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Tagged with Happiness

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The medium chill, revisited

hammock feet
Shutterstock

A little less than two years ago, I wrote a post called "the medium chill," about efforts by my wife and me to step off the "aspirational treadmill" and accept some material constraints in exchange for lives with more free time, relationships, and experiences. It has gone on to be my most popular post ever. I don't know if it got the most hits, but it has solicited the most feedback, by a wide measure. It is one of very few posts I've ever written that is regularly mentioned to me by Normal People, i.e., people outside my online circles of green wonks and political obsessives. Several people have told me it gave them a way to express something they'd already been thinking, which is pretty much the nicest thing you can say to a writer.

Happiness small
Susie Cagle

Anyway, in some modest way, it resonated. Since Grist's theme this past month has been "happiness," my editor asked me to revisit the essay and talk a little about how my thinking has (or hasn't) changed. So here goes. Pardon me if this is a little discursive and rambly -- and by a little I mean a lot.

If I had to sum up, I'd say that I'm more skeptical/cautious about one part of my post and more committed than ever to the rest of it.

First, the part I'm more skeptical about. In my post, I cited research showing that above a certain level of income, money brings no further happiness. This is known as the Easterlin paradox, based on the work of USC professor Richard Easterlin. Those who want government to focus on quality of life rather than GDP (like me!) are very, very fond of citing this research, to the point that it's become a bit of a cliche, something "everyone knows."

The problem is that Easterlin got it wrong -- or at least, it sure looks like he got it wrong. I was going to round up some of the new research on this, but Dylan Matthews already did it for me. He sums up:

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Millennial medium chill: What the screwed generation can teach us about happiness

About a year ago, during a cross-faded conversation that felt profound but probably sounded more like this, a friend told me about Strauss-Howe generational theory, a scholarly take on the somewhat narcissistic assumption that each generation has a signature personality that leaves a unique mark on world culture and history. Strauss and Howe identify four archetypes -- prophets, nomads, heroes, or artists -- that can define an entire generation based on the societal conditions they grew up in.

Humblebrag alert: Millennials comprise a Hero Generation. This means we were born “during a time of individual pragmatism, self-reliance, and laissez faire” (in other words, the Reagan/Bush Sr./Clinton years) and are coming of age “as team-oriented young optimists during a Crisis.” If that all sounds too conveniently perfect, remember that Strauss and Howe came up with this back in 1991, when Barack Obama was still fresh out of law school and millennials were just psyched to be able to watch The Little Mermaid over and over on VHS.

Portraits of millennials from the Geography of Youth project. Click to embiggen.
The Geography of Youth
Portraits of millennials from the Geography of Youth project. Click to embiggen.

I was born in 1989, which puts me about in the middle of the millennials (the generation loosely includes today’s 18- to 32-year-olds, but the parameters aren’t set in stone). I’ve always enjoyed waxing philosophical about the effects of shared cultural experiences, geeking out on everything from the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq to the age-perfect timing of each Harry Potter book release (the final volume came out the summer I graduated from high school, and the two occasions were almost equally momentous). I liked to ask my baby boomer parents about their childhoods in the '60s and '70s, and hearing their memories made me eager to speculate on what my generation’s place in history would be.

Crowds took to the streets on election night 2012 in Seattle to celebrate Obama's reelection and Washington state's legalization of gay marriage and marijuana. Click to embiggen.
Jordan Stead
Crowds took to the streets on election night 2012 in Seattle to celebrate Obama's reelection and Washington state's legalization of gay marriage and marijuana. Click to embiggen.
Happiness small
Susie Cagle

So what are millennials known for, so far? Well, to start with the obvious, we’re fucked financially. Anecdotes abound of millennials slaving away as unpaid interns and underpaid assistants, or slacking off as overqualified retail reps and baristas. “Generation Screwed,” Joel Kotkin called us in a thoroughly depressing July 2012 Newsweek feature that laid out the various headwinds holding us back: staggering levels of student debt (at least $25,000 on average, according to the latest reports); a 13.1 percent unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds, compared to 7.9 percent nationally; and “a mountain of boomer- and senior-incurred debt ... a toxic legacy handed over to offspring who will have to pay it off in at least three ways: through higher taxes, less infrastructure and social spending, and, fatefully, the prospect of painfully slow growth for the foreseeable future.”

