Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Prize

I got into a big discussion online about the over-inflated cost of medicines, and almost digressed into a diatribe about the overwhelming state of "depression" in our society. In order to keep that discussion reasonably on-topic, I told one of my forum friends that I'd save it for my blog.

So here I am.

But man... where the heck do I start on that one?
(I usually write "when the mood/inspiration strikes," but this time I'm going to write because I said I'm going to. It will be a good exercise on "writing" instead of my normal "letting it flow.")

This is a pretty deep subject, and one that I've put a lot of thought and reading into. I can go on and on about it, for sure, once I get myself going.

Well... According to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics website 14% of Americans take antidepressants.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 9.5% of Americans suffer from "Mood Disorders," which include Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymic Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder.
According to another study, 12% of those interviewed met the criteria for Clinical Depression, and another 10% suffer from "frequent low mood," signs of which can include: difficulty sleeping, poor appetite, fatigue, difficulty in concentrating, and and ongoing case of "the blues."

Here we have 2 separate studies that show differing percentages: NIMH's 9.5%, and the other's (a study funded by BASF) 12%.
I believe it's very safe to say that there are LOTS of "depressed" people who are not accounted for in either statistic. Many people don't seek help for depression, and some aren't even aware they're depressed.
Heck, I myself am currently pretty "depressed," and I'm not seeking diagnosis, help, OR medication for it.

For the sake of the unmedicated, undiagnosed, and unaware, and this discussion... we're going to add up the "clinical" and the "low mood" to 22%, and then add a conservative 3% for the "unaccounted for," for a total of 25%. I think this is reasonable in my intended context, because "not as happy as one wants to be" concerns this subject just as much as "clinically depressed."
And frankly, I believe that's probably a lot more than 3% of our population.

We're by far the richest nation in the history of the Earth. We're "free."
We spend more money maintaining our lawns than the entire tax revenue of India.
What the heck do WE have to be depressed about?

Well... I believe we are a SOCIETY of depression, in the "pursuit of happiness."

Our Beloved Forefathers really nailed it when they included "the pursuit of happiness" in that famous document.
THAT is our goal in life. Almost every single other thing we do is based on that pursuit. Even when we perform charitable acts for others it is, deep down, because it makes us happy to do so.

At our core we really want just two things out of "life": To be HAPPY as much as possible, and to die with as little pain as possible. Everything else circles around and stems from these two basic desires.
("Happy," here, is sort of a catch-all bottle. It's the "core" of many other things... We need to be loved: feeling loved makes us happy; we need to be healthy: being unhealthy or in pain hinders our ability to be happy; etcetera.)

What I believe is askew is what we believe will make us happy, and there are very powerful reasons for that.
There ARE mechanisms in place that are designed to make us think the things we think will make us happy will make us happy.

These mechanisms are so complex and effective that we persist in our beliefs of what will "make us happy," even though it's not working. That fact is key to the whole problem.

I've heard it said that the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result." But part of the problem is that we've become so blind, so caught up in the bullshit, yes bullshit, that we've lost our ability to even SEE the result.

Our pursuit can be equated to the mentality of a compulsive gambler.
He "knows" that millions (happiness) are just around the corner... he keeps playing because he persists in his belief in the payoff.
But there's a big difference. In the compulsive gambler's world, HIS goal of happiness... "millions"... would be real if he were to win (and of course, he stopped with "good enough").

Here's the difference:
In our infinite quest for the payoff, "happiness," most of us are actually winning most hands we play. Where the problem lies is that when we WIN, we aren't any happier, and instead of switching to a different game we play again... thinking that if we just win BIGGER this time, it will work.
Most Americans get constant payoffs in this game, and yet 25% of us are depressed.

I suggest that it isn't whether we win or lose that's the problem. IT'S THE PRIZE. When we win, the prize doesn't do for us what we thought it would. Our sickness is that we play the same game again, for essentially the same prize, and think the prize is going to do what we expect this time.

We stay depressed, "not happy," because the we can't seem to figure out that what we THINK will make us happy won't. And to top it off, we keep working ourselves harder and harder, stressing ourselves out more and more, trying to get that same prize.

So what is this "prize" of which I speak?


