Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Monday, January 31, 2011

On what is good in life – Part II.

On my cross-country flight last Friday, I started perusing the airline magazine (Sky, January 2011).  Page after page, there were ads for steakhouses and trendy high-end restaurants, cosmetic dentistry, jewelry, art, MBA programs, shows in Las Vegas, casinos (not in Las Vegas or Atlantic City) and Disney vacations.  (What? No ads for professional matchmakers in this issue?!)  The themes of the “articles” (consisting only of a few lines of text and lacking creativity or depth) were sports, the latest IT gadgets, teen idols –now and then (this was at least somewhat humorous as it took me back in time), volcano boarding, what is hot in music, movies and fashion, book descriptions (two-liners, not reviews), chic hotels in exotic destinations (big  cities) around the world, and pop culture.
Is this really what our culture is all about?  Sigh.  I am so out of touch.  Or maybe I just don’t know what is truly good in life!
Another turn of the page, and surprisingly, there was an article about a bee researcher who had recently received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award.   Something of substance, and science-related, no less!  And then, another—an article entitled “Our World Now: The People, Places and Things that made us Happy in 2010.”  What a coincidence, I thought, given the theme of my spring course that prompted this blog.  And then I realized the article focused on TV celebrities and shows, viral videos, and the iPad.   Who wrote this list?  At least the rescue of the Chilean miners was mentioned.  The list also included stories of charity and assistance after the Haitian earthquake.  While global generosity is a good thing, it is too often limited to times of tragedy.  And there isn’t very much “happy” about conditions in Haiti now or before the earthquake.
This was followed by an article on the “Happiest Places in the World”.  Of the four listed, one was Singapore with its 40 mile long island of 5.1 million people (think about how crowded this is) and 250 plus shopping malls.  Sigh.  I have been to Singapore.  Everything is artificial, even the waterfalls in the parks.  Beautiful, but fake. They have a bird park with an extraordinary collection of exotic birds from around the world.  I saw my first and only fish eagle there – chained to what looked like a dog house.  The hornbills were in cages.  Does this make people happy?  Or is it only the shopping?  When I was there, our hosts were all very proud of all the neon-lit shops that sold electronics, fashionable clothes, and expensive gifts of various sorts, including gold-plated orchids made into jewelry.  An orchid pin made my mother happy for her birthday that year.  Our hosts told us that for leisure, people shopped.  They were curious about the concepts of leisure time in the U.S.
What the magazine articles described as things that made people happy was in stark contrast with the lists that I had from friends, family, colleagues and social network acquaintances in response to my inquiry about what makes them happy and what they couldn’t live without (described below).  Admittedly, this is a subset of the population – biased by the fact that most share interests in conservation or science or work in education.  To simplify things, I arbitrarily combined the responses into categories that seemed to me to be related.
The category with the most tick marks in response to both questions: “What makes you happy” and “What couldn’t you live without” was family.  The next general category related to food; some simply said food (which, of course, we can’t live without) and some listed specific types ranging from fresh fruits and vegetables to pizza.  Other things we eat like chocolate and coffee were mentioned but I am not sure if this qualifies as food!  A number of people said they really enjoyed the process of cooking.  I wonder how many have read about the Slow Food Movement.
Food was followed closely by friends and nature or spending time outdoors.  People also specifically talked about taking walks in the woods, birding, gardening and even farming (as a hobby).  Most respondents said something about having a satisfying occupation.  This was expressed in a variety of ways including specific mention of having a job that keeps them challenged, loving to teach, of having a steady income or financial stability, the good feelings that result from doing hard physical work, or having an experiment go well.  In fact, if I were to lump all of these under a single category, this would actually have more “votes” than family!
Another high vote getter was the category characterized by words such as having the opportunity for intellectual challenge, life-long learning and/or access to information.  Almost an equal number of people mentioned books and reading as things that made them happy or things that they couldn’t live without.
Several responses were tied for the next highest number:  shelter or home, pets, doing good for others (or having a sense of purpose or volunteering), faith, children (their own or children in general) and good health (and the drugs that help keep them healthy).  And right behind these were hearing about stories of hope or inspiration, electronic gadgets (computers, cell phones, etc.) and music.
Other responses included travel, sports, movies, every breath, retirement, binoculars, exercise, time for hobbies, having a circle of supportive people, clean water, freedom, heat (it has been a rather cold winter), stimulating conversation, and curiosity.  Some of these could probably be lumped with other categories above.
Two things about the responses caught my attention.  First, the list is not heavily focused on material goods (and as I noted above is quite different from the list of things focused on in the airline magazine).  Instead interactions with people, knowledge, nature, and less tangible things are most important.  Second, when people included a “vice” in their response, they went out of their way to apologize, explain, or provide a rationale for this answer (like they had tried to give up chocolate, but it didn’t go well)!  I am curious as to why so many people felt guilty about having something like this on their list!
So, I sit here stranded in Dulles airport (the return trip) less than happy that my 10:15 p.m. flight has a departure time of 1:50 a.m. now.  It is going to be a really long day tomorrow at work and, here I had been worried about the jet lag coming from the west coast.  At the moment, sleep and being home with my family would make me happy.  I have run out of steam and my eyes are blurry, so the summary of my student responses will have to be in Part III and this entry will be posted when I have an internet connection tomorrow (or actually later today).  (O.K. – I didn’t include this in my list in Part I.  I really like being connected to the world, to incomprehensible amounts of information, data, and literature, and to friends via social networks.  I could live without the Internet, but I wouldn’t be as happy!) 
p.s. The flight left at 3:15 a.m.

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