Monday, July 10, 2006

The Pursuit of Happiness

In last week's Economist, they had an article on the fact that we have the "pursuit of happiness" as a fundamental tenet in one of our founding documents, namely The Declaration of Independence.

The sentence was remarkable at the time—a perfect summary, in a few pithy words, of exactly what was new about the new republic. Previous countries had been based on common traditions and a collective identity. Previous statesmen had been exercised by things like the common good and public virtue (which usually meant making sure that people played their allotted roles in the divinely established order). The Founding Fathers were the first politicians to produce the explosive combination of individual rights and the pursuit of happiness. It remains equally remarkable today, still the best statement, 230 years after it was written, of what makes America American. The Book of Job gives warning that “man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” Americans, for all their overt religiosity, have dedicated their civilisation to proving Job wrong. - The Economist, "Pursuing Happiness", June 29th, 2006

This article got me thinking about my own personal pursuit of happiness. Generally, I'm a pretty happy guy. Oh sure, my kids irritate the hell out of me, but at 3 and 1.5, that's pretty much their job. If they just went about their days doing everything we asked them to do and never getting into any trouble, I'd be worried that we spent a lot of money to adopt robots. As anyone with a Roomba will tell you, I am decidedly anti-robot, so you can see why I would not want to let one into my home, especially under the guise of it being my offspring. I believe the children are the future, but not robot children. You're just asking for robotic upheaval and subjugation of the human race at that point, and I ain't havin' that.

Where was I? Right, happiness. As I said, I'm a pretty happy guy. I'd be happier with a different job and more friends that exist outside of internet message boards, but these things will come with time. It's somewhat hard to make friends one's age when one works with people that are older than them and one doesn't have any energy after a day of chasing around the aforementioned non-robotic children and ends up spending their evening falling asleep in front of "Without A Trace" reruns. At some point, I hope to have a different job, perhaps with younger people, people I prefer to Poppy Montgomery. OK, I doubt that will happen, but I'll pretend to like them better than Poppy as I certainly have a better chance of hanging out with them.

The Economist article also talks about the pursuit of happiness being tied into the pursuit of obtaining material goods and whether or not having more money makes people happier. For, me it's a bit of a mixed bag. When I think back to when Linda and I were living together, in graduate school, making a tenth of what we make now, I don't remember us being miserable. Bored? Oh sure. After all, we didn't have any money to do things. Hot? Oh yes. We lived in a crappy brick apartment with no air conditioning. But unhappy? Not in the least. Once we had full-time jobs, we still couldn't do a lot of things, but at least we could live in a place with central air, and could take the occasional trip to Cape Cod in the summer. As we've moved forward, and been lucky to make more money with each successive trip around ye olde salary carousel, we've amassed more things, which makes me more and less happy at the same time.

Let me explain. I worry. I'm a worrier. I will worry about most things, if given the chance. In the past, most of my worries were money related. Any time Linda would decide she wanted to live in a new place, I'd worry about being able to afford it. Luckily, our moves usually came when raises did, so an increase in rent came with an increase in salary. When we bought our first house, I can remember sitting up in bed night after night going over the finances in my head. For some reason, foreclosure seemed worse than evicition, regardless of the fact that in both cases you end up living in your car. Once we had Ben, I worried about a mortgage that kept going up (stupid property tax increases), plus paying for daycare plus paying for college. Had we not moved to GA, and been able to take advantage of the equity in our home before we got Abby, it is doubtful that I would be able to get out of bed in the morning, so paralyzed with worry I would be.

So, does money make me happier? The money we make, and the financial decisions we've made up to this point allow me to not worry and not worrying makes me happy. Not worrying makes me fucking esctatic. Now, I know things can change, but hopefully we've done the right thing to absorb bumps in the road, and I know for a fact that we can pare back things as we need to in order to absorb bigger bumps.

Where money doesn't make me happy is when I start to feel guilty about the things that we have and the things we choose to spend our money on. Now don't get me wrong, we're not lighting cigars with 50 dollar bills while being fanned by the pool boy, but at the same time, one doesn't exactly need a home theater. When I think about the things we have, relative to others, I start to feel guilty about having too much, and we should instead be doing better things with our money like sponsoring third world orphans. Then I put on "Master and Commander" and the cannon shots are so loud that Linda has to come down to speak to me about the third world orphans we're currently sponsoring, upstairs trying to sleep, and I'm all like "Fuck that. Let Mubutu buy his own glasses." Then I feel bad because it isn't Mubutu's fault that he can't see. Then I play Guitar Hero and "Iron Man" is so loud my fillings vibrate out of my head and thoughts of Mubutu evaporate, and so the cycle continues.

