Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Pursuit of Happiness vs. Rick Steves

The other day Rick Steves (travel guru and pothead) was interviewing the author of “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World”. It was all done in a kind of smug “Europe is so superior to the US” kind of way. Pretty typical. But I actually gleaned a bit of insight out of the interview, although probably not the one intended by the author or the interviewer.

We’ve all heard the statistics, that the US is not the happiest country on Earth, despite our being the richest country on Earth. Clearly, it has been argued, this means our pursuit of materialism is a bad thing. But a deeper look revealed something very different to me. Apparently the folks in cold, socialist places like Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, are all happier than the folks US. But they aren’t the only happier people. It turns out that the poor people in India are happier than the poor people in the US. That’s right; your family lives on a particular stretch of sidewalk, and you have greater bliss than somebody in the US in an apartment that has a car, a microwave, cable TV, and a cell phone. Huh.

OK, so how did this author come to these conclusions? He asked people. Rate your happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. While that seemed like a kind of sloppy way to figure this out, he swore this was a good way to do it. So let’s take him at his word for a second. Still there has to be something else going on.

My revelation came when callers started asking questions. It turns out that men and women are approximately equally happy in each country. So there wasn’t a country with a bunch of happy women and sad men. Kinda surprising actually. I would have guessed that the one would have led to the other, but don’t tell the Hairy Mrs. that I said that. Then came the bit that made it all clear for me: Kids are happier than folks in middle age, and oldsters are happier than folks in middle age. That’s when it hit me. Achieving things doesn’t necessarily equal happiness.

Old people are done changing their lives. They can sit back and find happiness. They relax, they watch TV, they socialize with their friends, and the only work they have to do is pick up after themselves. Many don’t even have to do that. Kids - same thing. They get to play, really play, most of the time. Sure they may have to study and go to school, but even that is less stressful for most than actually having to produce the way adults do.

That’s why America’s adults aren’t necessarily the happiest adults. We are actually going out there and doing stuff. We are making our lives and our world better. We are being productive, not just happy. We have hope that we can improve our station. That’s why the beggar in Bombay is happier than the welfare queen in Harlem. The beggar in Bombay (excuse me, Mumbai, but it wasn’t alliterative) knows that he is of a caste and a station in life that he can never change who he is or what he will become. All he has left is to find what happiness he can in what he has.

Here in the US, we know that we can always do better. This IS the land of opportunity, and we have only ourselves to blame if we don’t take advantage of it. We ALWAYS know that we can make our lives better, and that by applying ourselves we will achieve greater rewards. If you are sitting back in public housing, living of the dole, you know that you actually could be, and should be, out there looking for a job. So we push more, work harder, and achieve greater things than any other people on the globe. But that isn’t bliss. It is satisfaction. They are different.

Sure somebody in Denmark is going to be happier. They are trapped like rats in little apartments and a lower standard of living than we have in the US. They have less freedom to succeed. Prices are higher, taxes are higher, government is most of the economy, and employers have no flexibility in hiring, firing, creating jobs, changing jobs, or setting wages. In those countries, once you are a worker with a job, you are going to be stuck there for the rest of your life. No chance to create greatness. No real chance to break away, create a small business, and build an empire. Anybody with a little gumption is going to abandon a socialist country and come somewhere like HERE to really make something of themselves.

Naturally the oh-so superior Rick Steves and his guest didn’t come to that realization. They looked down on the lesser citizens of the United States. But what would you expect from someone who would rather stay in a youth hostel than a 4 star hotel.

But that’s what I love about America, and why I am not as happy here as I might have been somewhere else. A few years back I quit my government job, started a small business, built it up, am struggling through these tough financial times, and have just made a bunch of changes that are going to make 2009 my best year ever. I love that. I’m not as happy as I would have been working for the state from 9 – 5 and playing video games all evening. But I am getting the raw satisfaction out of building something grand. I will take accomplishment and achievement over simple happiness any day of the week. And here in the US it is available to just about everyone. Like they say, happiness isn’t everything. Sometimes the pursuit is greater than the having.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Homeless Nesting in Seattle.

