Currently biking around the world

Posts will happen significantly less often for a while as I am currently focused on biking around the world.

It could be a few months between posts or it could be a few years. I will almost certainly return to this blog one day. In the meantime, enjoy what's already been posted, or read about my travels here.

The "haves" and the "have purposes"

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Trigger warning: this post theorizes extensively about possible reasons for suicide and mentions specific methods of committing suicide.

Purpose: it’s that little flame that lights a fire under your a**.
Princeton, Avenue Q

Consider the following two scenarios, both excerpts from from Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness:1
- - -

1. You are a young German immigrant who lives in the teeming, dirty city that is nineteenth-century Chicago. A few wealthy families -- the Armours, McCormicks, Swifts, and Fields -- have monopolized their industries and have the right to use you and your family as they would use machines and horses. You devote your time to a small newspaper whose editorials call for social justice, but you are no fool, and you know that these essays will change nothing and that the factories will churn on, producing paper, producing pork, producing tractors, and spitting out the tired workers whose blood and sweat feed the engines of production. You are dispensable and insignificant. Welcome to America.
One evening an altercation breaks out between some factory workers and the local police in Haymarket Square, and although you were not present when the bomb was thrown, you are rounded up with other “anarchist leaders” and charged with masterminding a riot. Suddenly your name is on the front page of every major newspaper and you have a national platform for your opinions. When the judge sentences you on the basis of fabricated evidence, you realize that this ignominious moment will be preserved in history books, that you will be known as “the Haymarket Martyr,” and that your execution will pave the way for the reforms you sought but were impotent to establish.
A few decades from now, there will be a far better America than this one, and its citizens will honor you for your sacrifice. You are not a religious man, but you cannot help but think for a moment of Jesus on the cross -- falsely accused, unjustly convicted, and cruelly executed -- giving his life so that a great idea might live in the centuries to come. As you prepare to die you feel nervous, of course. But in some deep sense, this moment is a stroke of luck, the culmination of a dream -- perhaps, you might even say, the happiest moment of your life.
- - -

2. Rochester, New York, 1932, the midst of the Great Depression. You are a seventy-seven-year-old man who has spent his life building empires, advancing technology, and using your wealth to endow libraries, symphonies, colleges, and dental clinics that have improved the lives of millions. The happiest moments of your long life were spent tinkering with a camera, touring Europe’s art museums, fishing, hunting, or doing carpentry in your lodge in North Carolina. But spinal disease has made it increasingly difficult for you to lead the active life you‘ve always enjoyed, and every day you spend in bed is a sad mockery of the vibrant man you once were. You will never get younger, you will never get better. The good days are over, and more days merely mean more decrepitude.
One Monday afternoon you sit down at your desk, uncap your favorite fountain pen, and write these words on a legal pad: “Dear friends: My work is done. Why wait?” Then you light a cigarette and, when you’ve enjoyed the last of it, stub it out and carefully place the nose of your Luger automatic against your chest. Your physician showed you how to locate your heart, and now you can feel it beating rapidly beneath your hand. As you prepare to pull the trigger you feel nervous, of course. But in some deep sense you know that this one well-aimed bullet will allow you to leave a beautiful past and escape a bitter future.
- - -

The first scenario is one possible description of the death of Adolph Fischer, hanged for inciting a riot he did not incite because his labor union challenged Chicago’s industrialists. His last words as he stood upon the gallows: “This is the happiest moment of my life.” 2, 3
The second scenario is one possible description of the suicide of George Eastman, founder of Kodak cameras and a revolutionary management philosophy including shorter hours, benefits, annuities, life insurance, and profit and stock sharing -- one of the most influential and successful humans of his time.4
The juxtaposition of these two stories suggests that success as the U.S. seems to have defined it -- put simply, the achievement of wealth and glamour -- leads to suicide, whereas having nothing but grit and purpose leads to happiness (though sometimes the gallows as well). Indeed, in what is often touted as “the happiness-income paradox,” happiness does not rise as a country’s income rises.5 In some cases, with enough wealth, happiness has even been found to decrease.6
If less happy people are more prone to commit suicide, then the paradox is even greater. A series of suicides on Kansas City, MO left scientists with the “Richard Cory” phenomenon, where people with nicer houses were more likely to commit suicide than those with less expensive houses or who lived in apartments or trailers7 (Richard Cory is a poem by Edwin Robinson about a wealthy, well educated, admired man who shoots himself in the head). This paradox also existed in a series of suicides in Italy8 and was noted in a study of Japanese culture in 1986.9

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king— And admirably schooled in every grace: In fine, we thought that he was everything To make us wish that we were in his place. [...]
Richard Cory by Edwin Robinson

Since there are obviously holes in the theory that wealth makes us happy, let’s examine it a little. For starters, accumulating wealth in almost every traditional fashion relies on destroying the environment. This is fine for those at the top who can afford to have their trash taken hundreds of miles away, but visit them slums of India and you’ll see that said trash doesn’t simply disappear. Additionally, humans have a tendency to base their happiness on subjectivity instead of objectivity (read: we compare ourselves to others),10 and thus, unless you are always among the richest, you will never feel you have enough (and once you are among the richest, you just might commit suicide).

