Wise Shopping

Positive psychology, a relatively new academic sub-discipline, intrigues me.  Founded by psychologists who felt their field had become too focused on dysfunction, positive psychologists study “the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” 

In 2006, Dan Gilbert, a positive psych prof at Harvard, published a bestseller titled “Stumbling on Happiness.”  Referred to by some as Doctor Happiness, he was interviewed by a New York Times journalist recently.  Here’s an excerpt:

Q. As the author of a best seller about happiness, do you have any advice on how people can achieve it?

A. I’m not Dr. Phil.  We know that the best predictor of human happiness is human relationships and the amount of time that people spend with family and friends.  We know that it’s significantly more important than money and somewhat more important than health. That’s what the data shows. The interesting thing is that people will sacrifice social relationships to get other things that won’t make them as happy—money. That’s what I mean when I say people should do “wise shopping” for happiness.  Another thing we know from studies is that people tend to take more pleasure in experiences than in things. So if you have “x” amount of dollars to spend on a vacation or a good meal or movies, it will get you more happiness than a durable good or an object. One reason for this is that experiences tend to be shared with other people and objects usually aren’t.

Q. Have you just expressed a very anti-American idea?

A. Oh, you can spend lots of money on experiences. People think a car will last and that’s why it will bring you happiness. But it doesn’t. It gets old and decays. But experiences don’t. You’ll “always have Paris” — and that’s exactly what Bogart meant when he said it to Ingrid Bergman. But will you always have a washing machine? No. Today, I’m going to Dallas to meet my wife and I’m flying first class, which is ridiculously expensive. But the experience will be far more delightful than a new suit. Another way I follow what I’ve learned from data is that I don’t chase dollars now that I have enough of them, because I know that it will take a very large amount of money to increase my happiness by a small amount.  You couldn’t pay me $100,000 to miss a play date with my granddaughters. And that’s not because I’m rich. That’s because I know that a hundred grand won’t make me as happy as nurturing my relationship with my granddaughters will.

Q. So you hold with the notion that “money can’t buy you happiness”?

A. I wouldn’t say that. The data says that with the poor, a little money can buy a lot of happiness. If you’re rich, a lot of money can buy you a little more happiness. But in both cases, money does it.

Gilbert’s responses interest me on several levels.  I haven’t done the scientific research he has, but my life experience tells me the same thing—friendship and community consistently prove more gratifying than money and material goods.  One would think money would free people up to spend more time with friends and family, but Gilbert points out Americans tend to sacrifice social relations to get money.

Americans’ tendency to sacrifice social relations to get money brings to mind a unique feature of Norway’s social welfare system.  In Norway (top income tax rate of 45%), each June, the government gives every taxpayer 12.5% of their salary from the previous calendar year for a July or August vacation. 

If your government did that, what would you do with your 12.5% vacation bonus?  Nearly all Norwegians use their vacation bonus to take extended vacations.  Major businesses completely shut down for up to three weeks.  Even the court system closes and all cases are postponed. 

In the United States, some of my friends say they can’t take even weeklong vacations because they would be buried under voice-mails and emails when they return and they’ve convinced themselves they can’t afford to make less money.  It would be naïve of me to think I’m unaffected by my friends’ choices and actions.  Hypothetically, no matter how high a priority friendship and community are to me, if all of my friends work all of the time, my friendship/community potential will be severely limited.  

Why are Americans prone to sacrifice social relations to get money?  Are we products of an advertising industry and national culture that makes happiness more elusive?

Gilbert’s point that experiences contribute more to happiness than durable goods also intrigues me.  Intellectually, I understand his argument, but I think about that continuum differently.  With his Harvard salary and book royalties, he’s probably far wealthier than me, but even compensating for that, I can’t quite wrap my head around his “flying first class” example.  I think it’s a stretch to compare flying first class with a week in Paris.  My question is why pay four times a regular ticket price for two to four of hours of relative comfort and service when no one says weeks, months, or years later, “Remember how comfortable and pleasant that Boston-Dallas flight was back in 08?”  Just like the hotel rooms we stay in for one night, we tend to forget both good and bad flights.  Is a $500 hotel room five times as nice as a $100 one?

And if for the poor, “a little money can buy a lot of happiness,” shouldn’t increased philanthropy factor into the “first class” decision-making process?  Don’t Gilbert and others, who are happy, like myself, have a moral responsibility to help the poor experience more security and happiness in their lives?

