This is my effort to offer additional depth to our blog. Something that goes beyond reporting our experiences, rather to reach to explore the depth of reflection that our experiences inspire (when interacting with all our previous experiences and education). In short: what do I think about all day while riding my bicycle week after week? Here is a peek, though you may need several sittings for this to soak up all the links I sprinkled in.
A theme that has arisen not only on this journey but also on the first Fueled By Rice journey, on my own journey as a university teacher in China before that trip, and is frequently surfacing in the journeys of many of my peers around the world: Happiness and the close-following fundamental question: the meaning of life, or, how best should I spend my life? I have also bumped up against these and related questions during my study of international development as a global master of development practice (MDP), which I will explore further below. For those outside the field, international development is concerned with interdisciplinary global poverty and environmental problems, and, in short, aims to improve the quality of life of all people (but especially the poorest of the poor – the “bottom billion“) while ensuring we don’t destroy the planet in the process – that is to say, Sustainable Development.
I know that I am not the only one seeking happiness and fullfillment. In fact, I’m pretty sure most of us are, though our levels of awareness and capability in doing so, as well as our “capacities to aspire,” vary (see Arjun Appadurai’s piece, The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition,Stanford University Press. 2004.) But more importantly, I’ve observed a growing challenge (both in quantity of people doing it and their conviction and courage to do so) to the traditional paths to traditional definitions of success amongst not only my peers (the young global middle class) but also among a smaller number of middle-aged people. Traveling brings me in contact with some of these people because some are also international travelers or ex-pats. Many are often seeking alternative lifestyles that are some how different from the traditional lifestyles of their home cultures because they were not satisfied in those traditional lifestyles and they had the courage to try something different. Whether you’ve noticed similar trends or not, I hope that my reflections here, a collection of related encounters, will spur your own contemplation and perhaps broaden your understanding of what your own Life’s possibilities and paths to happiness are.
Last summer (2012) I met with my American friend, Nick, who like me, also headed to China to teach university English as a volunteer after college at St. John’s. It was a powerful experience that changed his life, as it did mine, including a 20-hour work week, plus 6-12 hrs a week of voluntary Chinese classes, wonderful cultural exchange with eager students, and a small but sufficient salary (around US$400/month with a free apartment). He has been thinking about happiness and lifestyle choice a lot in recent years. His thinking led him to experiment with some friends to start their own English school in Shenzhen, China. Although it was a good experience, they didn’t have enough students to make it worthwhile. After one year, Nick decided to to leave the school and try something different. He now works with a Minneapolis-based company in their China office near Shanghai in a kind of self-created liaison role between the two to improve communication, efficiency, and mutual cultural understanding, while reducing misunderstanding and errors.
All the while, he was reflecting on what he really needs to be happy, especially concerning his work situation. He came to several conclusions that I had also reached.
First, excessive Income is not needed and does not lead to greater happiness, therefore maximizing income should not be a goal. A common human weakness is that one often wants more money, stuff, comfort, and security and it is too easy to never be satisfied while constantly postponing one’s happiness until one gets or does x, y, and z. Van Halen sings in “Right Here Right Now,” “the more you get, the more you want, just trade in one for another, working so hard to make it easy, gotta turn this thing around, right now!” Happiness is available to us right now; it is an attitude and state of mind, and the Buddhist way is to stop wanting. Enough money is needed, yes, and where one is living is a large factor as to how much is enough, but Nick read that generally a person’s happiness doesn’t improve much with increasing income over US$30,000/year for one person, which can usually go far enough for a simple lifestyle in a developed country and would be a luxurious amount in a developing country. Families naturally would add accordingly.
Second, Time – including free time – is valuable, not because “time is money” but the opposite: because money’s value actually has a limit (in buying happiness given the first point) and free time is our life, it is when we do everything we love (besides the minority who honestly love their job). Furthermore, one’s time is priceless, as Kansas sings in “Dust in the Wind,” “…and all your money won’t another minute buy.” Why not face the fact that we can never be paid enough for our time in this life, so we might as well strive to do something we love, even if for less money? Of course this may very well include periods of time in jobs we don’t love that are stepping stones to our long-term goals.
