The Need for Escape

The sense of being trapped may be a universal experience. Think of the small child who tries to wrestle out of his parent’s protective arms. The teen who hates curfew. The high school grad who can’t wait to leave home.

Other examples come to mind:

  • The suffocating boyfriend from whom you must free yourself.
  • The hated boss.
  • The stifling career.
  • The moribund marriage.
  • A restrictive religion and its too many rules.

Why are we so offended by the stickiness of things, of being like a fly on flypaper? Why do fences shout “Jump”? What is it about walls that beg us to climb, even as recreation?

  • Our ancient ancestors, the hunters and gatherers, needed to keep moving to find food and shelter. They profited by sensing and staying away from those animals and humans who menaced them. We inherited their survival tendencies. The complacent and trusting souls who acted otherwise and perished didn’t pass on their genes.
  • The instinctive man inside of us habituates quickly: he gets used to things, becomes restless, gets bored. Dissatisfaction is built into our nature, the better to thrive and survive. Were we satisfied by a single meal, with no recurring hunger, we’d starve. If sex so “blissed-out” cave-dwellers after one or two couplings, you and I would not exist.
  • The passage of time creates urgency. We don’t lead infinite lives. Want to be an Olympic star? Don’t wait until 30 to start practicing. The desire for love, too, means you must dive into the swim while your sparkle still can catch the eye of another aquatic creature.

The grass always being greener, where to? When? The five-year-old doesn’t run away because he can’t make a life on his own. The abused spouse with the ground-to-bits self-image holds her hopeless spot for fear worse awaits her elsewhere. The dissatisfied employee stays put in an economic depression. We all know out-of-love couples who remain married for the children, the worry of being vilified by co-religionists, and the thought of owning one dollar, where they used to count two.

We sometimes stay when we should escape and leave when we should hesitate. I’ve done both. How do you tell whether flight is best or portends even worse? A few things to consider:

  • Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman states, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”
  • Psychologists remind us that experiences, not things, have more lasting value internally and are more positively remembered than buying one more material object.
  • We cannot escape ourselves entirely. One’s innate temperament makes a significant contribution to happiness.
  • What we choose to focus on and whether we set impossible goals also factor into our sense of satisfaction. These are within our control. The long-term practice of mindfulness meditation has been associated with happiness, as well.
  • Research suggests Midwesterners who believe life will be better in California simply because of the weather tend to discover fair weather, like almost everything else, gets absorbed into the background. Not only climate, of course, is subject to habituation: think money, a new car, and today’s Christmas toy – the new delight turned stale; closeted before the weather warms. In the absence of other factors that might sustain a sense of well-being, we return to our set point, a basic and more or less enduring emotional state.
  • A richer neighbor will always be a happiness-wrecker if $$ are the measure you crave. Above $75,000 per year, your moment-to-moment, experienced well-being doesn’t improve much.
  • On the other hand, more money does tend to increase life satisfaction: your opinion of your life when you stop and think about it. And, up to about $75,000 yearly income, moment-to-moment happiness does increase.
  • Ask yourself what is your default tendency. If you tend to change jobs quickly, for example, then the next question becomes, how is that working? If you are prone to stasis when dissatisfied, the same question must be answered.
  • Are other lives involved in your decision? Maybe moving to a new house is best for you, but will it work for the spouse and kids?
  • Try to predict how you will feel about your choice in five months or five years. We tend to be poor at “affective forecasting,” the ability to gauge the emotional consequences of our actions. Still, an attempt is required.
  • A 2017 paper by Blanchflower and Oswald suggests we reach a low point to our happiness in midlife (around the early 50s). Thereafter, in general, we rebound – major life change or not.
  • You will do better to know where you are going, than just the situation from which you flee.
  • Those prone to anxiety and worry tend to exaggerate the danger of taking a risk. Judgment is questionable when angry. If you can, wait for a cool moment to make a decision.
  • Who are you? What are your values? How do these translate into life as it is lived?
  • Is there more than one way to achieve the result you want?
  • You might ask yourself whether your internal life requires attention. The externals – other people, your job, your living conditions – are less in your control.
  • If you expect utter and permanent transformation following your leap from a stuck place – well – you could be expecting too much. Remember, though, nothing in life is permanent and one can do worse than reach for the beguiling flowers still in bloom.

One last thought: we get no free lunch. Staying and going – except in extreme circumstances where life depends on it – each have a cost. Sometimes the decision is easy, often we struggle. Some doors remain open a while, others close with a rush. None of us get this right every time. Indeed, even knowing whether there is a “right” road can be challenging, since we only know with certainty the chosen path, while the other avenue lives in an idealized state within our imagination.

We’ve all read stories about the courage of people real or imagined, and the fixedness and quiet desperation of others. Those lives may provide guidance, but making choices presents a challenge unless you are an inveterate risk-taker or so frozen in place that no heat wave can de-ice and free you.

We each have only this one life. Try not to die with too many regrets.