This stuff, that stuff, the same stuff he has, some different stuff, cheap stuff, expensive stuff, somebody else's stuff, some stuff to call my own. It's all the same, essentially. We acquire most of it for the same reasons, and we all get as much of it as we possibly can. "He who dies with the most toys wins."

All our lives are wrapped up in stuff. Our home is stuff, and we put all our other stuff in it. We entertain ourselves almost entirely (most of us entirely) with stuff: the TV being the biggest, but all the rest of our stuff, our boats and jetskis, our golf clubs, our video game system(s), our computer, our fancy pop-up camper, our specialty appliances (like a breadmaker or bagel slicer), our car(s). Even the "good things" like books. It's all stuff.

Obviously most of our "necessities" are stuff, our stove, refrigerator, SOME form of transportation.......

We have even come to define ourselves with stuff. "Which brand I choose" has become the number one way a person in our society tells others "who I am," especially in the younger generations. (Even hippies and punks are paying top dollar these days for "brand name" clothes and accessories... wtf?)
Are you the kind of person who would buy a Mercedes, or a BMW?

Our lives are so completely wrapped up in stuff that's easy to start believing that if we have more and better STUFF, we'll have a better LIFE. We'll be happier.
And we are coerced, seduced, persuaded and otherwise influenced into not only persisting in, but increasing, this belief. Not by "people," but by desire for ever-increasing profits at any cost.

We constantly strive for a BETTER home, a BETTER car, a BETTER toaster.
We're really not as happy as we'd like to be, and we are surrounded by sources that are telling us that if we have better stuff, we'll be happier.
So we work harder. We educate ourselves in the direction of what career will give us the most money (not necessarily something that interests us in any other way). And work even harder.
And, hopefully, we achieve more "success."

Everyone knows that when we get more income, our expenses tend to rise accordingly.
When we get that promotion, we buy a bigger house and a nicer car. We put our kids into "nicer" daycares, maybe we get pregnant again. We get a better toaster, and a bagel slicer.

Or maybe we finally buy our first NEW car, and move into a nicer rental. Bring the old toaster.

But if more than 25% of us are depressed, and "most" of us are "middle class," that means that a lot of people who are doing "pretty good" at that game aren't getting any happier.

The bagel slicer looks neat on the counter, and we can make breakfast 16 seconds quicker, but we don't FEEL any better than when we were still using a knife.
We can now see the HD television from the other side of the pool, but we're no happier than when we were watching an old 21" Magnavox in a double-wide.

I heard a show on NPR where they were talking about "the definition of rich."
A lady had written a letter saying that she was surprised when she totalled up how much money she and her husband "brought home" and found that it was well over $100,000/year. She said she still wonders every week where the daycare payment is going to come from.
An art dealer called in and said that he defined "rich" as when someone could walk into a store like his, find a $10,000 painting, and say "I'll take it" without having to spend a minute thinking about what other things they'd have to sacrifice to get it.

In our society, that really takes a LOT of income. Even millionaires fit the mold of "increased income = increased bills." Payments on yachts, huge homes, a few extra huge vacation homes, etc. can wind up meaning the "rich" guy doesn't have much more "leftover" money than you do.
And it turns out that he isn't any happier either.

All this makes a pretty good case that maybe it isn't stuff that will make us happy after all.

In fact, since STRESS tends to really bum us out, and most of us work stressful JOBS to pay for the stuff... maybe it's precisely the pursuit of that stuff that's making us so miserable.
And frankly, when we're not working we're constantly "entertaining" ourselves with our stuff... watching TV, playing video games, chatting online about what we saw on TV, chatting on Twitter about what we had for dinner, updating our facebook, getting drunk at clubs...
We never just take time to THINK.

So we never re-evaluate our situation.
We never take the time to wonder if, since we're not as happy as we'd like to be, maybe we are doing something wrong.
Maybe, just maybe, what we think should be our "goals" aren't really what's best for us.

Maybe the pretty girl in the commercial is... wrong.

I propose that we do just that. We turn off the stuff, for just a few precious minutes, and do a little thinking. We re-evaluate what we truly NEED in life, to be HAPPY.

Start by spending a few minutes reminiscing on your "happiest moments."
Are they something you saw on your television?