My office is located in a building that is close to an agency that provides direct aid to long term, hard core homeless. There are homeless folks who lost their job, lost their ride, and lost their place because of illness, or a plant shutting down, etc. Give those folks a little training, a little help finding a job, clean ‘em up, help them back on their feet, and they are back in the rat race with the rest of us rodents. I don’t have a problem helping folks like that. Then there are these guys - the alcoholics, the drug users, the schizophrenics who don’t like taking their happy pills, and the just plain lazy. A lot of the time they are sick with stuff that could be or should be treated. Anti-social and aggressive behavior is not uncommon.

And they are living in nests around our community.

My office has been in an ongoing struggle with this social service agency. They attract these hard cores to our block. They sit on the benches and on the curbs around our entrance. They have loud, obscene arguments outside our windows. They smoke, drink, and use drugs. They eliminate their bodily waste wherever convenient. When we ask the social service agency to ask their clients to move along, they make lots of promises. But bottom line, they want us to be more “understanding”, so their efforts are half hearted, counterproductive, or non-existent. The women who work in the office are afraid to go to their cars at night. Our clients don’t want to have to run the homeless gauntlet. Every entrance around our building looks bad and smells bad.

I know I don’t want these guys around my building. I want them to lead productive lives instead of just standing around being bored and getting stoned. I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. But if I give one of them a couple of bucks, it is just going to make it more likely that he will be on my doorstep tomorrow. Plus, he is gonna tell his buddies that he has found an easy mark. Even worse, he is not going to be encouraged to get some help and get a job.

And that is what I am afraid this social service agency is doing: Just making it easier for these guys to spend their days hanging out.

They claim that they are trying to get these guys off the street. When I ask them how, they say they are trying to get them placed in residential facilities. So what’s that? Just a place where they get to hang around indoors instead of outdoors? Does that really help them? Sure it makes their life easier, but how about helping them make their own lives better and more productive.

But how can a long term alcoholic who can’t stand or sit in the same position for more than 15 minutes EVER going to do anything useful?

We used to have mental health facilities where people like this could be involuntarily committed. They had the choice of getting better or staying warehoused. But the ACLU decided that was a violation of their rights, and the Reagan administration led the charge for shutting them all down to save money. Great. Now they are hanging out by my building. And these “do-gooders” are making it easier for them to live minimal, unproductive lives.

They give them free food, a place to keep their stuff, free buss passes, and a hassle free place to hang out. Around my building.

But where do they go at night? Well, this week I found out. Some guy, who lives in a public assistance high rise across the street from my office, just dropped off a complaint letter. He apparently thought it was our building because we are the most prominent tenant. Turns out he has been watching from above for months. He can see an empty field in one direction, and the back yard of a business that closed down in another.

The nests.

There are tarps, and mattresses, and cheap furniture that have been dragged to these spaces you can’t see from the street. He sees them eating, sleeping, drinking, shooting up, copulating, fighting, and producing a small mountain of human waste and trash.

It’s funny; the city spent a ton of money to “daylight” a “creek”. It used to be an underground drainage pipe. Now it is a creek running through an empty lot. The lot is probably empty because the owner can’t build on his own property. It’s now a protected wetland, don’t you know. The hardcore homeless now block it up and cause it to overflow in the rain with all of their crap, both figurative and literal.

Are there more of these hardcore homeless because social service agencies make it easier to live out their bleak lives? Are there just more homeless out there (doubtless George Bush’s fault. Somehow.) so there is a greater need for social service agencies?

I really feel like it is the former. It is just too easy in our society to drop out, and live in a vacant lot in an urban paradise. The old mental health facilities may be gone, but they have been more than replaced by a complicated patchwork of overlapping programs, services, and agencies; both public, private, and private supported by public money.

It becomes a hopeless cycle of despair. Hard core homeless find an agency giving them food, clothes, and a message that it’s not their fault that they are the way they are. The agencies reach out to get more tax dollars and donations, using stories and pictures of sad looking desperate people. The hard cores build a nest close to their source of support, and bring in their friends who don’t have it so good. The agency uses the increased population of homeless to justify getting more funds and get more support. And people who might have decided that life on the street was too hard, instead stay on the street to feed they cycle of homeless victimhood.