I've got gadgets and gizmos aplenty I've got whozits and whatzits galore You want thingamabobs? I got twenty! But who cares? No big deal! I want more!
Ariel, Disney’sThe Little Mermaid

Fun fact: In the original (non-Disney) ending of The Little Mermaid, after getting legs, the prince, and riches, Ariel tries to kill herself by jumping overboard.
In my last post I quoted David Foster Wallace, stating:

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. [...] And the world will not discourage you, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.11

So it would seem that the less we have, the happier we can be.12 Research indicates that what we do matters more than what we have,13 and I posit that what we do matters more to us the less we have. If we have something to gain, then the work we do is more meaningful than if we have everything we need -- otherwise, why are we working? Why are we alive? And indeed, residents of poorer nations indicate they have a “greater sense of meaning in life” than residents of wealthy nations14 (so perhaps it’s good that the so-idealized meritocracy -- the idea that wealth is the result of hard work -- is a myth15... but more on that in another post).
Maybe what we really start pursuing when we have nothing is happiness. Maybe when we stop worshipping and wanting stuff we start worshipping and wanting humanity.

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.
David Orr,
Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

I can’t help but feel there’s a connection between my emotional state and my 8-5. I have everything I need. I could stay at my current job for the rest of my life -- I’m good at it -- get married, have kids, and have a nice chunk of change for retirement. But staring at the screen day after day I find what I really want to do is to travel. I’m working on a project to be revealed in more detail later which, if it comes to fruition, will involve a form of circling the globe with only what I can carry. And that is what gets me up the morning.
I suspect, but cannot really substantiate that what excites me about this idea is that I will have so little. There’s anecdotal evidence: the jeweler named Melissa I met on a plane recently who once had everything: a stable job, a flourishing company, a husband and kids; but, was never really happy until the company collapsed, she divorced her husband, and found her true passion in teaching development to small businesses. That aptly titled book which more or less describes an entire religion based on having nothing, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.
I suspect, but won’t know until I’m doing it, that having to work towards something, having to experience the raw reality of the unpolished parts of the world -- instead of just being handed stability and the upper class lifestyle on a silver platter -- is what will really bring me happiness.
But for now anyways, it’s just a theory.

1Gilbert, D. Stumbling on Happiness. Random House, Inc. New York. 2005. 87-88. 2Boyer, R. and Morais, H. Labor’s Untold Story. Cameron. New York. 1955. 3Avrich, P. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ. 1984. 4Brayer, E. George Eastman: A Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore. 1996. 5Easterlin, R., et. al. “The happiness-income paradox revisited.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. December 28, 2010. 107, 52. 6Guoqiang, T. and Liyan, T. “A solution to the Happiness-Income Puzzle: Theory and Evidence.” Economic Research Journal. Tsinghua University. Beijing, China. November 2006. 7Young, T., et. al. “The Richard Cory Phenomenon: Suicide and Wealth in Kansas City, Missouri.” Journal of Forensic Sciences. March 2005. 50, 2. 8Pfeti, A. and Miotto, P. “Social and economic influence on suicide: A study of the situation in Italy.“ Archives of Suicide Research. 1999. 5, 2. 141-56. 9Iga, M. The Thorn in the Chrysanthemum: Suicide and Economic Success in Modern Japan. University of California Press. Berkeley, California. 1986. 10Parducci, A. Happiness, Pleasure, and Judgement: The Contextual Theory and Its Applications. Lawrence Erlbaum. Mahwah, NJ. 1995. 11Ward, S and King, L. “Poor but Happy? Income, Happiness, and Experienced and Expected Meaning in Life.” Social Psychological and Personality Science. July 2016. 7, 5. 463-70. 12Tamir, M and Ford, B. “Should people pursue feelings that feel good or feelings that do good? Emotional preferences and well-being.” Emotion. October 2012. 12, 5. 1061-70. 13Oishi, S and Diener, E. “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations.” Psychological Science. December 13, 2013. 14Foster, D. “This is Water.” Kenyon College Commencement, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio. May 21, 2005. 14McNamee, S. and Miller, R. The Meritocracy Myth. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Plymouth, United Kingdom. 2014. Ed 3.

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