Of Grasshoppers and Ants: When Winter Comes

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It is an age-old dilemma and an age-old story. Spend or save? Play or work?

Aesop told it in the tale of The Ant and the Grasshopper. The grasshopper sings the summer away while the ant works to store food for the cold months. When winter comes, the grasshopper is out of luck.

There are numerous different versions of this story, but I’ve always wondered about one particular, very human variation. What happens when two people, close friends or lovers, both are engaged in a life style that only one can afford?

The woman, a high-powered executive with a salary to match, can afford to live the way she does; expensive meals, nice trips, Broadway musicals and the like. The man has the same tastes as his lady friend and enjoys indulging them no less, but isn’t a big-time earner. His is a “live for today” attitude, and let tomorrow take care of itself.

Finally, though, the man has a reversal of fortune; perhaps he loses his job. Or, let’s say that he must retire. Both remain healthy and active, but the small amount of savings in the man’s account are mostly gone, spent on all those dinners and trips,  the wine and the laughter that accompanied the good times. The woman still wants to live in the same old way: not counting the pennies. The male is largely dependent on his severance and unemployment benefits in one scenario; or his modest Social Security and retirement checks, if he is a bit older.

What happens now?

A few different possibilities:

1. The woman adjusts her life style and learns to live in a new way, still spending the same amount of free time with the man; the man, too, realizes he cannot live as before and finds less expensive ways of having a good time. Travel is severely curtailed. Lavish restaurant meals are now just memories. They accept the new financial terms dictated by his financial status and still enjoy the relationship.

1a. Both parties try to live with less expense, but it doesn’t work for them. The man believes that the woman could support some approximation of the previous level of entertainment and luxury if only she wished to. The woman regrets the need to set aside “fun,” even if it is in an effort to maintain the relationship. Each one feels the strain.

2. The woman decides that she still wants to live in the old way and is willing to pay for her friend to accompany her. Some amount of “hostile dependency” is inevitable, with the man feeling resentment that he has lost “standing” in the relationship. Meanwhile, the woman matches his resentment with a sense that her lover is not sufficiently grateful for her generosity.

3. In the final scenario the woman decides she wants to live as before, but she doesn’t intend to pay for her friend’s expenses all the time. So she leaves him behind with some frequency, going to expensive dinners with female friends, going on trips alone or with others who can pay their own way. She does not want to mortgage her economic future to indulge her friend.

Of course, this path risks its own tensions. The man is angry at being left behind and the financial strain of trying to keep up with his companion to the extent that he can. The woman resents his resentment, because she is paying for more than before, even if not for everything.

The lovers are spending less time together now and therefore might have more opportunity to meet someone else of the opposite sex with whom these difficulties would not be present. Temptation exists where none existed before.

Now, I imagine that you might have one of several responses. “Too bad,” would probably be one, a shame that they have had this reversal in fortune that has changed the relationship.

On the other hand, some of you might blame him for being the “grasshopper,” not saving for the winter. Others could find the woman to be selfish and self-involved if she chooses either the second or the third “solution;” not willing to be more generous toward the man whom she says that she loves.

In my experience, it would be relatively rare for two people used to a certain, somewhat extravagant way of living to adjust to a more modest life style, when such an adjustment is a necessity for only one of them. Indeed, in the present example, one can fairly assume that shared interests in elegant dining, good seats at sporting events, and travel were among the elements that attracted one to the other and bound them together.

In the end, we outsiders often think that the proper solutions to — let’s face it — non-life-threatening problems such as these are obvious and should be easy to enact.

But when you are in the middle of the thing itself, it often isn’t as easy as it looks from the grandstand.

If only this couple could realize their good fortune in having each other, friends and family, and their good health (Solution #1), as well as the relative unimportance of living in a grand fashion…

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There is a famous 1819 painting by Francisco de Goya, La Riña. It shows two men attempting to beat each other, stuck in muck and mire. Nothing too remarkable in that.

But what is stunning about the composition is how it contrasts the brutality of the antagonists with the staggering beauty of the landscape they inhabit. Just as in the case of the hypothetical man and woman I’ve described, who (unless they can comfortably arrive at the first solution) will live in some unnecessary measure of tension and unhappiness, these men too do not see the beauty around them, or do not value it highly enough.

