Sunday, May 22, 2011

happiness

I love Africa. I know I've only been here for 5 days and I know Africa is an enormous and diverse place, but whatever the common denominator is, I love it.

And there is a common denominator. On a continent so large, I would expect that music from Mali and Zimbabwe, Congo and Tanzania, would be completely different. But it's not. Listen to Afel Boucoum and Habib Koite from Mali and Oliver Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe and Congolese dance music and sure there are differences but the fundamental je ne sais quoi is the same, and wonderful. Even comparing traditional African music to the more contemporary stuff that is playing everywhere in the streets, it all has the same exuberant rhythmic base.

Somewhere along the line there is a break from African music to African American music, progressively morphing into hip hop, and the transformation from exuberance to anger absolutely kills it for me. That seems to be a more general distinguishing attribute between Africa and the West, actually. When you look around New York City, how many people look utterly content with the world, thrilled to be alive in that particular moment? No one, that's who. The dogs in the park, or kids on the playground not old enough to have learned to be miserable, maybe. Yet in a country with one tenth the income per capita, 90% of the people in the street are laughing or dancing or playing around with friends and family and look as though they haven't a worry in the world. When did we in the West lose this contentedness, and why do we think it is a sign of progress? Sure, I would not want to give up air conditioning or the freedom to travel or advanced health care, but at some point the tradeoff between moment-to-moment stress and unhappiness for bigger horizons and a longer lifespan is certainly no longer worth it.

It's hard to draw the line though. The unhappiness results from putting so much pressure on ourselves to be at the frontier of production, lifestyle, and influence, but that's a good thing to an extent too. I am bound and determined to be an academic economist who comes up with at least a few insights that improve our understanding of humanity, and I'm determined to be financially successful enough to have the air conditioning and health care and worldwide freedom of movement. I don't want to settle for less even if it means reducing my stress levels by 90% and sacrificing many many hours to unpleasant obligations. But at the same time, I don't care about having the big house in ths suburbs and private-school kids and a brand new car every few years and groceries from Whole Foods. I find the idea of sacrificing so many individual joyous moments for such marginal and dubious improvements in life satisfication revolting, in fact.

We are so strongly driven to be as successful as our most successful peers. When a subset of society is obsessed with success, it is contagious to their friends who judge themselves by their peers' standards. Soon the epidemic has spread to the entire society, and you a country of miserable workaholics.

And yet, I love New York City! Nowhere has this been taken to such an extreme as Manhattan, and the air is electric with energy pushed to a frenetic density. Everything is bigger and better and more competitive, and being constantly bombarded by the pinnacle of human achievement is inspiring and exciting. Every moment is an extreme version of that thing, designed to stimulate the relevant neurons in the most efficient way possible, and of course that is intoxicating. How can a single person love New York City but be happiest on an empty field in Nevada with only a tent, motorcycle, and camp stove? How can one unambiguously value both simplicity and contentedness, and vigorous competition and ambition?

Maybe the key is to be inspired by human achievement without one's happiness being dependent on relative success. Then to the extent that we are caught in the rat race, it's because it's what we genuinely want to do, and what genuinely maximizes our long-run happiness, independent of everyone else. Then NYC is a place of concentrated inspiration, rather than a pressure-cooker to measure up. And then to the extent that we also choose to live in converted shipping containers in abandoned hills in southwest Texas, it's not because we're stuck there with no other options, or because we are settling for mediocrity. It's, again, our genuine ideal.

Don't be afraid to do what truly makes you happy. I'm not sure there exists a simpler life philosophy than that. But who really follows it?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

yeah, trade - offs. No right answer but you're right on.

JohnRaymond said...

How nice that you like Africa, i.e. that you can enjoy its positive side and not focus on the negatives. The African people and their lifestyle can certainly reveal the pointlessness of much of American culture.
Your life philosophy is tempting, but isn't it really too simple, when you consider what some people will do to be happy?

Vera said...

Simplistic no doubt - or at least only applying to a very small subset of one's decisions. But what do you mean by what some people will do to be happy?