The top image is the Vatican Museum Staircase as photographed by Andreas Tille. Next is James Jowers’s L.E. Side. These were sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally comes a Space Escape Grunge Sign, created by Nicolas Raymond and available from: www.freestock.ca

Money = Happiness? The Problem With Envy

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f3/Inveja_covarrubias.jpg/256px-Inveja_covarrubias.jpg

If seven is really a lucky number, you wonder why Pope Gregory (the Great) gave us Seven Deadly Sins in the 6th century: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, and Sloth.

Not, you will notice, Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Sleepy. But then, he probably hadn’t seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

I would argue that envy is the most troublesome of the seven qualities mentioned by Gregory in the day-to-day life of the Western World, particularly in our commercial life. It plays a role, I will further argue, that pretty much guarantees our unhappiness.

And who better to hold responsible than the advertising industry. Whomever invented the notion of The American Dream, advertising has certainly shaped it.

The “dream” looks something like this. It includes a big house (usually in the suburbs) with the latest and finest appliances, multiple high-end cars, jewelry and finely tailored “fashion forward” clothing, computerized gadgets in our pockets, and a fat bank account. It is not simply success at “keeping up with the Joneses,” but surpassing them.

Schopenhauer put it neatly when he wrote that “a human being, at the sign of another’s pleasure and possessions, would feel his own deficiency with more bitterness.” The cure offered by “the American Dream?” It is to obtain those possessions, often including a comely and dashing partner, expecting that contentment will follow.

Joseph Epstein describes it well in his wonderful little book Envy (upon which this essay draws) when he notes that envy is akin to the question “Why me?” that is often asked by the victim of tragedy. But, since envy is triggered by others’ good fortune and material well-being, the question becomes: “Why not me?”

Envy is further related to thoughts regarding life’s unfairness and the notion that I deserve good fortune more than my less worthy neighbor or business associate.

Epstein notes that the advertising industry is little more than an “envy-inducing machine” designed to make us feel bad and promising a material cure that will make us feel good. However, since there are always people who have “more” than we do (and presumably deserve it less), we will forever be in the chase for the carrot at the end of advertising’s (and our neighbor’s) stick.

Envy assumes that “my life would be better if only…” and it is partially the basis of the alleged “class warfare” that has been going on in the USA for a while. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show us people flaunting their prosperity and their “life style,” and make it all appear pretty wonderful. We know how much people make for a living, where they reside, what cars they drive, and sometimes even the details of their tax returns. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our envy.

There was a time in the Western World, no more than 50 years ago, when modesty was seen as a virtue and drawing attention to one’s prosperity was thought unseemly. Now, the material well-being of the luckiest of us is pretty much shoved down everyone else’s throat; ironically enough, at a time when a good many people can’t afford a good meal that would progress through that same orifice.

I half-way expect some well-fed figure in the half-baked Alaska of contemporary politics — someone who is advocating the end of unemployment benefits for those long out-of-work and out-of-luck — to echo the line attributed to Marie Antoinette. You will recall that when she was told that the people had no bread, she said, then “let them eat cake.”

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provide data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that our tendency to compare ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction.” In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.'” Moreover, they report that people tend to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they make those comparisons to those below them.

This also implies that even if your income increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within the group of people you tend to measure yourself against (or unless your income is relatively modest to begin with, as noted below). If all incomes go up in your social or business cohort without changing your rank among these people, then you would not be expected to be happier, according to this line of thinking.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified by saying that it motivates people, makes them work hard, and that “in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we are free to win the prize and defeat our envy by obtaining the prosperity that will unlock the door to happiness. And indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA quite high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth.

The problem is that psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money that your neighbor has but you don’t, won’t make your experience of life a lot more satisfying unless your income was modest in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel writes:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it…

Sound familiar? Remember the thing you couldn’t wait to get as a kid and how great the anticipation was? But once you have the thing it becomes part of the background of your life, yesterday’s news. Like kids who are thrilled with their gifts on Christmas, we adults are likely to put the toys on the shelf or to use them without much delight after just a little passage of time. But if the acquisition of such things is the way you try to fill yourself up, the danger is that you will try to buy more with the same unfortunate result.

The concept behind this tendency for the temporary “high” of the new refrigerator to diminish is called “hedonic adaptation.” Just like a foul smell noticed when you enter a room, if you stay in the room for a while your nose adjusts or “habituates” and the smell no longer seems so bad; indeed, you might not notice it at all. Just so, the momentary excitement of the new possession wanes before long.

Research suggests that we each have a relatively stable level of life satisfaction that cannot be sustained at a higher level by episodes or events of good fortune. Like rats, we are on a “hedonic treadmill,” having to work at the job of happiness just to keep up, unable to do much more than maintain a somewhat fixed degree of life satisfaction.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested more personal contentment would come from knowing yourself and improving your human qualities, performing social acts of virtue, civic involvement, and friendship.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction in lived experience. He has demonstrated the value of productive and engaging work that finds one “living in the moment,” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. He calls this the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused and totally involved at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive feeling.

When you are in the “flow” state, you are “in the zone,” as the athletes would describe it.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether that is because of the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility that people who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last but not least, data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found that a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are leaving for a therapy appointment already.

The above image is Envy, an engraving from Jacob Matham’s series The Vices, plate #5, ca. 1587. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.