trinkets and trash; when tidying by category, locate ALL such possessions throughout the home and dump them in a pile on the floor before sorting. Anyone can grasp the principles of this method regardless of their specific circumstances. Her criteria for keeping things (note: this is a positive criteria, NOT a negative criteria for determining what to eliminate) is to hold the object and ask oneself, “Does this spark joy?” It seems ambiguous, emotional… subjective. But that’s the point! It’s a deeply individual approach to tidying. Neither Kondo nor anyone else can tell you what objects bring happiness to your life and which you can do without, you have to sense that on your own.

As a rational person I was alarmed by this at first. It seemed goofy and mystic, maybe not even serious. “Spark joy”, I don’t think in those terms. But I gave it some time and realized it made sense. I started thinking about shirts and sweaters and pants I look for an excuse to wear. I have a pair of corduroys, for example, that almost make me excited for cold weather. And then I have articles that are just taking up space in my dresser and closet, items that I can never seem to find a good opportunity to use them but nonetheless I keep holding on to them because they still fit and they are nice and in good condition. But every sweater I have that I don’t wear and won’t get rid of is another sweater I can’t acquire that I might actually enjoy.

When Kondo pointed out the cost of storing all this useless stuff, I was floored. I would never pay for a “self-storage” unit somewhere, or turn my garage into anything other than a place to put my car. In fact, I regularly shake my head when I peer into neighbor’s open garages as I walk past with my dog seeing them bulging with stacked crap all the way up to the door. What on earth are these people thinking? They’re never going to use this stuff!!

But then I realized that all the items I keep around my home that I have no use for is effectively absorbing part of my rent each month– I am paying to store these items! And what’s worse, as Kondo points out, much of the time these are items I bought in bulk to “save money” but which are in such significant supply that they will last me multiple months if not years. I am effectively floating the manufacturer’s inventory and parking part of it in my home, or thought of another way, I am subsidizing his production by buying several items I don’t really need and won’t ever use with each one I do need. Rather than saving money, I am costing myself– once for buying more than I needed and twice for paying to store it in my home. For me, I’d argue a third time with the emotional cost of being aware of and surrounded by these unused possessions that continually fail to “spark joy.” Just the other day I bought a pack of 12 pens for annotating books as I read. I was unhappy with my previous pens and wanted to try something new. I didn’t need 12 pens, I needed 1 or 2. But I bought 12 for around $10 because I was “saving” money over buying a pack of 3 for $5. The problem is, it turns out I kind of hate these pens and now I have enough to last me a couple years at my current rate of use. Kondo made this so clear to me!

Another startling revelation was the way I’ve shifted some of my own tidying burden to family members. It’s hard to visit my childhood home at times because my parents have a bad case of hoarding. But I’ve had no problem storing my finished or unread books in an unused room of the house I used to occupy when I occasionally stop by. One part of me has been mentally scolding my parents for hoarding and not cleaning up their living space. But another part of me has been dumping off my own clutter on them, completely unaware! I have resolved to go over there and dump a bunch of the stuff that remains.

While I am excited to declutter clothes (and look forward to the opportunity to purchase new articles I might actually enjoy wearing with the newly freed space), hallway closets, linen storage, bathroom and kitchen cupboards and more, one area I struggled with was her suggestion for decluttering one’s library. I love books. Or, rather, I love the idea of reading my books. But Kondo helped me clarify another meaningful point– many of the books I purchase and do not read were meant only to gratify my own ego, ie, “It’d be so great to know more about X.” When I purchase a book and don’t read it for months, I probably won’t read it ever. The inspiration and desire to study that topic has come and gone. I have made the mistake, time and time again, of purchasing far more books than I could ever hope to read and that I will ever be able to sustain an interest in. It’s wasteful.

There are a few books I really do enjoy and which I will read again. There are books I’d like to keep which I may not read again, but which I believe my children will gain a benefit from studying at an appropriate time in their life as I did. You can argue that it’d be better to buy them their own copy at that time, which is true, but this is a limited case in which I am okay holding on to a few titles for them in the meanwhile. But most of the books I own that I haven’t read yet, won’t get read– they’ll remain as costly monuments to an ambition not realized. And many more which I have read and absorbed from them what I can will similarly sit on my shelves unused as a monument to the hope that there is more juice to squeeze. But the pulp is dry at this point. I have made another resolution, which is to keep the few titles I know I will re-read because I’ve re-read in the past, the few titles I want to share with my kids and the few titles I am excited to read in the next month or two at my normal pace of reading. Everything else (read, unread) is getting sold or donated. I want to have a limited library of titles that “spark joy” and feel good to see on my shelf and not a stack of paper that I subconsciously feel a burden to get to as some kind of project.

Marie Kondo’s “Life Changing Magic” invites us to live our lives more consciously and to purchase, use and store with purpose. Any book that helps me to resolve logical contradictions in my own thoughts and actions is valuable to me. I took far more away from this book than I thought I would going into it given that I already have a reputation for being a neat freak!

 

Quotes – Living A Purposeful Life

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

~Viktor Frankl

The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.

~Frank Wilczek

Why We Travel

The Wolf and I¬†were kicking around a few links via e-mail the other day as we (she) put the finishing touches on our South America excursion. We were reading something from one of Tim Ferriss’s guest writers about “how to travel”. The guy was a little sanctimonious in the beginning but ultimately offered some tips I found valuable for getting the most out of my upcoming travels.

I say it was a little sanctimonious as if I am displeased. But as a sanctimonious person myself, I mostly took interest. What the guest author was on about was “good” and “bad” reasons to travel. As I read it, I have to say I couldn’t figure out how anyone could have a “good” reason… it all seemed to boil down to restlessness borne of subtle, unaddressed displeasure with one’s usual circumstances.

I thought about why I like to travel. I noticed a lot of my reasons boiled down to this nagging insecurity and unhappiness thing. I haven’t found a way to rationalize my way out of that bag (and maybe I never will), so in the meantime I thought I’d “invert, always invert” (erroneously attributed by naive financial market philosophes to Charlie Munger) and pose it this way:

Why wouldn’t you want to travel?

I came up with a short, condescending list, in no particular order:

  • You’re completely unaware there is a world of other people and experiences outside the narrow confines of your everyday life
  • You can’t afford it (ultimately because you don’t prioritize the experience highly enough to take the steps necessary to produce enough for others in exchange to pay the cost)
  • You’re a racist
  • You’re intimidated by foreign languages and awkward some-English interpersonal encounters
  • You don’t like the food
  • You realize churches and temples are bizarre no matter where they are in the world and, seeing as how most travelers eventually wind-up staring at a place of foreign worship at some moment or another in their trip, you decide to skip it and stay home
  • You are a Zen-like being of perfect self-knowledge and self-control and there is no felt uneasiness you feel the need to relieve yourself of by journeying beyond your present place and state; in fact, you are so consumed by your enlightened presence that you don’t even travel into the kitchen for a snack… ultimately you stay right where you are until you sublimate into supreme nothingness (aka, you die and leave a smelly mess for the neighbors to find)

I think when you put it this way, it’s pretty clear why we travel and it’s really hard to come up with a reason why you wouldn’t live life exactly as we are (take THAT, Zen master!)