Research shows that entering the workforce during a deep recession can have lasting effects [PDF] on future wages, even if the economy eventually bounces back. That lag is already visible for Generations X and Y: In 2010, Americans under 40 had accumulated 7 percent less wealth than 20- and 30-somethings in 1983 had, according to an Urban Institute study [PDF].

Kelly, 20, of Lubbock, Texas, says her biggest concern is money. "My parents have next to nothing so I am constantly worried about what I can do to have enough to buy food alone."
The Geography of Youth
Kelly, 20, of Lubbock, Texas, says her biggest concern is money. "My parents have next to nothing so I am constantly worried about what I can do to have enough to buy food alone."

We’re off to a rocky start, and the path ahead only looks to get steeper and more slippery. Which led a recent article by Annie Lowrey in The New York Times -- one of the latest entries in the popular Millennial Misfortunes genre -- to ask, in its headline, “Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World?” Ouch.

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Happy now? If not, author Gretchen Rubin has tips for you

Gretchen Rubin: So happy, she can do it sitting down.
Gretchen Rubin: So happy, she can do it sitting down.

Gretchen Rubin has found the secret to happiness. OK, that may be overselling it a bit, but she's made it her literal business to get closer to it through The Happiness Project. Initially a namesake best-selling book, it's since morphed into a series of books (the latest: Happier At Home), a blog, a rapt online community, and an ongoing movement to unify science, psychology, and culture in the pursuit of deeper contentment. Of course, with such an amorphous destination, she's learned the truism behind the cliché that it's "more about the journey" -- but maybe don't use the J-word word around Rubin.

"Some people want to talk about a journey," Rubin says. "Well, that’s not an idea that resonates with me -- I love the idea of a project. That's something that whets my appetite."

Happiness small
Susie Cagle

Nervous supporters worried that her prescription for happiness might intimidate readers at the starting line; some equated the idea of a "project" with onerous homework. But Rubin, a Yale Law School graduate and former editor of the Yale Law Journal, opened her process to public dialogue and sought to engineer her methodology to apply to any personality type. That dialogue continues to this day on The Happiness Project.

"There’s no one right way to do it, because people are very different," she says. "People have different vocabularies. I love making resolutions, and having lists, and charts -- and for some people that would drive them crazy. But for some people it is about a journey -- so you have to find the approach that works for you, the metaphor that works for you."

We talked with Rubin over the phone about The Happiness Project, and how personal moves toward a happier life can lead to a better, healthier planet for everybody.

Q. What inspired this initial journey to tackle something as all-encompassing as happiness? How did you boil down tackling such a huge-sounding project?

A. I was stuck on a city bus in the pouring rain, and I thought, "What do I want from life, anyway? I want to be happy!" It hit me like a flash. So I went to the library and got this giant stack of books about happiness to figure out what I could do. It seemed very confusing in the beginning, because there’s a million different pieces, and everything’s tangled up with everything else. It was very intellectually challenging to figure out, where do I start and how do I do it in a systematic way. So I drilled down into things like home, possessions, body, neighborhood. Every month I focused on a different aspect of life and figured out what concrete resolutions I could do to make my experience of life happier.

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Grist readers are less happy than other Americans, because DUH

young woman pondering
Joana Lopes
You're kinda mostly happy, but ...

Thanks to all of you who took the Gross National Happiness survey, a project of The Happiness Initiative. (And if you haven't taken it yet, you still can!) It’s designed to measure your overall satisfaction with life as well as your sense of well-being across a number of specific categories. Do you feel good about your physical health? The educational and cultural opportunities in your community? Your work life? Your time balance? The environment where you live?

We’ve now gotten the results back for Grist readers and compared them to responses from a random sample of U.S. residents. The bottom line: You guys are a mostly happy bunch, but still a little more bummed out than the average American.