And so the consolation of what the lovers still have together — those things about their relationship that are free of any cost — are dismissed, just as the beauty and wonder of nature are ignored by these men, sacrificed to their resentments.

Sound familiar?

The first above image is The Ant and the Grasshopper, from Aesop’s Fables, a 1919 illustration by Milo Winter from Project Gutenberg, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second is the Goya painting I described, which resides in the Prado, with the same source.

Money = Happiness? The Problem With Envy

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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.

“I Was Only Joking”

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I’ll give you an example of an ill-timed joke. It happened during the oral examination for my Masters thesis at Northwestern. Oral exams tend to generate a good deal of anxiety in the examinee, and I was no exception to this. The protocol is that the examining committee first meets together and then calls you into the room to join them. After exchanging greetings, the chairman of the committee, your thesis advisor, opens the gathering to questions from the other committee members. And so it was that Philip Brickman asked me the first question, beginning just this way:

There is a very serious problem with this thesis.

Dead silence ensued. My anxiety level went up 400%. I began to imagine my future taking a very wrong turn into four lanes of on-coming traffic. And then, after a pause that seemed to last for ages, he turned to the “Acknowledgements” section of the thesis and said:

Philip is spelled with one “L.”

Philip was calling attention to the fact that I had spelled his name “Phillip,” with two “Ls.” I have no memory of exactly what happened immediately after, although I can imagine that everyone laughed. I certainly was relieved; maybe that was Phil’s intent. But, however funny or well-intentioned, it was also a bad joke, one totally at my expense and possible only because of the vulnerability of anyone sitting for an oral exam, and Phil’s authority as one of the examiners. I had no residual resentment toward Phil, who was otherwise always more than pleasant toward me and, I should add, quite a significant research psychologist. But, I give you this example to point out that humor at another’s expense is a problematic undertaking.

I am sure that there are very few of us who haven’t ever taken advantage of the insecurity, vulnerability, or anxiety of someone, to make just such a remark as Phil made. I’ve certainly done it. It is a very human thing to do. And worse if it is done in front of an audience than one-on-one. I’m raising the point only because sometimes people who are sarcastic or mean-spirited do this with regularity and glee. And often, if the target of the humor complains, the jokester will blame the alleged “over-sensitivity” of the person who is the butt of his comment with admonishing words like, “you can’t take a joke,” “I was only kidding,” or “you are too sensitive.”

Maybe, maybe not.

But, once done, we owe the person who we toyed with the courtesy to respect his wishes and whatever sensitivities he does have, whether “over” sensitive or not. To do so is the civil and polite thing to do. Children are especially easy targets for barbs of the kind I’m describing and need particular respect, I think. Life is tough enough for the little guys and girls without adults taking advantage of their unshielded tenderness. That, at least, is my 2 cents on the subject.

And, if you are curious, I did pass the oral exam!

The image above is that of a Laughing Fool (ca. 1500) sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Anger Anyone?

Some of the very logical or morally upright folks out there believe that you should never get angry. Never ever.

I’m not one of those folks. First of all, we are all human, and to be human means to have emotions. Second, it is hard to imagine a humanity capable of defending itself, the spouse, and the kids, who can’t get in touch with some needed anger when we or our loved one’s are imperiled.

When danger appears, we are built to fight or flee. The sympathetic nervous system readies you for action. Adrenaline starts to pump, the big muscles of our body receive more blood as the heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid, the pupils widen (the better to see danger, my dear!), and sweat gland activity heightens to keep you cool in the event of a major exertion of energy (as well as to make you slippery, so that an aggressor can’t get a firm grip on you).

All of this has been “selected for” in the Darwinian sense: if our ancestors hadn’t successfully fled the tiger or defeated the enemy with the help of these physiological changes, we’d not be here and their genetic line would have stopped.

The same logic suggests that the female of the species historically tended to choose males who were capable of defending her and the kiddies, especially when pregnancy and child-rearing made them particularly vulnerable. But, since the female couldn’t always depend upon the male when he was out hunting and gathering, she needed some anger too.

So, if you get angry, as you almost certainly do, you have come by at least some of it honestly and through no particular effort of your own.

