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Friday, November 14 2014

The Happiness Riddle

Is it just what’s hitting my personal radar or has the various media all at once discovered the meta-concept of “happiness”. I must admit my surprise, given that this particularly fuzzy philosophical concept doesn’t usually translate well in mass media. Traditionally it’s been a topic more suited to one-on-one therapy sessions. But now that the floodgates are open, perhaps it can be looked at from a more critical viewpoint.

Did you know that former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke; a man who’s entire working life dealt with all things cold hard cash, gives speeches on happiness. Unfortunately, as beneficial as his insights may be, they are muted by his predisposition to frame them in his adopted language – that of a Harvard, MIT, Princeton, economist. For most of us this requires a translator, but the fact that he makes the attempt shows that even those at the heart of the financial world are willing to recognize, as a possibility, that we may have wandered a little off track in how we determine value.

Each one of us has a different mix of events and circumstances that make us happy. Some are happiest giving, others receiving, some live on thrills and exciting events while others construct a cocoon where they feel secure and at peace… we all have our desires and fantasies, and individual happiness is often measured by how close we get to their attainment. Many even turn to artificial stimulants (drugs) on their path to happiness but anecdotal evidence suggests this only works if you have both an endless supply, and are ready to abandon dreams of a long life.

One reason we don’t have a universal model or formula for finding happiness is that we don’t really understand what creates it. There is no “X+Y+Z = Happiness” equation. Happiness is an emotion and emotions are too individual. It is acceptable, however, to generalize a few ground rules for creating it. For instance: Finding happiness apparently has a lot to do with the method you use to look for it. Someone, (like me for instance) who gives credence to a Taoist philosophy where, to a certain extent, the heights of your ability to feel pleasure are defined by the depth of the pain you have endured, might suggest that some of the bad things in your life are what eventually brings you happiness. I know that my wife and I take great joy in many of the things we own because we couldn’t afford them in our younger years. Or that after a particularly frightening medical scare, or other threatening event, being able to accomplish the simple things in life take on a whole new joy.

Another irony with happiness is that it’s difficult to achieve in the presence of anxiety. And that makes planning for happiness a problem because planning introduces anxiety, especially if the events have to happen in sequence to achieve your goal. When all goes well it seems more of a relief. On the other hand, we can’t assume that happiness is purely a spontaneous and giddy experience either.

In spite of our individual variations we know that one universal piece of the happiness puzzle is control – the ability for each of us to make decisions governing our lives. A large part of the formula for happiness is, very simply, freedom – and freedom is a function of equality (equal rights), and choice (the ability to live by your own decisions). As a result, your government has a tremendous impact on the happiness equation through its ability to establish and enforce equality – and by doing so provide the security, predictability and the freedom for you to create potential in your life, and that leads to an array of alternatives… or choices. Other parts of the happiness mix include culture, family, community, religion – in fact, any part of your life capable of offering, or restricting, choices. In other words, your potential to attain happiness is strongly influenced by who you are and where you live. Some people are born with all the building blocks in place while others have to fight to create them.

Getting down to “brass tacks”, as they used to say in my parents time, there is no doubt that money can’t buy happiness but there is also no doubt that money can fuel a process that leads to happiness – and in our present society, lack of money can certainly interfere with attaining happiness. According to our Western value system, happiness is something you must invest in, over time. For example: If you own your own home, complete with the toys that entertain you – a home entertainment center, gourmet kitchen, basement workshop, or even a quiet place to read – you gain a foothold on happiness. Other measures such as your capacity to meet financial commitments, buy various forms of protective insurance – including health care and disability insurance – and your ability to enjoy safe and healthy products in the form of nutritious food and reliable transportation. All of these steps give you more control over your life – more security, peace of mind, and more choices.

Many religious groups find this a rather shallow approach to achieving happiness because it leaves out a spiritual process, which is highly regarded in our present culture. Still, most religions impose rules and restrictions that inhibit both choice and equality by demanding submission and exclusive trust – and go on to bully individuals into membership by threatening to punish them in the afterlife with torture and pain if they fail to remain devoted. A few religions are capable of inducing a rapturous state through a combination of hyperventilation and dehydration brought on by hours of chanting, singing and vigorous movement, while others may contribute a sense of well being through meditative prayer, convincing you that an all powerful supernatural presence protects and promotes your best interests. Regardless, most religions offer too variable and vague a process to include in a general formula for seeking happiness – but certain aspects may be valuable as tools.

Family and community can provide love and status, both socio-biological requirements for good mental health, according to science, and the ability to help others gives you a sense of well being and the hope for a legacy, which we all appear to want.

So, money helps reduce your anxiety about surviving the future, and gives you toys and access to places, and activities, that bring joy in the present. Friends and loved ones provide comfort and security as well as partners in the creation of lifetime memories. Governments contribute freedom of choice and freedom from discrimination (when they are doing their job properly). And spirituality may give you the hope it will go on forever. When it all comes together in a setting that is both beautiful and exciting chances are it would be difficult to avoid being happy.

It seems strange that any relevant discussion about happiness appears to require a complex formula, belying the simplicity and purity of the feeling itself but, I suppose, this is unavoidable in a world where even the poorest and most disabled are capable or feeling real happiness, while the richest and healthiest may not be. I suppose paradoxes flourish in all human endeavors. How else could Ben Bernanke become a sage for such an ethereal topic?

Thursday, November 13 2014

Edward Snowden's Democracy

Edward Snowden is a traitor. A traitor to a political system shouting its ideals from the rooftops while trampling them under its feet – a system constructed from hypocrisy, selfishness and elitism, and shielded under a facade of glorious rhetoric and cherry-picked history. I am in no way privy to the thought processes used by Snowden to justify his theft of those records, or his motivation for exposing them to the public, yet, when viewed from every angle there appears no material gain in this for any person of sound mind and body. The entire episode reeks of personal sacrifice in the face of a concerted effort by all agencies of the United States Government to portray them otherwise.

