Archive for June 23rd, 2008

On Happiness

Note: this week is Summer Experience at UMF, at which incoming first year students spend a week in seminars focused on common interdisciplinary readings. This week’s blog entries will, each day, focus on one of those readings. The readings have a variety of subjects from politics to philosophy to experience…hopefully blog readers will find it an interesting change of pace. The piece I choose to respond to today is “What Every Girl Should Know” by Robertson Davies (1913-95), written in 1977.

The title of the piece “What Every Girl Should Know” is misleading. The writer, Robertson Davies, was writing this for (I believe) his granddaughter. What he talks about here, however, is important for everyone. Here is a short quote to give blog readers not in the class a taste of the piece:

“I hope you won’t bother your heads about happiness. It is a cat like emotion; if you try to coax it, happiness will avoid you, but if you pay no attention to it it will rub against your legs and spring unbidden into your lap. Forget happiness, and pin your hopes on understanding.”

Davies is speaking to that universal desire in humans to be happy. And he notes that most people who seek it do not find it. That is because most people live shallowly, not taking the time to know themselves or why they do what they do, but instead to simply go from one activity to the next, finding gratification for at least the short term, searching desperately for some sense of satisfaction for forces outside oneself. Living this way becomes something hard to break out of because, as he notes, “Live shallowly and you will find yourself surrounded by shallow people.” Shallow people are annoyed by people who live deeply, in part because the inner contentment of the latter starkly shows the former what they lack. Shallow people cling to shallow people.

‘Living deeply’ is something one gains not by success in the external world, or even by making wise choices. These things are not the same as living a deep, satisfying life. One can have immense worldly success, making good choices in life, and still not be happy. Indeed, happiness seems disconnected from ones’ success or accomplishments; those who are unhappy seem unhappy no matter what happens, while those who are happy can find joy in a very simple life.

Davies advises taking one hour a day – one hour away from every demands from children, work, ones’ spouse, family members, television, and the internet (well, he wrote before that little distraction was invented) provides, and set it aside for oneself. Take time to think about what one is doing, to understand ones’ own motivations, thoughts, and desires. Taking this time will yield understanding and once one has that understanding happiness will happen. It becomes a part of ones’ life, not as some rush of excitement or exuberance, but simply finding life to be something worth living, with a sense of mystery and joy.

I choose Davies’ piece for today because I think he is right. I agree with him. I don’t know if that’s because he is right, or if it’s because I simply am biased towards his perspective because I share it. I’ve always been introspective, trying to dissect why I think the way I do, why I want what I want, what motivates me. I try to be self-critical as well, noting times when I do stupid things, taking responsibility for them and not trying to blame the situation or other people. I love and enjoy life, I find learning the most interesting aspect of this existence. Instead of worrying about how underpaid we are at UMF, or that teaching here isn’t as prestigious as teaching at a place like Colby, I think about how lucky I am to have this kind of lifestyle, able to reflect, keep a blog, research what I want, teach and learn with students, and how wonderful Maine is for raising family.

However, this bias might simply mean that this kind of path to happiness works for my personality type. Other people, more extroverted and experimental, may find it less important to be introspective, and more pleasurable to have numerous interests and endeavors. Still others might focus on nature as a kind of natural meditation, rather than the kind of introspection Davies describes. An hour immersed in nature may yield the same benefits as an hour of introspection for many people. Finally, many people emphasize family and friends, seeing those bonds as the key to happiness. These would be bonds built by deep relationships – talking about life, problems, and sharing meaningful moments, not just shallow pursuits.

So ultimately, I think there are many paths up the mountain. Two things doe seem clear: 1) guilt will undercut any effort to be truly honest with oneself – so learn from mistakes but don’t feel guilty about them, humans are imperfect creatures who make mistakes all the time; I define guilt as the condition which prevents us from learning from our mistakes because it leads us to hide them from ourselves.  If guilt can’t be avoided, it is best used as an impetus to change; 2) unhappiness is not a state that can be cured by just changing external conditions. The change has to come from inside, one has to take responsibility for ones’ life and not feel sorry for oneself or feel a victim. In cases like that I think Davies’ notion of ‘living shallowly’ becomes likely; people will seek a life of shallow distractions to avoid coming face to face with themselves and confronting the hard work necessary to alter that state. Perhaps in this is the biggest life lesson: take responsibility for your life, your choices, and trust that if you do, happiness will simply happen. Because, ultimately, if happiness depends upon what others do or what the world provides, one is giving immense power to people and forces acting for their own purposes. That’s almost sure to lead to failure.

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Why the Republicans failed

December 2000 was a heady time for Republicans. After the Supreme Court ruled that Florida votes need not be recounted and the election as certified would stand, it was clear that the GOP had a majority in Congress and the held the Presidency. Despite a short loss of a Senate majority in 2001-02, it appeared the decade would belong to the Republicans.