Third and similarly, Nick and I both value Freedom over higher income. For example, we would be willing to take a pay cut to ensure having not only significant vacation/holiday time to travel abroad to visit old friends and make new ones, as well as time for family camping trips (minimum 4 weeks a year able to be taken together as one chunk as most Europeans have), but also flexible freedom throughout the work week so we are not trapped in an office during unproductive periods, but rather work to complete projects by their deadlines at our own pace without regard to what hours in a day, week, month, or year we use to get that work done.
This connects to another encounter I had this year with my German friend, Kathryn. She said her transition from school (a masters program) to work was very hard. She found that one of the hardest parts was having to be at the office and expected to be productive for 8-10 hours a day. She found that usually by 3-4pm or right after lunch, her productivity often gets so low and she is so mentally tired that it would be much better if she could just leave the office for some fresh air and physical activity (or a nap – kudos to the siesta) for a couple hours and later accomplish in 1 hour what ends up taking 2-3 hours because of mental exhaustion. Yet traditional work systems continue to require people to be in the workplace during set times, despite the illogic to workers’ productivity and happiness (not to mention my friends who often eat a small lunch in their cube and don’t even get that break from the office).
Another example of this point is a Chinese friend who worked for a high-end magazine in Beijing. She often complained to me about how she couldn’t get anything done at the office because she was often interrupted by co-workers stopping by her cubicle or stopping her on her way to the copy machine to gossip. Though her boss wasn’t thrilled about it, she finally switched schedules and became a night owl and went to the office from 11pm-8am to get her work done away from distracting co-workers to save the gossip time to do the things she wanted to do – away from the office and with people of her choosing.
Thankfully, I have heard that some companies are experimenting with flexible work schedules, including “working from home” (which could mean working from the coffee shop, the kids’ swimming lessons, or the beach in Mexico or Thailand) with positive results – higher quality products from happier employees. The Internet makes it all possible, and I believe and hope we will all see more of this in the future.
More physical, labor-intensive jobs may have different or similar struggles which I would love to hear more about through comments to this blog post. From my own experience leading youth landscaping teams as a summer job with Tree Trust in Minneapolis, it seems the traditional work day is more suitable as work usually has to happen at a specific work site.
Back to Encounter 1
Finally, Nick and I both value being Passionate about our work, that is finding a way to make a living, or part of our living, by doing something or several different things that we love and are passionate about. Ideally, this activity would also involve pursuing one or more of our dreams. In fact, in my Leadership for the Common-Good class last year at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, we learned that great leaders usually work at the nexus of their passion, their strongest talents, and the opportunities in their communities.
In summary thus far, Nick and I both discovered that excessive income is not needed and does not lead to greater happiness, that we value our time and freedom more than a higher salary than we need for a simple lifestyle, and we value doing work that we are passionate about.
Nick was on fire about these ideas because he had just watched an independent film about happiness, pursuing one’s dreams, and alternative work and lifestyles called, “I’m Fine, Thanks.” which he helped fund himself through an amazing website where anyone can help fund others to pursue their dream projects, www.kickstarter.com. For example, “I’m fine, thanks”‘s kickstarter page can be found here. The film makers interviewed many different people about their own happiness in their current jobs and situations and how some of them left to pursue what they were really interested in. Starting one’s own company on the Internet is one growing trend. It seems to be the ultimate in freedom and flexibility, but is, like most small businesses, also a lot of work.
Case in point: Devin, one of my current Fueled By Rice teammates. He has already built himself a kind of alternative work lifestyle based on the Internet. After some years of working as a barista at a coffee shop while self-studying webdesign and perfecting his photography skills, he recently opened his own webdesign company this year which he can run from anywhere in the world with a decent internet connection: http://devinbrowndesign.com He has taken the risks necessary to take control of his life, freed himself of a boss and corporate overhang, and is doing work he is passionate about. Way to go Devin!