Obviously there are many needs in life that require stuff, and even "life's needs" can be tied to your happiness.
You need clothing. You'd be pretty unhappy if you were cold, wet and naked. But are you any happier wearing Hilfiger than Levis, or vice versa?
I need a home, a roof over my head to protect me from the elements, but do I need a big, fancy house on the island? Me, personally... I live alone, and simple, and frankly I don't enjoy doing much cleaning... a crappy little two-room apartment suits me just fine.

And of course the more direct happiness things: I love to read, and books are stuff. (Though it's not about "having" books. Frankly I prefer to give the good ones away.) I'm very happy when I'm riding my motorcycle. I love to watch movies, so a TV is pretty handy... but I can also watch them on my computer, so do I need both?
But they don't HAVE to be brand new, hardcover, expensive books. And it doesn't HAVE to be a $50,000 custom chopper. Would I be happier riding the chopper? Honestly, deep down, no. It's "the ride" that does it.

Think about, and perhaps list, what you would truly NEED to be as happy as you think would be reasonable. Try and focus on the difference between the "need" and what you think you "want."

Maybe you love to go fishing with your brother, or your son. So a boat and something big enough (big enough) to carry it would be awfully useful. But does it really "need" to be a big, fancy boat, or as far as your happiness is concerned will a little ol' John boat do?
When you look back on those fishing trips is it the boat you're going to be thinking about, or fishing with your brother?

When I list what I need to be happy, most of it is relatively inexpensive. The top things on the list are free.
At least one real friend.
Good conversation.
Learning about things that interest me.

Once you have this list, if you are so bold, you can begin to adjust your work and lifestyle around it.

I believe what we do for work, for our income, is a POWERFUL influence in our lives, who we are and what/how we feel. Most of us spend well over half of our waking hours at, and commuting to, our jobs. What we do, who we are, and how we feel at work, is pretty much what we do/are/feel. If our job pisses us off, we're pretty much pissed off most of our days. If our job stresses us out, we're pretty much just stressed out (stress doesn't exactly just "go away" when you get home to your stuff).
Heck, even if our stuff WAS what makes us happy, we still spend more time getting pissed off and stressed out than we do playing with our stuff.

So here's what you could do:
Say you used to be a carpenter, and you loved it. You like building things, being outdoors, working with your hands. You decided to start a family, and of course you were going to start needing a lot more stuff, so you went to school and learned to be a computer programmer because it wound up having the potential to make you more than a carpenter's wages.
But you hate it. You're indoors all day, in a cubicle under flourescent lights, staring at a screen.
Since most of the hours of your every day suck, your life pretty much sucks, and you're miserable. Like 14% of Americans, you take antidepressants to get through your days.

We tend to be most happy when our interests are stimulated, and I believe that most people have "interests" that are useful to others in some way. In other words, that can be applied in SOME way to a "job." Doing a job all day long every day that bores the hell out of you is just as stressful as one that makes you mad.

If it turns out that you really don't NEED all the stuff, or as much stuff, or the "best" stuff necessarily (are you going to be happier with the new 81" TV this Christmas than you are now with the crappy old 76" one you bought last year?), maybe you could cut back a lot on your expenses and debts, do something that interests you or that you even love, for less money, and live happier.

Maybe you don't really NEED a Cadillac Escalade for carrying groceries and kids. Moms in the '60s did just fine with station wagons.
You could buy used. (A "new" vehicle has proven to be the worst possible "investment" in our society.)

Maybe you don't need a new pair of Nike's to replace the ones that fell apart or went out of "style" in 6 months ("quality" is another fairly deep and loosely related subject... for another blog).
You could get a pair of less-popular, but better quality shoes that will last you 3 years. Or learn about a company like Danner who will sell you a boot for around $250-300 that, with refurbishing every few years, will last the rest of your life. (Another concept of value - spending a little more on something that lasts proportionately WAY longer - that has somehow gone by the wayside in our society.)

Maybe... just maybe... if you didn't work SO hard, ALL the time, doing something that at least doesn't stimulate and interest you, at worst makes you miserable most of the time, to pay for all this stuff that isn't really doing anything for you... you could be happy sometimes.

You can play the game less, and win more.

To be further explored in subsequent ramblings:
The relationship of "cheap goods."
What influencing forces we, as individuals, have to overcome.

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