Monday, September 21, 2009

On Happiness

Aside from fame and copious dollar bills, one of the perks of writing the occasional A-List for the local alt-weekly, City Pages, is that I can occasionally get free tickets to events. Sometimes those are even events I want to attend. Thursday night the husband and I went to the Policy and a Pint event at the UBC forum at Minnesota Public Radio. Policy and a Pint is an event put on by MPR and the Citizen's League in which attendees listen to (and partake in) a discussion about a policy-related topic and drinks pints of beer. Well, a pint each - so things don't get rowdy.

Thursday's event featured Colin Beavan, author of No Impact Man, a book which started as a blog in which he chronicled his and his family's attempt to live one year having zero environmental impact. Beavan, his wife, and his toddler went to fairly extreme measures from foregoing NYC's mass transit in favor of bicycles to turning off the power supply in their apartment and relying on a single solar panel for their computer, candles for light, and elbow grease to clean their clothes. What was, perhaps, most surprising about the experiment is that sacrificing take-out and store-bought bread, TV and electric lights actually made their lives, well, better. In spite of the fact that he was baking his own bread daily, Beavan found that he seemed to have more time in the day. There was less running around, fewer late nights at work, more time spent playing games with his family and friends.

One of the things that Beavan touched upon in his talk at Policy and a Pint is that there was, however, a limit to the improvements that came from these sacrifices. There was a point at which too much sacrifice, too many limitations on resources, merely lead to misery. He pointed to the night that his daughter got sick, threw up on the bedsheets, and then threw up again on the second pair of clean bedsheets that he'd replaced the first set with. He caved. He used the washing machine in the basement of their apartment. Having to do laundry by hand was one of the greatest hardships during this experiment.

One of the points that Beavan has been using his experiment to make is that doing away with wasteful consumption made him and his family happier. On his blog he wrote, "I believe, as Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey discussed in his 2005 paper "Live Better by Consuming Less?," that there is a "double-dividend" to reduced consumption. One dividend is that it helps maintain our health, happiness and security as it depends on our planetary habitat and the other is the increase of happiness that can come with a lesser emphasis on accumulating stuff."

In his talk at Policy and a Pint, he suggested that this idea that less consumption can lead to greater happiness is a selling point for people not already part of the environmental movement. And to a certain degree, I buy this. Sure. Tell people that using less resources will make them happy and they just might sign on.

The problem I have, however, is using this notion of "happiness" as a selling point. The word happy is two-dimensional and superficial. "Happy" lacks depth in the same way as other words that have gotten into this global warming situation to begin with: convenience, money, status. Happy seems unsubstantial.

And being "happy" can mean so many different things to so many different people. For Beavan, playing cards with his wife by candlelight made him happy. For some, driving a large SUV makes them happy. Roasting marshmallows around a backyard fire with my family makes me happy but so does a long, hot (water wasting) shower. This difference is that one leaves me feeling fulfilled and the other makes me feel fuzzy and relaxed.

It strikes me as oddly lacking in depth that our founding fathers included the phrase "pursuit of happiness" as among our inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence (and that Will Smith made a movie by the same name. C'mon, Will!). Surely there are words and pursuits that get at a greater depth of human complexity and emotion and that would convey something more permanent, less transitory: contentment, joy, satisfaction, fulfillment.

Beavan pointed to the ways in which increased access to and use of resources can increase happiness for those at the other end of the spectrum. A father in a developing country who is finally able to access enough coal energy to hang a lightbulb for his student daughter is, according to Beavan, happier for it. But he's much more than just "happy" -- he's fulfilling a biological imperative to take care of and improve the lives of our children.

The resource that my husband and I use that is perhaps the most contentious in our household is the air conditioner. After listening to Beavan, my husband noted that doing away with air conditioning would make him very, very unhappy. In this way, he tried to justify using it. He's (mostly) joking, but I think he found the point at which the whole "living an eco-friendly life will make you happy" sales tactic falls apart. Happiness is something of a selfish emotion. I do this because it makes me happy (because I feel cool or warm and relaxed) right now. I don't do this because it makes me unhappy (sweaty or shivery). Asking people (and corporations and manufacturers) to be thoughtful of the environment is going to take a lot more than telling them, "It will make you happy!" It will require more self reflection than that. It will require that we ask ourselves the question that Beavan opened his talk with: "Have I lived a life where I've done more good than harm?" Sometimes doing good is about making tough choices, making sacrifices and sometimes it leads to a sense of satisfaction that is much longer lasting than mere happiness.


Christie Cottage said...

Wonderful post!

I hung a laundry line this year. We are back to the dryer.

I have saved aluminum cans for years and been teased relentlessly for doing so. I do to the recycling center. Get my cash, buy more pop and biodegradeable trash bags. It makes me feel good.

I reuse as many items as I can. More so to bring the creative juices out, because the supplies are free and because there is satisfaction in knowing that I have converted one small object into a keeper rather than a spot in the landfill.

Thank you for posting on my Blog Blast thread.

Rhena said...

Christie, Thanks! It's funny how doing those things that make us a little "eccentric" can also make us feel "good."