So, in that regard, money just seems to bring me guilt. I mean, I could give it all away, but Linda and I work very hard for what we have, so why should Mubutu get it all, which also makes me feel somewhat selfish. It's a bubbling cauldron of emotions, for sure. I try to make sure that we donate money at the holidays to various causes, Child's Play being my favorite, as well as kick in when the Red Cross needs donations for catastrophes, or when the neighbor's kid needs to support his/her band/sporting team/greased pig catching team. It doesn't completely erase little Mubutu from my head, but it helps to dull his plaintive wailing.

The other worry is that my kids will grow up and think that what we have is normal and that it is reasonable to expect that everyone has these things. By any reasonable yardstick, our kids will have more growing up than either Linda or I had. That's not to say that Linda or I were poor, not by any stretch, just that they'll have more. I should clarify that they'll have more of the unimportant things. The important things like love, security, food, shelter, clothing and an education will be there at the same levels as when we grew up. I know that I never worried about where my next meal was coming from, and I'm pretty sure Linda didn't either. She may have worried what that meal was, and how it would taste, but that's a different story. My concern is that my kids won't be able to differentiate between the important things and the non-important things.

I know that a lot of that will be a factor of youth, I mean shit, I have a Lego AT-ST Ultimate Collector's Set on the way that I consider to be pretty fucking important and I'm 34 years old. At the same time, I see some kids today who think that the world owes them these pretty trappings, and the people these kids are going to turn into need to be hit with shovels. Thankfully I know the type of people that Linda and I are, and neither of us will have a problem with setting the kids straight when it comes to what they have that is important, and what they have that is not. I remember talking to neighbor about all of my video gaming and them remarking that Ben is going to be so lucky when he grows up because of all of the cool things he'll have and my reply was "Ben ain't got shit. Those are mine." Now, that's a pretty immature response, but at the same time, it marks an important distinction, and one what will hopefully stave off any assholery. What I meant is that I have things that I worked for and my kids have very little that they get just by benefit of being born. If they want more, well then, welcome to McDonalds, yes they may take your order.

I usually don't get as introspective as I am now, as I choose to just kind of take things for what they are and act accordingly, however from time to time, I see the importance of examining your life. I have been extremely lucky in that my happiness comes with very little pursuit. My wife entered my life, unbeknownst to me, with a mission to land herself your's truly, and I have benefitted greatly from knowing her from the very second I met her. My kids, which did require somewhat of a pursuit, are great kids by any measure, but even more so when considering where they came from and what toll that could have taken on them, and subsequently on us. Even though I'm not thrilled with my job at present, it's a good job that pays good money and I certainly didn't set out to get it when I left school. All of these things, taken together, makes me even more thankful and awe-struck that I have what I have, because, to a certain degree, it feels like I stumbled into it. Oh sure, I've worked along the way too, but Linda will not hesitate to tell you how, left to my own devices, I would have gone on that evening not knowing the amazing life that stood before me, contained within the willowy frame of an 18 year old woman.

Certainly, my further happiness will require more pursuit on my part as a new job isn't going to just fall into my lap and focusing on how my kids only irritate me will mean me missing some very cool parts of their lives. Fortunately, the foundation of happiness has been laid, and the rest can be accomplished by effort and a change in perspective, which are much easier to come by when the other pieces are there. Unfortunately, for Mubutu anyways, I also want to retire early, so his blind ass is going to have to hit up someone else.


Booster MPS said...

Wow, thanks for taking the time to write that. I feel like I know you and your character a lot more after that. You are a good man B.

I have always said that material things come and go and it's true. I have cool stuff. But you know what, if I wrecked my car so what, the world does not end. Working with kids going through bone marrow transplants and seeing the financial strains that it puts on families gives me a perspective about what matters in life.

I know a 12 year old girl Chloe that has been in the hospital since August of last year. August. You think her mother gives a fuck about money.........

monique said...

How sad to see only one comment after such a great post! We do sponsor a Mubutu though. I used to work for one of THOSE organizations and believe me, what you see on TV is NOTHING like the heart wrenching stuff we saw as really couldn't walk out of our yearly meeting where they hit up the employees to sponsor kids. And you know what made me sad? When, about six years after I sponsored my girl, her family left the program. I cried! I was so sad. So we chose to sponsor another kid in an AIDS ravaged area. It makes me happy to know that I am helping someone.

suburbanjoe said...

When the comments are this well written and this complimentary, who needs more than two? Thanks to both of you for the kind words.

Booster, you rock. I think it's fantastic how you take the time to help those kids out.

MQ, good on you. I'm sure you're making a huge difference in someone's life.