On this bicycle journey, Lindsey and I stayed with a couchsurfing host in Nice, France, named Brendan. A very nice middle-aged recent empty-nester, Brendan is originally British but has lived in Nice for over 15 years. In fact, Brendan could work from anywhere in the world because he also works on-line as a kind of consultant. Brendan was new to couchsurfing.org (a brilliant use of the Internet to bring people together over free hospitality) and I asked him why he joined. He said he enjoyed meeting and talking with young people, hearing their ideas about the world, sharing his, and so on, and since his son had just gone off to the UK for university, couchsurfing offered a great opportunity to meet people face to face for more than just a bar conversation. While we were talking over dinner prepared by Lindsey and I with wine offered by Brendan, I couldn’t help but notice a poster he had hanging by his computer titled “Great Dream: Ten Keys to Happier Living.” Actually, it looked kind of like this:
I also couldn’t help but notice that the first two items on this list as well as others further down from www.actionforhappiness.org were directly related to his choice to host us, initially as strangers, in his home for three days. This supports the larger idea and now consensus in the literature (according to Action for Happiness here) that relationships and giving to others are essentially the most important components of a person’s happiness; not income. Even if we already know this truth about the human condition, how well do the top items on our daily schedules reflect these priorities?
This is Brendan with us over dinner at his place:
Brendan’s list of Ten Keys to Happier Living from www.actionforhappiness.org made me think of a similar list, but of capabilities (similar to rights), needed to be protected for a fulfilling life I’ve come across during my study of international development from Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum was inspired by Amartya Sen’s work, especially his 1999 development paradigm shifting book, Development as Freedom. Sen is an Indian economist now famous for shifting the focus of international development and poverty alleviation work away from pure economic growth to other measures of human well-being such as health and education indicators, which lead to the creation of the UN Human Development Index to rank countries’ development instead of simply using GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to rank countries’ development level and standard of living. One of his main ideas in Development as Freedom is that the goal of international development should focus on increasing people’s real freedom and capability to choose to live a life that they deam has value. More on that later.
Martha Nussbaum is an American Philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago who worked with Sen on the Capability Approach. Although Sen preferred to leave freedom and happiness open to interpretation, Nussbaum developed a list, though not necessarily complete, somewhat similar to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The ten capabilities Nussbaum argues should be supported by all democracies are:
1) Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
2) Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
3) Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
4) Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.
5) Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)
6) Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)
7) Affiliation. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other humans, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)
Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin and species.
8) Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
9) Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
10) Control over one’s Environment.
A) Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.
B) Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.
I saw early on in my masters program how international development quickly bumps up against the most fundamental questions we should be and are asking ourselves as a global society and global village: what is the end goal, our ideal vision, of our human progress and frenetic development? What is the meaning of our lives? It seems to me that happiness and well-being for all, much more so than income level or GDP alone, is the proper focus.
I am not the only one thinking this. The Kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayas is presently taking serious steps to convince the world to focus on increasing happiness and well-being, not economic growth – see The Gaurdian article here. According to the article, the Bhutanese Government defines happiness as referring “to the deep, abiding happiness that comes from living life in full harmony with the natural world, with our communities and fellow beings, and with our culture and spiritual heritage, – in short from feeling totally connected with our world.” They go further saying, “And yet our modern world, and particularly its economic system, promote precisely the reverse – a profound sense of alienation from the natural world and from each other. Cherishing self-interest and material gain, we destroy nature, degrade our natural and cultural heritage, disrespect indigenous knowledge, overwork, get stressed out, and no longer have time to enjoy each other’s company, let alone to contemplate and meditate on life’s deeper meaning.”
Perhaps if we DID have infinite natural resources, a smaller human population, or a materials economy that recycled 100% of our waste stream we would be able to cheerfully move along into the Star Trek era with our end societal goal being to “seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Unfortunately, we are are still at the point in history often referenced in Star Trek where we almost destroy ourselves and our planet before uniting in peace to get serious about stopping our self-destruction.
Back to Sen, there is more than just freedom and happiness at stake here. There are challenges with taking literally Sen’s over-arching focus of increasing people’s freedom to live the life they deam valuable. One is scarce resources and two is other people. The planet cannot sustain everyone living like rock stars. So, I discovered, our sought freedom to live how we want must be ethically self-limited by our empathy and compassion for others; that is to say, we have an ethical global responsibility to wisely choose a lifestyle that is both environmentally sustainable and socially just – that is, in full knowledge, awareness, empathy, and compassion of the other 7 billion people on the planet (especially the poorest of the poor, the bottom billion) and their lifestyles and the restrictions to their material consumption. Gandhi wrote in his autobiography that through his “experiments with truth” he discovered that he should not allow himself to enjoy a luxury that the poor masses could not also enjoy. Thus, for example, he choose a simple rural Indian peasant lifestyle (in addition to his conviction that physical labor and restricting physical pleasure were the only roads to true happiness and the highest levels of spiritual awareness) and he stopped taking first class trains and began walking everywhere instead of riding in cars (which also greatly improved his health over his peers). These lifestyle choices earned him respect and love from many throughout the world, not least of who were India’s poor masses who knew that Gandhi fully understood their situation. This has incredible implications for those of us above the poverty line, but especially societal leaders, if we are to follow his example.