That said, how do you know when your anger goes over the top? Some people will tell you when that happens, of course, and sometimes the authorities will in the form of police. If you are no longer a child and get into fist fights or find yourself yelling a lot, you’ve almost certainly got a problem, either as an aggressor or as a victim. Alcohol might add to your combustibility since it tends to disinhibit people, making big emotions more likely. For some otherwise mild mannered men and women, drinking turns them to the dark side. As the old Chinese saying goes, “first the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.” Substitute the word “anger” for the word “drink” and you have an equally valid way of looking at anger. Do you have the anger, or does the anger have you?

On the subject of old sayings, there is an Italian saying that also applies to this issue: “If you want revenge, you should dig two graves.” This means, of course, that revenge is likely to consume you (and perhaps even lead to your demise) just as much as it is likely to succeed in hurting the other party. Lives have been eaten-up and made perpetually miserable by the preoccupation with righting wrongs. Think of the centuries long enmity that exists in the Balkans or the long standing animosity between the Greeks and the Turks. Numerous other examples could be cited. One act of revenge causes the victim to look for his own revenge and back again in a circle without end.

Anger is often the result of a real injury, but the danger is in becoming the thing that you learn to hate because of that injury. The data on the likelihood of child abuse being perpetrated by parents who were themselves abused  is fairly well known. Such a parent is much more likely to abuse his children than a parent who was not himself abused as a child. When I tell people this they often find it puzzling. Surely, they say, the abused child would learn what not to do from the parent’s bad example. But think of cigarette smoking or drug/alcohol abuse. Again, the child raised by an addicted mom or dad is at greater risk of duplicating the parent’s behavior than one raised by parents who are abstinent. Not only does the child have the model of the parent as a bad example in these homes, but, in the case of abuse, the youngster has to deal with the anger and hurt inside of him, which comes from being targeted. As children these kids can rarely succeed in retaliating against their parents, but they can take their feelings out against other smaller children (including their siblings) or against their own helpless children when they have become adults. Indeed, unless the abused child is able to obtain relief from the feelings of anger and sadness that come with abuse (and this usually takes therapeutic intervention), he is likely to carry some of these emotions and their behavioral consequences into adulthood. A good book on the subject is For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. A first class movie that depicts exactly what I’ve described is Good Will Hunting.

Back to the question of how you might know whether you have an anger problem, there are a few additional indicators. Do you (or do people tell you) that you react out of proportion to events that are not seen by others as being that big? Do you find yourself feeling angry or irritable much of the time, or awakened by resentments in the middle of the night? Do you have road rage? Have you every punched a wall or thrown an object due to this sort of upset? If you are an athlete in a contact sport, do you enjoy inflicting pain on the opposition?

Even if none of the above apply, there might be other ways that you express your resentment. Do you intentionally delay or put off tasks that others (a spouse or a boss) want you to do, but you don’t believe are that important? Are you sarcastic to others, rather than direct? Do you grumble in discontent or talk behind the back of others at what they’ve done (or not done) or complain about their personal qualities, but put a friendly face on in front of them? If you’ve answered “yes” to some of these questions, you might just be “passive aggressive,” expressing your ire indirectly.

Again, I’m not saying that all anger is inappropriate. And, certainly, one shouldn’t always turn the other cheek, lest one regularly get taken advantage of. But anger can be a problem for you and for those around you. Like a big dog, it should be kept on a short leash. If you can’t manage that, think about counseling.

A recent review article in The Behavior Therapist by Kulesza and Copeland concludes that cognitive behavior therapy is the current treatment of choice for anger problems. The authors emphasize the need for both training in behavioral skills and the use of cognitive restructuring to insure the best results. Therapy for anger issues is therefore likely to include direct instruction about antagonism and its management; self-monitoring of angry feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; relaxation training; assistance in new ways of thinking about the events that trigger rage episodes; social skills/assertiveness training; direction as to how to think about and undercut anger when it does occur; and practice in being exposed to triggering events so that new skills can be employed and the patient can learn to tolerate or diffuse the emotional intensity and stop short of vehement outbursts.

Among self-help books, one of the best is Stop the Anger Now: A Workbook for the Prevention, Containment, and Resolution of Anger by Ronald Potter-Efron.