Saturday, August 24, 2013

Being "poor," having "enough," and being grateful: the gross personal happiness index

A personal hero of mine, the 5th and current reigning Dragon King, Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, of the Kingdom of Bhutan, the happiest place on earth.

Kathy writes today on a theme of hers:

People are ‘poor’ because they are dumb, lazy or both — and many of them LIKE being ‘poor’

Yep. Pretty much.

In fact, I am (kind of) poor because I've chosen to be. I don't have a credit card, and never will, because consumer debt is a bad, bad, BAD thing. I don't own a car because I have always lived in places with good public transit and where it is perfectly feasible to walk to everything I need to go to.

Suburbs are stupid and bad for people and no one should live in them. Live in the city where you can walk to the things you need, or live in a village where people cluster, so you can interact in a human way with people outside your immediate family, so you can live in a real community. Or live out in the country where your work is right outside your kitchen door. Pick one.

Suburbs, where you need a car to get a carton of milk and a newspaper at the "corner store," but aren't allowed to grow your own food or raise livestock, where you don't know the names of more than two neighbours and do everything you can to avoid seeing them, are an evil invention of Modernia.

I do wish I could own a house, but with house prices what they are everywhere, and with my profound aversion to debt of any kind, that is so far out of the question as to be the equivalent of saying I wish I could live in a magic airship and never set foot on earth again. Wishing is just fantasizing, and all the world knows how I feel about that. All my working-class English and Irish relatives and ancestors, until this last generation, paid rent all their lives.

I also recognise that just being white and having English as my first language, and having been born Canadian/British, makes me automatically richer not only than nearly every other person on earth, but than nearly every other person who has ever lived on earth. I'm insanely rich, if for no other reason than I can turn on a tap and have hot water come out of it, or flick a switch and have light after dark. I'm literate, and own hundreds of books. I have more than two pairs of shoes. Get the historical perspective, and you'll begin to see how rich you really are.

I know full well that if I wanted to be more wealthy, financially, I could just work a little harder, take on more jobs, do the effort it would take to go all the way as an entrepreneurial free lancer; I could make a lot more money. Maybe not enough to ever be "rich" or even "well off" by modern standards, but certainly waaay better off than my immediate ancestors ever could have hoped to be, (post-war Manchester was a place where "rich" and "poor" were more or less meaningless).

I have chosen, quite freely, to be in a profession and position in life where money and things are not the highest priorities. And I LOVE what I do. It makes me happy (or at least, as happy as a chronic depressive, choleric/melancolic can reasonably expect to be in this life). And I'm aware that I can make this choice because I come from two of the richest nations the world has ever seen. I live in the modern, developed world, and just this fact alone makes me wealthy and gives me choices very, very few people have ever had.

For this "suck-it-up-and-own-it" attitude, I can really thank my hippie mother. She taught me something that I still think is true, that being happy is the real goal of the material aspect of what you do in life, and that while it is certainly possible to make loads of money, the two things aren't (necessarily) the same. And in my case, my personality, tastes and objectives have simply placed financial wealth pretty low on the priorities list. I think too much to be in a creatively dead-end, well-paid, crap-job. I wouldn't last five minutes.

My hippie mother also taught me how to be poor efficiently. She taught me the financial priorities of sensible, working-class northern English people: keeping a roof over your head is the first priority, so if you have to starve and bundle up in the winter because you can't afford to pay the electric, absolutely always pay the rent, in full, and on time. Maintaining a home as a safe and as-comfortable-as-possible haven is the most important thing you can do with your money. After that, her most important lesson was the deep fear of debt, that I'm sure also comes out of her early upbringing in working-class Manchester.

She also taught me how to eat poor effectively: get the biggest nutritional bang for you buck. I was told by the doctors during the Cancer Thing that the reason they were willing to go with the extended treatment was that my general health was amazingly good, especially for someone my age. And that came from a lifetime of eating nothing but fresh fruit, veg, chicken, fish and liver. Never, ever packaged, processed foods, (no matter how much I begged for them as a kid).

It's totally possible to be both poor, dignified and healthy, but this is mostly by choosing to own it, to realise that it's a choice and be a fricken' grownup about the decisions you've made in life.

So, maybe a good thing to do would be to talk and think about the concept of "enough". We hear all the time about the "divide between rich and poor". But maybe there is, or could be, a third category: just fine. Because I think there are very few people in the developed world who can genuinely qualify, in absolute terms, as "poor". "Poor people" in the developed world in the 21st century, whatever their source of income, often own flat screen TVs, drive cars, talk on their cell phones and have fridges full of food. In fact, in Britain and the US, the number one health problem for poor people is obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Maybe we should talk more about "enough". I have enough. I'm content, materially. I have most of the things I've always wanted; quite a bit more than I expected to have when I was younger, in fact. If I were to die tomorrow, in terms of "he who dies with the most toys wins" I'd say I would have come in at a pretty respectable position.