Related to that, I don’t accept Gilbert’s expensive suit argument because the suit shouldn’t get old and decay.  It might fall out of style, but setting that aside, I would think the suit would be a more lasting and gratifying purchase than a first class ticket, especially if it’s worn to social gatherings.  My personal “durable good philosophy” is the more I use the good, the more I’m willing to pay for it.  Therefore, I have no problem paying a premium for an Apple laptop, a nice mattress, and a quality road bike. 

Despite those differences, a closer reading of Gilbert’s second answer helps me better understand his argument and makes me think he has a better grip on this subject than me.  In my mind, the most profound thing he says is, “I don’t chase dollars now that I have enough of them.”  I wonder, why do so many wealthy people continue to chase dollars when positive psychologists suggest it takes very large amounts of it to increase happiness by small amounts?  Why do we sacrifice social relations for money?  Is it because we’re irrational?

Even though you shouldn’t waste your time looking for me in first class and you shouldn’t offer me $100k to miss a family function without having the suitcase of cash in hand, I aspire to be more like Gilbert.  I want to avoid mindlessly chasing dollars and instead embrace being a husband, father, educator, and friend. 

True Confession

As usual, the other morning I was working my way through the daily websites and blogs—financial, news, weather, sports—when a headline hit me like a bolt from heaven, “Do Not Make Fun of this Sport.”  I’ve never been called out by an ESPN sportswriter. 

Some context.  I should come clean, I am a terrible parent.  More specifically a despicable father to my 15 year-old daughter.  If I set the trash television, the blonde hair that seems permanently attached to the shower drain, her tendency to lose my bookmarks, and her recent use of the phrase “golf player” instead of golfer aside; 15, just like 12, has been a tremendous joy to parent.  Without having to be told to, she chooses to work extremely hard in school, she passes on the beer at Norwegian high school parties, and she challenges developmental theory by having a consistently sunny disposition.

Like seemingly all girls in Olympia, WA, 15 grew up playing soccer.  She was smart enough to figure out that since she was smaller and slower than average, she had to compensate by giving a total effort at practices and games.  As a result, she developed a solid work ethic.  When she switched to swimming in 9th grade, I knew she had potential when she complained after one practice, “A girl in my lane kept cutting the sets short.  I don’t care if she wants to cut corners, but I don’t like it when she expects me to.”  In 10th grade her dad’s studliness finally kicked in her hard work began to pay dividends, she scored quite a few varsity points, she lettered, her 500 free time got dangerously close to mine, and she was voted Most Improved.

She veered off course on her way to Beijing however, when she followed some of her teammates into synchronized swimming.  Her teammates are great young women and 15 is pretty darn good at synchro, but come on, synchro versus swimming?!  Have you seen the fake-up, the nose plugs, the scary hair?! 

And that sentiment my friends is the reason I’m a despicable father.  In the fall of 2007, I ripped the “sport” so consistently, that I decided to make the rare New Year’s resolution, “If I can’t say anything nice about synchro, I won’t say anything at all.”  I think I’ve done pretty well, but 15 would undoubtedly say otherwise.  Now, I’m switching gears and trying to accept myself.

Besides, 15 can be a wee bit sensitive when it comes to a water activity that I mastered at age seven when I had a free afternoon in a Holiday Inn pool.  See, I just can’t help myself, which is why 15 forced me to read the ESPN article.  Here’s the jest of it, “No, really everyone, it’s a really tough sport, quit making fun of it.”  Thanks for that.  It’s obvious the male author is planning on making a move on one or both of the twenty-something synchro swimmers who taught him some moves for the article. 

You always hear Americans love redemption stories, so, before 15 runs away to live at a synchro training center, I am going to try to remedy this situation.  I will go so far as to volunteer to judge synchro in Beijing.  In fairness to the competitors who are putting their routines together, here’s what I’ll be looking for.  This is my effort to make things right with the “sport.”  1) Fewer show tunes, less classical music, more hip-hop and rap.  And pump it up, I want to see ripples on the surface before you enter.  2) Less military-like rigidity and more fluidity, think Shakira.  3) More fountain formations with synchronized spitting.

Also, after the first layer of fake-up, one point will be deducted for each successive layer.  Similarly, after the first overdone, phony smile, one point will be deducted for each successive overdone, phony smile. 