There are few good answers. There are people out there who need help, and who will really contribute to our society if given that help. There are sick people out there who simply can’t work and need compassion. There are also hopeless cases out there who are just bad people who will never do a damn thing to justify their miserable existence. But for some reason our society doesn’t seem to want to allow value judgments. Either everybody gets services, or there are no services.

But I’ll tell you this – letting them hang out around my business is not one of the better answers. Allowing nest of people to infest overlooked nooks and crannies is not acceptable. Just handing them stuff is not reducing the problem. If they won’t live within the rules of our society then they either need to change their lives or be institutionalized. Even if that institution is a jail. There is a limit to how much help you get, and how many chances you can have. Most of these guys appear to have exceeded their quota.

I keep hearing that these folks need to get housing before they can respond to treatment. I object to my tax money paying for a free apartment where they can continue to abuse their substance of choice. Let them spend some time in a place where they can’t get access. Then when they dry out they might, just might, help a few people. And clear my doorway.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Looking at my kids facebook pages

There is some interesting stuff going on there. These kids are making and keeping friendships across years and miles. It's weird watching a high schooler rediscovering a friend from 3rd grade and seeing them pick right up where they left off as if the 7 or 8 intervening years never happened.

Our society is returning to an earlier day, in a way I had not anticipated.

I remember in the 80's that the big drop in long distance rates, and the dawn of the PC led traditionalists to moan that letter writing was becoming a dead art. Gone were the elegant letters saved in trunks to be found by later generations. Private thoughts of great leaders, glimpses into the life of the common man were becoming a legacy of better days gone by.

At the same time our communities and neighborhoods were fracturing. We were moving from a society where neighbors all knew each other. We socialized with them because we HAD to. It was inconvenient or inexpensive to go anywhere else.

Cars became cheap and common. Dining out became the rule rather than the exception. Hobbies became more expensive and diverse. We no longer needed to associate with people we didn't like, or with whom we did not share common interests. Moving across the country, and away from local family support networks, became commonplace.

This too had a price. It cost us the safety of our homes and neighborhoods. Strangers were common. Neighbors didn't look out for each other because they didn't know each other. Pedophiles used the anonymity to prey on our children. You couldn't warn your children about the weirdo down the street, because you didn't know the names of anybody on your block. Kids could were no longer allowed to freely roam the new, anonymous neighborhoods.

What was lost is being regained. Online.

The letters are back. Emails, blogs, IM's. Just ask Sarah Palin if private correspondence is again being saved, only to be turned up by enterprising historians and reporters with somewhat more base intentions.

Neighborhoods are back as well. My kids have already demonstrated that. Moving to another town doesn't sever the tie with friends the way it used to. These kids are looking out for each other and protecting each other. They know who is in their group, who fits in, who is a little odd, and who is a stranger to be treated with suspicion.

There is no need for a neighborhood gossip to warn you about the odd behavior of your neighbors, the software itself is a tattletale.

People are starting to rate each other. Software is coming on line to predict who you will like and won't like. If you designate someone a friend, you get to see who THEY have as friends, the groups they join, how long they have been in the neighborhood, and what other people think about them.

Sure there are risks, challenges, con men, predators, bullies, liars, casual teenage cruelty, and a host of other problems. But these kids know how the system works. Kids that are vulnerable can always find pimps to gain and abuse their trust. But that is getting harder and harder for the bad guys as these online communities and support networks strengthen.

It still takes good parenting. I insist that I be on my kid's "friends" list. I can see who their friends are, and get a sense of what is going on in their social lives. Their music plays from their pages, and I know their favorite authors, films, and foods. Even their mood and thought of the day is available to me. Even better, my kids welcome my presence. They can stretch their wings while knowing that daddy bird is still there to keep them from falling too far. (OK, so it's hair, not feathers, but you get the point.) My parents certainly never knew all that about me.

This new neighborhood will probably turn out to be safer than my old home town. Of course, I may be a little biased. I have good kids.