It all comes down to Lifestyle Choice. This is something I have been thinking about for over ten years since my undergrad thesis work in Kibera, East Africa’s largest urban slum of over 1 million people next to an exclusive country club in Nairobi, Kenya. See abstract here.
Why haven’t more of us followed Gandhi? Is it simply that his example, along with Mother Theresa’s are too difficult? Are we are too lazy? Or the opposite, is our economic system running us ragged with our jobs that we begin to think that buying something will make us happy (if temporary) or that we deserve to buy this or that unneeded item because we are working too much? Or maybe we are just too uninformed and unaware about how others in the world live and the limits of our planet to sustain an average American lifestyle for all 7 billion? Either way, our time is running out. We must understand these things NOW and change our habits NOW.
Lindsey’s medical school classmate and friend, Priya, recently visited us in Thessoloniki, Greece while we were staying at our friend, Gael’s place (Gael, whom Andrew and I met on the first bicycle trip on the road in northern Cambodia in the middle of what used to be jungle before it was clear cut; he did a 3 year world bicycle tour with a Russian girl, Elena, see their amazing photos and story at http://commonlife.free.fr ) Priya is currently on fellowship at Oxford studying Theology, including most of the world’s religions, and is particularly interested in happiness and its relationship to health, medicine, and healing. She was moved by her patients of faith on her rotations in Minneapolis and noticed their higher levels of happiness, inspiring her extra course of study.
Although I had heard it a few times before, Priya re-introduced Lindsey and I to Krista Tippett’s great radio show on inter-religious topics, formerly known as Speaking of Faith, now On-Being, often on National Public Radio or her website, www.onbeing.org. Of particular interest, she moderated an inter-religious Summit on Happiness in 2010 with the Dalai Lama and three other spiritual leaders: Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Muslim) titled “Understanding and Promoting Happiness in Today’s Society.” It’s fantastic. The similarities between the religions are striking. Of interest, all of the leaders also speak against the modern consumer economy’s ability to make us happy, pointing out that it is actually just the opposite: advertising is perhaps the most effective way to distribute unhappiness yet developed by humankind, says Rabbi Sacks.
The edited one-hour Summit on Happiness audio link with downloadable MP3 file is here.
The better two-hour unedited version is here.
I have been interested in religion my whole life, being an active Catholic, but I became very interested in learning more about other religions, or the world’s “wisdom traditions” as world religions expert, Houston Smith, calls them, when I first went to China as a volunteer University English teacher in 2004. I encountered an atheist country whose communist leaders, originally lead by Mao Ze Dong, had killed the religions thriving just two generations ago: Daoism, Buddhism, and to a smaller extent, Christianity. I went to local Buddhist (or local religions’) temples with my university students and asked them all kinds of questions…nearly none of which could they answer for their ignorance of their grandparents’ religions. A close Chinese friend later explained to me that today’s Chinese young adults’ grandparents were Buddhist or Daoist, their parents rejected that and made communism their religion – believing it would bring about justice, the best possible reality, and happiness – and the youth themselves have now in turn rejected idealizing communism and are now perhaps the world’s most materialistic consumers, hyper focused on status symbols like cars and luxury brands instead of environmental and social well-being. This has created a spiritual vacuum in China that many feel, which the Communist Party actually acknowledges, and which I saw among my thousands of university students. See this great NPR story on rising Christianity in China here.
It got me interested in learning more, so a volunteer colleague recommended Houston Smith’s fantastic book with a chapter on each religion, “The World’s Religions,” both very accessible and in-depth. Learning even just the basics about the world’s religions fascinated me (and it seems to me should be required reading for all educated people in today’s global world as religion is often the most important part of a culture). Similar to Tippett’s inter-faith Summit on Happiness, there are so many similar messages about loving others, having compassion and empathy for others, helping and giving to others in need, non-materialism, etc. between the religions. It’s no wonder these things are now being found to make us happy anew by modern studies referenced above by www.actionforhappiness.org under “20 Happiness Facts”.