To condemn Snowden for swinging wide a door and exposing a multitude of truths where everything from subtle misrepresentations to brazen obfuscations were the order of the day, is an act of pettiness and spite unbecoming the leaders of a, supposedly, democratic and progressive nation. No amount of staged indignation, or the shedding of crocodile tears, or overblown predictions of disaster, are capable of deflecting the reality that representatives, who asked for and were given the people’s trust, covertly and deliberately deceived them. Their attempts at posturing and pathetic claims about doing nothing illegal - because they quietly made it legal - do little more than show the face of fear and guilt to a world awash in the constant and obsessive propagandizing of American national superiority.

Snowden did not follow orders and there are those who believe he should pay the ultimate price for his disloyalty. If such is the case than I suppose we must retroactively absolve and apologize to those we executed at Nuremberg for simply following orders. Is “my country right or wrong” now the law? Is morality now divorced from legality? In the eyes of government, is citizenship now about being a mindless automaton, incapable of making value judgments or acting to serve the needs of the many when faced by the wishes of those special few, who have the right to refuse answers to our questions.

In the technology age each of us is but the sum of our information, and to know more about our lives than we know ourselves is to own us. To listen in on our deepest conversations, and the conversations of those who we are closest to - as they speak about us - encapsulates our lives… and to record and accumulate our fears, desires, and beliefs is to construct a montage of our humanity based on fleeting moments in time. This construction, however formidable, undeniable, and damning is a lie that masquerades as truth – simply evidence that what we say to our most trusted confidants, regardless of how momentary and spontaneous, is potentially a threat that can change our lives. Information may not be truth but it is power.

What the Snowdens of the world understand is that democracy is fragile. For many generations we have touted the strength of our freedoms and hidden the reality that democracy is anathema to human nature. Massive columns and stonewalls do not buttress freedom. Freedom is an idea, a belief, one which no accumulation of institutions however staid and physical will protect if the idea is lost or subverted. Freedom is how we created democracies, and equality is why we created them, because without either we have no more security than animals in the forest, and to break these tenuous links means we lose it all. Unfortunately, this is becoming far too easy to accomplish in a world overwhelmed with communication media controlled by people creatively schooled in the process of building “us” vs. “them” conflicts… all in an effort to fortify their positions and convince citizens they require “special” powers to protect our way of life.

Equality is the weak link in the freedom chain. With minds designed to exist in a world of dozens we are surrounded by billions. Human beings evolved over millennia in societies of small, hierarchical, family groups ruled by alpha-adults seeking to replicate and preserve their genetic material. All of us are driven to achieve a recognition of our superiority as part of our genetic programing. It’s built-in over millions of years and was a necessary factor for survival when facing the competition in a primitive world. These same predispositions drive us today and are why, even though we mouth words like equality and brotherhood, we strive to prove we are special and carry dreams of being above and beyond the rest. Civilization is but a few thousand years old by comparison and real democratic principles have only existed for a scant few hundred years. The need to dominate and leave a legacy is part of us, and when exercised in larger society it manifests as the accumulation of power, and power corrupts – it is one of the true realities of human life and it is universal and unassailable. No one is immune.

Allowing the exercise of power in an arena where leaders can isolate and detach themselves from responsibility, through unbridled secrecy, is to jeopardize all facets of democracy. It allows leaders to stand on a stage and claim to protect us while taking away the very rights they claim to protect. To ignore this truth is to put at risk generations of hard won societal evolution. We are taught to have faith in the strength of our political institutions, to believe that they can withstand the weaknesses of the people we place in their charge and by believing this, we risk losing everything. All decisions must be made in the full light of day.

Democracy is an aberration that exists in conflict with our deepest feelings. It takes every ounce of our education and intelligence to overcome this conflict. As a result, leaders have exploited this tenuous process for hundreds of generations by creating “us” and “them” divides and claiming to be our protection against evil aggressors. In return they have demanded special powers and the right to avoid responsibility for their actions… and by acquiescing we are constantly giving away what they are promising to protect.

Democracy arose from experience. As complex and fragile as democracy may be all other systems more easily fall prey to the charismatic psychopath seeking self-aggrandizement and demagoguery. Every other form of government considers us pawns in a game of elites. Only a system where every individual is constitutionally equal to every other individual provides the security that allows each of us to experience freedom, and only real democracy has that capability. It is a fact so obvious that we believe it beyond dispute and, yet, this complacency has left us believing that the basic fundamentals of our system are solid and unyielding. We trust our democratic institutions because we have been taught they are “enshrined”, and in this we are wrong. We are their only protection and by giving away our ability to hear all of the facts and demand answers to all of our questions, we are giving away our right to be free. Politicians may simply fall prey to a belief in the specialness that we confer upon them, and when combined with a presumed access to superior information, making decisions that affect us becomes accepted as their natural right – but that doesn’t overrule our right to judge for ourselves. Edward Snowden may be a traitor to governments but he’s a hero to the people they represent and that is a prime illustration of why our system is in jeopardy.

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The Hollow Life

Life is a collection of moments.
The good ones you relive constantly.
The bad ones you try and forget.
Together they give life substance and meaning.

Others judge it's value.
All you may do is enhance or change the meaning
- while in search of the next moment.

If you fail to care deeply for others
You get no joy from helping them.
And if there is no joy, why bother.

Then all the meaning in life becomes about one person,
But people don't exist as one person.
We are all entwined, a product of each other.
And life as one person is meaningless..


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middleoftheroadradical at gmail dot com

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