And they had ideas. To the problems facing the United States President Bush offered a solution: the opportunity society. With the budget now in balance, he argued, the US could move towards helping Americans take control of and responsibility for their own lives. This included privatizing social security (after all, the stock market had been soaring, why not allow people to put their money there?), re-writing the tax code, altering social welfare programs to focus on getting people trained for work, and nothing short of creating an American alternative to the European social welfare state.

While I am very skeptical that all this could have worked — I think most people are glad they weren’t putting their social security money in the stock market he last eight years, for instance — give President Bush his due: He had plans for real reform. The GOP had a vision for an America with less government, more individual responsibility, and balanced budgets. All of this, they argued, would be paid for by projected budget surpluses. Having too much of a surplus or paying down the debt too fast would be dangerous, but that money could be used to create a transition to this new economy.

Eight years later few remember that President Bush was elected on this notion of individual responsibility and ‘compassionate conservatism.’ Almost none of what the Republicans set out to do was accomplished. Despite having a majority in Congress and holding the Presidency, most of their bold domestic agenda failed. Why?

Part of the reason, of course, is conditions beyond their control. The budget surplus projections were bogus, ignoring the fact that the balanced budget and the economic optimism of 2000 was build on a stock market bubble which already had burst. Even their belief they could remake the Supreme Court failed, as liberal justices refused to quit, leaving Bush with the task of only replacing two GOP appointees. The Democrats became effective at using the filibuster in the Senate to stop action on many Bush plans, and by 2006 the Republicans were on the rocks, and now the Democrats are poised to be where the GOP was in 2000 — at the head of government.

For the Democrats to succeed, they need to understand why the Republicans failed. And the reason is clear: Iraq. The most dramatic political casualty of the Iraq war was the Republican agenda. After getting early tax cuts passed, Bush could get little significant legislation through Congress afterwards. Major legislation passed would instead be things like the Patriot Act, passed in reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

9-11 and its aftermath was a pivotal point for President Bush. At the height of his popularity, with a country suddenly unified, and liberal dissent considered almost treasonous by many, he had the chance to build on a relatively easy victory in Afghanistan to bring the country around to his view of the future. With the property bubble replacing the stock market bubble, the economy actually appeared in much better shape than it was. This meant that Bush could remain popular, and the GOP could provide a coherent message about their plan for the future. If the President had handled events post-9-11 differently, we might be looking at a very different political landscape. The Democrats may not have had the will to sustain Senate filibusters if Bush had remained popular, the GOP majority may have continued to grow, and the President might now be talking openly of the new “opportunity society,” complete with private social security accounts, and major reform of the tax code and social welfare system. We’d be debating the long term consequences of these actions, and the Democrats might seem to be representing the ‘failed policies of the past,’ while the Republicans were innovative and different.

Instead, the decision to invade Iraq dashed every Republican hope. It drained hundreds of billions from possible budgetary funds, meaning the deficit would grow and any effort to create a transition to a new tax, social security or social welfare system was infeasible. The President’s lack of popularity meant he couldn’t make a convincing case to the public for change, meaning that the Democrats paid no political cost for obstructing the GOP agenda — quite the contrary! The country became fixated on Iraq to the point that the phrase ‘opportunity society’ became virtually meaningless; instead of the center point of the Bush Presidency, it was simply a forgotten political slogan.

To those in the GOP who truly believe that less government and more free markets would work, this has to be very painful. They had the chance. They had the majority, the President was popular, their ideas intrigued the American public. The Democrats were on the defensive, especially after 9-11. For better or worse, they could have made their agenda political reality. Instead, the Administration engaged in a social engineering experiment in a post-Ottoman authoritarian state, believing if it removed the dictator they could engineer a stable pro-American democracy that would pressure other states in the region towards similar reform. The seductive illusion of this vision — US power not only protecting American oil interests but reshaping the Mideast into becoming more pro-western, less friendly to terrorists, and more amenable towards accepting Israel’s right to exist — caused Bush to gamble his Presidency. He lost.

If Iraq becomes stable the pro-war side will try to claim success. They’ll say it took longer, but say that ultimately Iraq emerged better off than under Saddam. They are already claiming we’re on the road there, though I strongly suspect that once again they’re miscalculating. The cost of the war in Iraqi lives lost, destruction of that society, and of course the loss of American lives and money is so enormous that there is no way the policy could possibly be a success, especially since it’s rationale was proven wrong and the region is even more hostile to US interests: Iraq was in many ways a gift to Islamic extremists, helping them recruit and fostering increase anti-Americanism.

After the Iraqi people, the biggest loser might be President Bush and the Republican party. They had their chance to reshape the American political landscape and engage in dramatic policy reform. They had the chance to experiment with cutting government and expanding markets, privatizing and putting their vision to test in the largest economy in the world. That chance won’t come again for a long time, if ever.