It seems clear from the above that we are created to live in a loving community who accepts us for who we are and where we love and accept others for who they are, helping those who need help, accepting help from others, helping each other to grow, and living in harmony with Earth’s ecological systems, etc. We are happier giving than receiving, self-restraining than self-indulging, being with others than alone, with less material goods than too many.
Yet, and more and more people are confronting this truth, our modern global consumeristic economy launched post World War II is pumping us full of advertising messages that are completely opposite of this: buy buy buy, more material goods will make you happy, oh, and you are unhappy right now unless you buy this, along with the overarching themes of receiving, individualism, and over-consumption. As a result, many of us in modern society have forgotten what actually makes us happy (like watching a free sunset with those we love). We have been and continue to be mislead to false paths to happiness, consciously and unconsciously by advertising and media. Not only is over-consumption a dead end to happiness, but it is using our planet’s resources at an exponentially increasing rate for an increasing global middle-class population modeled on the American Dream: the antithesis of Sustainability, which, obviously, if we as a species want to continue beyond the next couple generations, our systems of every kind MUST be sustainable. The Iroquois Native Americans have a famous quote to think of the next Seven Generations when making all decisions. It is long overdue that we adopt this kind of long term planning and throw out our maximize-short-term-profits mentality.
A very popular 20 min video pulling many of these ideas together is Anne Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff.”. It has generated discussion, ideas, and criticism alike around the world, and there are now new short movies on specific topics on her above site, www.storyofstuff.org
Luckily there are movements in action seeking to reform the way we consume, including a focus on local economies, knowing one’s farmer through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm/garden subscriptions, and a revival of simple and thrifty living practices our grandparents knew well. It seems that the Amish, self-reliant religious monasteries, and Henry David Thoreau have had it right all these years, both on happiness and on environmental sustainability.
What does all this mean? To some, it may seem to scary to have so much growing challenge to our current world economic system. However, in my view I think this trend of change is a positive sign. It seems to show that many people have finally reached a level of development where their basic needs are met (think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) and are now able and empowered to strive towards self-actualization, the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, or achieving Sen’s Development as Freedom. And the opposite co-exits: many are fed up with not having their basic needs met and being marginalized by the global economy (both in and out of the US) while being surrounded by American pop media promoting the American Dream of over-consumption. We need a new sustainable American Dream based on happiness, global ecological sustainability, and global responsibility instead of GDP economic growth alone. Then, we need to promote it in media just as vigorously as the consumeristic paradigm has been.
We can start by helping each other: as Rabbi Sachs says in the Summit on Happiness, others’ material needs are our spiritual duties. Additionally, Buddhist monk Thich Khat Hanh believes in the importance of bringing rich and poor together to bless and minister to each other, for materially rich are often poor in spirit and the materially poor are often rich in spirit.
One of the biggest variables is the pervasiveness of the Internet to most corners of the world that now allows for unprecedented idea exchanging, learning about our fellow humans, and allowing for work and lifestyles previously impossible. People are thinking hard and critically about what they really want, about their deepest most important dreams, and then, taking positive action to achieve them, often improving the world in the process. The possibilities and opportunities for earning a living and living life are as infinite as human imagination and creativity. Western societies (and I bet others too that I am less familiar with) have long been fed inspiring stories and quotes through verbal tradition, books, and movies about following our hearts and striving for our dreams, and I believe that building vibrant ecologically sustainable, socially just, and globally responsible communities is a dream we should all share, and would lead to greater individual and societal happiness.
“How wonderful it is that Nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world?” -Anne Frank
“You can do anything if you put your mind to it.” -Doc Brown, Back to the Future
“All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” -Walt Disney
“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” –Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” -Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
BUT: “In his pursuit of the dream, he was being constantly subjected to tests of his persistence and courage. So he could not be hasty, nor impatient. If he pushed forward impulsively, he would fail to see the signs and omens left by God along his path.” -Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.” -Henry David Thoreau
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give
other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.” –Marianne Williamson
…and many others that you could add.
Despite any economic downturn, it seems that our global society is approaching a critical mass where enough people are actually doing it; that it is snowballing from people in-turn inspiring others to do similarly – follow their hearts, live without fear, and environmentally and financially sustainably live life to the fullest while helping others do so!
What are your thoughts on happiness and issues raised here?
Please share via “comments” to this blog.