A five minute video with soppy music, but food for thought. It’s ostensibly about education and raising children. But there’s a lot more here. It really speaks to me about the human impulse to simplify things (and people) by putting them in boxes. And that makes progress hard because it means a lot of cool stuff gets missed.
Ahhhh, Christmas. The lovely smells of baking sweet sticky things. The dreams of sugar plums. The sparkling lights. The joy. The anticipation. For some, even the celebration of the birth of their considered savior. Oh yeah, and the endless rush to go out and buy lots and lots of stuff, ’cause you feel you have to.
If you have someone on your list and don’t have any idea what to buy them, DON’T. Just. Don’t. Do. It. Buying needless crap for the sake of buying needless crap is exactly why we are where we are in this country. On so many levels. On the knee-jerk consumerism level. On the using up resources way faster than we replace them level. On the we have lost track of what really matters in life level. How about the old bumper sticker: The best things in life aren’t things. Or how about the heart warming thought that what really matters in relationships and experiences.
It’s HARD to resist. I remember so vividly the anticipation and excitement of Christmas morning and the unbridled joy of seeing the HUGE mound of presents under the tree. Sometimes it didn’t really matter what was actually in the packages. It was the cacophony of color, the pure volume of stuff in a mostly non-materialistic childhood. But these days, for many families, even when they don’t really have the means, stuff, lots of it, at a constant flow, is just a normal part of life. Christmas (if it’s your chosen holiday – sorry everyone else, I have to write what I know) is just the crowning glory of a life filled with stuff. Thank you Walmart. Thank you Target. Thank you TV advertising that targets children’s young, impressionable minds and uses their pester power to wear down their parents.
The irony is that it’s pretty clear that in addition to trashing the planet, all this stuff isn’t actually making us happy. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of it, you can read a scholarly paper here. The bottom line is that personal connections and spending time with other people and experiences make us happy. All that stuff just gets in the way. [See my review on the Economics of Happiness for more on that].
So here’s a suggestion. Think carefully about the whole present thing. Consider making it just for the kids. Forgo the crazy gift giving among adults. Instead make the gift of each other’s company, a good meal, time spent together, a family game, a walk in the woods, home-made soup, jam, cookies, pie, bread, wine, whiskey, whatever (anything you can eat doesn’t count as stuff in my book).
By the way, if you’re looking for recipes of yummy things to give as gifts, here’s my new favorite cooking blog: Joy the Baker. But there’s also no shame in giving something bought if you do it thoughtfully. No huge box of choccies for the friend who’s always dieting – how about some gourmet soup or fancy spreads to go on her melba toast! Consider booze only for those you know well. Deliver things in reusable containers (pretty mason jars aren’t just for jam) and gift boxes – I have some I have been using for years. They are pretty and fun and I change the ribbons from year to year. They have become like old friends in the family.
Eight years. I’ve lived in the States as a fully certified adult for eight years. I did grow up America, but then spent my formative, early young adult years (post college to age 35) in Europe, so think of my life in terms of how long I’ve been “back in the States.” It was a strange thing returning after so long away. I left as a recently graduated college kid and returned, married, with 2 kids and a mortgage. So although culturally, it seemed like coming home, things felt incredibly foreign in some unexpected areas. I didn’t really know the ins and outs of “grown up” life – how to establish credit, get a mortgage, run an old, New England, wooden, house (my god, the houses here are made of ant food, and need SO much maintenance).
But the surprises went far beyond the practicalities of how to navigate the logistics of adult life. What I found was that culturally, although on the surface it felt like coming home — I have the right accent and even say wicked and talk about the Red Sox – in so many ways, I am no longer comfortable with the status quo in American social norms. So imagine my horror when the other day, I found that I ran 3 errands within 1/2 mile of each other, moved the car between each on, and didn’t even think about it….until I was sitting in the car after the third one, and it hit me. It’s not just that I’ve slipped down the slope, it’s that I didn’t even feel the wind in my hair on the way.