And lastly, to speed things up (so the spectators can turn their attention back to sporting activities like the marathon, basketball, the 10k swim, water polo), I plan on working behind the scenes with the other judges to tweak the overall structure of the performances.  My vision is to have two teams competing simultaneously, thus trimming the total time for the competition in half.  Each team will enter the water from opposite sides and then sprint to the middle where they will find one large rectangular ring on the floor of the pool.  The rap or hip-hop song of whichever team “controls” the ring will begin coursing through the spectators’ veins.  The “runner up team” will still be allowed to complete their routine just off to the side without their music.  My fellow judges and I will do our best to catch some of their routine.  In the spirit of sumo, teams will be encouraged to “enforce their will on one another” in order to control the ring and the clock will not begin until one team clearly achieves the upperhand.

May the fastest, toughest, funkiest team win.

Listening versus Filling In

[Mea Culpa:  If you’re paying real close attention, you’ll notice I’ve deleted a recent post titled “Respect is Learned.”  In the post I told a story about one of my daughters without getting informed consent from her.  She asked me to remove it. ]

From Per Petterson’s novel, Out Stealing Horses, page 73:

“People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are.  What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions, and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with yours, and that lets you off the hook.”

In a beautifully written book, this is one of my favorite passages.  I often feel people know about me in the exact way Petterson describes.  People I interact with sometimes fill in with their own feelings and opinions, and assumptions; they compose a different life.  But if I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge I sometimes do that as well.

In the modern era in which we live, is impatient, incomplete listening inevitable as Petterson’s central character intimates, or can we learn to slow down, listen more carefully and patiently, and not fill in with our own feelings and opinions and assumptions?  Can we develop perspective-taking skills or are we destined to think what’s true for us is automatically true for everyone else too?

And does the burden for more in-depth communication lie exclusively with the listener?  What happens if people tire of others’ tendencies to compose a different life for them and gradually give up trying to communicate more than facts?  This happens to me.  When people fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, I consciously keep things superficial.  I suppose that’s true for everyone to differing degrees.

We should strive to listen more patiently and actively to those we interact with, while simultaneously persevering in communicating more than facts.

I created this blog because I don’t want to give up on close meaningful friendships simply because modernization has sped everything up and possibly compromised our listening skills.

On the surface, blogging is impersonal and superficial, but writing is a way for me to slow things down and reveal more than facts.  Whether that contributes to closer, more meaningful friendships, time will tell.  I hope so. 

Heritage Run

The last time I was privileged to live abroad, I enjoyed writing an essay about my regular run in Chengdu, China that appeared in PLU’s magazine. Maybe I’ll share it sometime this year.  

As you can probably imagine, China and Norway are extremely different places.  For instance, it’s nearly impossible to compare population density in a Chinese city and a Norwegian burb. Even though running in Norway isn’t nearly as chaotic and eventful as running in China, I thought you still might enjoy learning about it.

In China, I did about five pancake flat miles five days a week, four outside the Sichuan University campus and one inside it on a black cinder 400m track. I ran in and out of a stream of cyclists and I could easily see a thousand people during the 38-40 minutes it took to complete my run.

During my hilly 8 mile Norway run I might see a few dozen people if I count those speeding by in BMW and Audi station wagons with rooftop boxes.  It’s not anywhere near as sensory an experience, but I’ve come to enjoy the quiet, the rolling farmland, the beauty, the peacefulness and naturalness of it all.


My hometown running crew—PC, Dano, and Double S—will be surprised to learn I have “a route” since I typically make them run a different 10-miler every Saturday.  As my mom says, “Variety is the spice of life.”  I occasionally improvise here, but usually tough out what I’ve labeled the Heritage run. It has a lot to recommend it: no stop lights, not even any stop signs (at my age it’s hard to get started again after stopping); hardly any traffic; as the pics hopefully attest, it’s scenic (even more so when snow covered); and the hills and 650 feet of elevation require an honest effort.

If I led my crew on this run, one of my aforementioned, hill-adverse training partners, would flip me the bird well before the midway point.  I’m only running three times a week because the day after a Heritage run, I like to swim or take the day off.  I’m taking more days off here since no one is waiting outside for me in the morning.  My favorite segment, which I’ve labelled “Grandma’s Stretch,” is about five miles in. I like it because most of the elevation is in the bank and I get to begin cashing it in. Also, it dissects exquisite family farmland.

Through this segment I sometimes picture Grandma Byrnes as a young girl running around the beautiful farms that dot the hills on each side of the road. She emigrated from Norway at age 13. It’s not a stretch to think that Grandma’s Stretch probably looked fairly similar 100 years ago.  

Our Northern Retreat has gone extremely well.  In addition to our new Nordic friends, I’ll miss pounding the bike paths, neighborhood streets, and farm roads that make up the Heritage run.

[Note to runners: between 1:00 and 1:04 depending on the footing, wind, and just how honest an effort.]