Happiness: Grist readers vs. average Americans
Click to embiggen.
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Are you happier than other Grist readers? Take this survey to find out

happy woman on bike
Shutterstock / Rafal Olkis
Biking can make you happier.

Editor's note: We're encouraging Grist readers to take the Gross National Happiness survey, a project of The Happiness Initiative. Then tune back in next week to find out how your results compare to those of the Grist audience as a whole and other survey takers.

The case for happiness

Happiness small
Susie Cagle

It’s clear to those who’ve been paying attention that our current economic behaviors are on a collision course with the earth’s limits. We are now using resources and generating wastes at rates 40 percent higher each year than can be sustained. If every country on earth were to consume at U.S. levels, we’d need five planets.

Part of the problem is our current metric for societal success: Gross Domestic Product, or the market value of goods and services produced in a given year. The United States has the largest GDP of any country in the world, and orthodox economists would argue that our massive GDP makes the U.S. the most successful country in the world. But the facts tell a different story:

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It’s official: Just the taste of beer makes your brain happy

"Are you sure this is the fastest way to put beer in our brain?"
"Are you sure this is the fastest way to put beer in our brain?"

In an ongoing quest to Prove All The Things We Already Know To Be True, Science™ has just confirmed that a single sip of beer is all it takes to make our brains soar with sozzled joy. Really, Science? I could've told you that. I just did that science last night! And maybe a little at breakfast! And it's possible I'm doing that science RIGHT NOW AS I'M TYPING.

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How greens can stay happy, without drugs

This will surprise and shock you: It is sometimes hard to stay positive and be an environmentalist. Between Big Oil prematurely ejaculating over suburban lawns, the goddamn weather taking aim at my precious Russian River Pinots, and the very ocean dusting the Great Barrier Reef before I can afford to go there, can you blame me? Kermit -- chemically sensitive amphibian, browbeaten husband, and dolorous crooner that he is -- perhaps gives us the patron cliché we deserve.

All of which means I approach our theme this month -- Happiness! -- with some trepidation. It's not that we Gristers aren't adept at handling looming catastrophe; we just often swallow it with sarcasm and a black humor more cold and remote than the love of God. When it comes to dancing to the tune of the apocalypse, we've got moves like a teenage Blue Ivy Carter, and an f-bomb or 75 never hurts. When things get really bad, we can just report as-is and do this:

But this month is not about that!

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April is Happiness Month at Grist

happiness
Susie Cagle

We know that paying attention to the news about climate and the environment is unlikely to leave you in a sunny mood. That's as it should be. But we also know that if you let the green news get you too blue, you'll never summon the spirit to do anything about it.

That's why we've decided to make Happiness our theme of the month here at Grist for April. (And apologies for the slightly late start, but, you know, we had to get our taxes out of the way first.)

Don't fret that we've gone feel-good soft; we're not trading in our critical edge for the warm-and-fuzzies just yet. But we think that there are plenty of compelling questions to explore where the fields of "happiness studies" and sustainability overlap -- at the intersection of Bliss and Green, if you will.

We started asking these questions a couple of years ago with David Roberts' groundbreaking essay "The medium chill," which described trading in relentless ambition for "satisficing" -- "stepping off the aspirational treadmill, forgoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for more time to spend on relationships and experiences."

As part of our Happiness Month, Roberts will revisit this topic. (Although he protests that he's already said his piece on the matter, we know that once he dives in again we'll have to rip his digits from the keyboard to get him to move on.)

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What is the American Dream?: Dueling dualities in the American tradition

Throughout our history, there have been alternative, competing visions of the "good life" in America. The story of how these competing visions played out in our history is prologue to an important question: What is the American Dream and what is its future? The issue came up in the early Republic, offspring of the ambiguity in Jefferson's declaration that we have an unalienable right to "the pursuit of happiness." Darrin McMahon in his admirable book, Happiness: A History, will be our guide here. McMahon locates the origins of the "right to happiness" in the Enlightenment. "Does not everyone have a …

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