Over the last several years, I have been disheartened by the lack of awareness of Americans of their impact on our planet. And even now, eight years later, there’s much more awareness, but slim evidence of willingness or even desire to do anything about it. My tendency to see the best in people and empathize makes me think that as people become more aware, behaviors will change. But watching my own behavior and the tendency to slide to the “norm” of what’s around me, makes me pretty despondent about our hope for change.
When we arrived back in the States, it would never have occurred to me not to walk or ride my bike on any journey of up to about 5 miles unless it was pouring rain (forget about drizzle). Now those journeys are done regularly in the car, or there’s definitely discussion about the logistics of not doing them in the car. Our heating would never have been above 68 – and yet our thermostats’ default was 72. I had few clothes that I wore until they were dirty, washed and rotated, for many years. I now find myself feeling the need to buy more stuff, just because I can. The pressure I feel to have a lush, chemical, water sucking lawn is palpable – to not do so feels like a cheat on the neighbors and their property values. Even though I feel pretty passionate about more sustainable landscaping, including growing my own food, given that we have a fair amount of open land, I feel the sting of bucking that status quo. I find it easier to act where the results are private and I can still give the semblance of “fitting in.”
Intellectually, I know what’s going on here. It’s pretty well documented that people tend to drift to the norms around them. On the whole, this is a good thing; it’s what makes societies function effectively. Knowing when to shake hands, what kind of tip is expected at restaurants, how children are to behave in public, etc all be useful. But what happens when many of the social norms are found by a large minority within a society and by the world beyond, to be fundamentally flawed or harmful? What happens when on an abstract level, sensible minds agree that the norms we have need to change, but on a practical level, people just want to carry on as they always have? How do we make that happen? That’s where we are with changing behavior in a more environmentally friendly direction.
The core message of The Economics of Happiness is fairly simple: modern life as we know it isn’t really making us happy. What we need is more community and to localize. What could be so hard about that? And then the rest of the film catalogs how we got where we are (colonialism, globalization) and some possible ways back to some sort of equilibrium where happiness can thrive. I went to the film hoping to emerge reinvigorated with answers of how I, as an individual, could act to move things along. In all honesty, as the film ended, I was feeling a little despondent about the enormity of the task at hand. But the reinvigoration came quickly – and from just the thing the film counsels we all need: more community. In this case, the community was the group of movie watchers who stayed after to engage in lively discussion. The movie was put on in collaboration between Sustainable Sudbury and the Friends of the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge. The venue was the refuge’s new visitor’s center, a wonderful resource for our local community – both in terms of a physical space and for the educational and community activities it can play host to. So, just in watching the film in a group setting, as opposed to streaming it on Netflix, alone in my living room to my laptop, it had a greater impact on me!
As for the film itself, it takes us to the isolated region of Ladakh on the Tibetan plateau. Twenty years ago, that society appeared fairly primitive by modern industrial standards, and yet what the film’s director, Helena Norbert-Hodge found, was a stable, equitable, society with no poverty or unemployment and a huge amount of joy in daily life. Only with the arrival of modern commerce and its pressures to consume and compete did the society start to see ethnic and religious conflict, unemployment, poverty and environmental degradation. It’s hard not to wonder how oversimplified this version of events is, but it illustrates the point and brings into focus the main message of the movie: our move toward globalization is at the root of many of our societal, economic and environmental problems. And by looking back to the traditional Ladakh way of life, we can see what aspects of that were valuable and did work. The take away was that the deeply felt sense of belonging and community made everyone in the society connected and therefore cooperative, so things worked and people were happy. It was a finely balanced way of life, closely in tune with the local environment. What it didn’t address was issues like population growth and competition for natural resources as population grows – but in focusing on what did work, it made its point.
