Coded gray.

Freeday 30 August 2002

Lonesome flower

Pic of the day: One lonesome flower, and others that haven't yet opened. Picture from earlier this year.

The good life

Today I want to talk about happiness. Not just my own happiness, but happiness for common people. I may be special, but not so special that others cannot learn some of my tricks. I believe that if our civilization has a future, it will have to move a bit in my direction. The American way of life will need to be tempered with some afterthought so we can be humans, not just consumers.

Afterthought is by far the easier, but forethought can be even better. If you want the good life, take a good hard look on the goals you don't want to reach; then don't run down those paths.

***

When you are hungry, food will make you happy. But the happiness will not increase as you continue to stuff yourself. For each bite the added happiness will be a bit less, until it reaches zero or even becomes negative. Such it is with most material goods. Getting more and more things will give us less and less happiness. And frankly you can't expect to just "get" things. You will have to work for them. And at some point it simply isn't worth the hassle. You may never reach this point if you belong to the underclass and have a large family to feed. Or you may reach it quickly, if you have a decent income and are single and intend to stay that way. But simply knowing how this works should be a help.

Material goods can be mass produced. Also many services can be mass produced. But there are scarce resources that will necessarily always be scarce. Perhaps the most obvious of them is attention.

Think about it. We all need attention from others. It is hardwired into our brain. Humans are not tigers or snakes or porcupines, created to live solitary lives outside a brief mating season. We are social creatures. This is the way our species is made. Unlike dolphins we don't simply stop breathing if we have to live without attention for a few hours; but weeks of solitary confinement is known to break even strong souls. Accept the truth: In a world of plenty, attention is still as scarce as ever. And when all your other basic needs are filled, you have to do something about your "attention deficit".

Think again of goods and services. How often are they disguises for the need to get attention, the need to impress, the need to be someone or something for another? I shall give you examples. People pay for good food. Food is a basic need. Good food is a further improvement on this basic need, a quality improvement. But then there is a shift. Most people really don't go to expensive restaurants alone very often. They only go there when they have someone to share the experience with, even if they have to pay more because of that other person. Why? Does the food really taste better when you are not alone? In a manner of speaking, yes. But it is because you get attention with the food. Not just the cursory attention of the staff (which already is part of it) but also the attention of your dining partner.

Also much of what economist label "services" is really about attention. Some of us don't mind that banks and shops move to the Internet, but there are many who feel the lack of a human that attend to them. And having your hair or your nails done is strikingly similar to the grooming that great apes find essential. (I am not even the first to notice that Desmond Morris is pretty heavy on this topic in at least one of his books.)

***

There are limits to what we need of clothes to stay protected from cold weather or lewd glances. There are limits to how large houses we need to shelter ourselves and our day-to-day stuff. There are limits to how large and how fast a car you need to get from here to there. But there are no limits to your need to impress your neighbors, friends and family. To prove that you are someone, that you cannot be overlooked. Sadly they upgrade their toy collection too, so you end up running all you can just to stay in place. To keep up with the Joneses.

I suppose you could, like me, get the attention of a god. Others swear to dogs. It is possible (though I am averse to admit it) that one or both of these are reflecting your own attention back on you. Self- attention (as in meditation) seems indeed to alleviate the need for attention by others, at least in part. Another way to get more attention could be to pay more attention to others: A friend, a family member, someone new. Surprisingly often, people will reward attention with attention (though it is not a law of nature). But whatever path you take, you should know what you do. You should know why you do it. If you do not know yourself, how can you give yourself a good life?

Do not throw your time away slaving at a work you do not like, in order to buy stuff you do not need, so you can impress people you don't respect. Invest your time (or your money if you have already converted it to that) where you can best satisfy your remaining needs. Be they physical, psychological or spiritual. And also, because this is what we were made for, satisfy the needs of others. This is also a need, to be a giver rather than just a receiver, and you ignore it at your own risk.

At the end of your life, can you look back and say "I had a good life because I heaped up lots of expensive stuff"? I doubt it. Can you say "I had a good life because I did what my heart truly wanted"? Yes you can. "I had a good life because I made others happy"? Yes, it has been tried and tested by better people than me. "I had a good life because I created something of beauty and value to the soul"? Yes, yes, yes. Look at the goals you want to reach. Walk the path that leads there, and don't forget to stop and look along the way. Sometimes the path is the goal.

(And for God's sake, don't believe advertisements. Advertisements started in the Garden of Eden, and they have been like that ever since. Remember, an advertiser wants to use you as a tool. He does not love you. He does not care for your happiness, as long as you go along with his agenda. Ads are the bracers of modern slavery, and don't you forget it.)


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Three years ago: Admiring the stupid

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