The challenge I see for modern Western society is how we do the about face that is so clearly needed in order to recapture what we have lost. Unemployment, environmental degradation and financial meltdown have all resulted in our newly refocused attention on fixing what’s broken. The value of a film such as The Economics of Happiness is that it puts into sharp focus what the problems are and in the broadest terms, defines a solution: re-localization. The method by which we get there will be, no doubt, long and tortuous, but the first step is waking up and realizing that change is what we need. And it’s not as if the film gives us no concrete advice on how to approach this. The most obvious action an individual can take is to start with their own personal food system – a movement that is gaining more traction year by year with CSAs, community gardens, farmer’s markets and even supermarkets carrying more local products. But beyond the local food option, the film reminds us of 3 things we can work to change in the wider political and economic system (globalization) to make longer, deeper change back towards an economy that works towards happiness. These three things are regulation, tax and subsidies. It’s a little disappointing that there’s not more said in this realm, but those are huge issues which could each be a film in its own right. For me, just thinking about those three things reminds me that here’s where we start: recognize the problem, educate others to notice and hopefully care, organize and act to change the system that’s bringing us all down. It won’t happen overnight, but our slumber has been disturbed, we are waking up and smelling the (fair trade) coffee.
This weekend, I listened to an NPR interview with managing editor of Real Simple magazine, Kristin Van Ogtrop. It was about saving money, cutting back on your household budget and saving up to $5,000 a year (the full article is here). Did you know that the average household in the US spends $4,000/year on groceries? I wish….but I digress.
What struck me came at the very end of the interview. Marketplace’s Tess Vigland started the wrap up, asking,”…frugality was really sexy in 2009. But I wonder, if things get better, this year, do you think that’s going to linger, is it going to become kind of old news?”
Ms. Van Ogtrop’s response? I’ll summarize: For many people, it’s been kind of an interesting reset moment. They look at their spending and they look at the way they live and they’ve kind of been given this cultural permission to cut back, and it’s been sort of liberating.
So here I sit wondering what this observation says about us, Americans, as individuals and as a nation. The rational, measured, economic being in me prickles and feels all mean, thinking to myself, well that’s ridiculous. People really got into financial trouble because they weren’t able to resist the cultural pressure to spend more than they could afford?
But as is usually the case, a little self reflection is always helpful. I’m reminded of the several articles this year I’ve come across talking about social contagion. The bottom-line conclusion from these studies shows that health and social behavior is directly correlated to your social group. If your friends smoke, you’re more likely to. If your friends are overweight, you’re more likely to be. At first, I thought this was counter intuitive. How can my friend’s eating habits make me fat? But I’ve seen it in myself in other ways. It usually starts with small things. When my friends are willing to pay $3.oo for a cup of coffee, it starts to seem normal to me. Then it works its way toward larger things. I know I should be perfectly happy with the New England colonial I live in, but as my friends around me expand and remodel, discontentment with my own situation sets in and I have to actively remind myself that we’re doing just fine.
The thing about social contagion is that it seems to work more strongly in a negative direction. It’s so much more fun to spend a little more than you might have because the people around you are doing it. In the positive direction, relying on social pressure can work with things like dieting with a friend or signing up for a gym; but we all know that these things are much harder to keep up.
Sadly, with wealth, it doesn’t work quite the same way. If your friends are wealthy, it doesn’t seem to make you wealthy, it just makes you wish you were, and perhaps makes you spend money as if you are. To think of the economic boom and then collapse in terms of social contagion, those around us who were genuinely successful spooled the market up to make it seem as if we should all be joining the party, even if we couldn’t really afford the champagne.
If the outcome of the recession leads to “giving us cultural permission to cut back” as a nation, that to me is a good thing. It makes the whole concept of living more environmentally consciously as a nation a much more realistic prospect. It means our economy might finally start to move in a more sustainable direction in terms of consumption and ultimately greener living. With the cultural permission to cut back, people can more happily return to the ways of their grandparents (see HuffPost). “Cutting back” usually means getting back to basics, reducing consumption, reusing things and recycling what’s left over. Wait a minute…reduce, reuse, recycle….that’s pretty catchy. I wonder if I can use that?
As with dieting and exercise, cutting back is harder than cutting loose. Time will tell if the cultural norm has really shifted in terms of consumerism and consumption. It feels as though we’re still in the hangover stage. The question is whether as we sober up, we’ll listen to ourselves and cut back permanently or get right back out there and party hard when given the chance.
**Hours after my original post, I also came across this in the NYTimes : In Recession, Americans Doing More, Buying Less. The question is, will people change their behavior permanently??