Moreover, I have what I need in the non-material realm too to get on with the really important task of saving my soul. I've got work I can do, that's well-suited to my temperament and abilities. Work that gives me a lot of scope for growth and development and has a good future. Work, indeed, that I'm probably going to be able to do, and want to do, up to the day before I die.

I also have strong relationships, good friends, who don't let me sink too far when I let myself sink a bit, and who keep me responsible to the community at large.

The Kingdom of Bhutan has an interesting take on success. The previous King of Bhutan decided not to go along with the standards of national success that the rest of the world adheres to. In 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, invented a thing called the "Gross National Happiness Index" for his country, and based all his plans for reform and "modernisation" on it.

The assessment of gross national happiness (GNH; Wylie: gyal-yong ga'a-kyid pal-'dzoms) was designed in an attempt to define an indicator and concept that measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than only the economic indicator of gross domestic product (GDP).

"He used this phrase to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan's unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values."

And it's working out pretty well.

Why don't we try something like that?

~ * ~

Homework assignment:

Think about the concept of "enough", then write down in the commboxes five things you're grateful for and five things you could do comfortably without, with maybe a few personal adjustments.



Anonymous said...

Good post, Hilary. I've never really been one to want to travel much, but suddenly I want to go an a few pilgrimages, but now I realise how expensive travel is!

I can live without it, but it seems to be important to me now. Not as important as a lot of other things, of course.

Louise L

Anonymous said...

Bhutan's child mortality rate is one of the highest in the world, obviously the secret to happiness is having lots of dead kids! - Karen

Anonymous said...

oh wait, five things I'm grateful for:

1. that I don't live in Bhutan
2. my education
3. my children's good health
4. the general safety and prosperity of the part of the world I live in
5. God's mercy

- Karen

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Actually, they're 57th, putting them well down on the list for the developing world. After India, most of the Islamic countries and nearly all the African countries.

They've only been at this modernising wheeze since the 80s. It doesn't happen over night.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

And "things your grateful for" was only half the assignment. I'm afraid I'm going to have to give you a poor grade if you start with snarkiness (not allowed) and finish only half the assignment.

You can do better.

John said...

Grateful for:

1. Well, the Memsahib Herself is number one. You'll have to ask her why she agreed to marry me but I am so grateful she did.

2. Our home. Parva, sed apta mihi, nulli obnoxia. . . and all that.

3. Music. Playing pipes has brought more joy than I ever would have imagined. I'm so grateful I persevered through all that unlistenable, brute-force practice in the beginning.

4. Reading. When at the age of 6 they taught me how the alphabet worked and I got the hang of using it to read, I was quite thankful but really didn't see the need for any more that school wheeze. I still am thankful for it. (The view of school has been modified somewhat but not entirely eliminated.) There are four walls in the den. Three of them are covered floor-to-ceiling in books. The fourth wall consists of windows and a door. Very thankful, indeed.

5. Religion. Don't know how to explain this one. Almost as if it had nothing to do with me. I'm a Catholic in much the same way I have functioning eyes -- it was a gift. It was part of the package. But I am daily delighted to be a Catholic (no matter how hard our most reverend fathers-in-God try to suck the delight out of it. In the end, it isn't their church; it's God's.)

Do without:

1. That library does need to be weeded out. I really plan on doing that some day. Honestly.

2 I could, in fact, get by on less money. And the Great White (sic) Father in Washington seems to be making that one happen as we speak.

3. I blush to admit how many stands of pipes I own. One each: Highland pipes, Irish warpipes, Scottish smallpipes, parlour pipes. Two each: border pipes and Highland style paki pipes. I could probably do without the paki pipes and the older stand of border pipes and never miss them. Or maybe not. Musical instruments have personalities of a sort.

4. There is a 4 foot shelf of 12 LPs in the office closet, about 3'6" of which could be eliminated without much emotional distress.

5. Magazines. Some very good ones. . .but I have no retrieval system. As good as some articles may be, I'll never find them again. (And, no, I am not giving up my complete set of Triumph magazines, retrieval system or no retrieval system.)



Anonymous said...

It's not snarkiness, it's healthy disdain for hippie dreck, which you of all people shouldn't fall for. Bhutan is Myanmar with a PR department and Ivy League buddies. They get away with things like ethnic cleansing because of their "gross national happiness" nonsense.

And very seriously, my life is quite horrible. I could not comfortably do without anything because I am not comfortable. I am physically and morally exhausted by my duties, I very much hope no one else here shares my condition. - Karen

Anonymous said...

Karen, you might be suffering from depression. Please see a doctor.

Louise L

Anonymous said...

That's nice of you Louise. I don't mean that sarcastically, that's very kind. I'm pretty cheerful for someone with my terrible life though! - Karen

Anonymous said...

LOL! Gotta love a bit of black humour! God bless you, Karen.

Louise L

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

You've never talked like this about your life before, Karen. Really. In all this time.

Srsly, you OK?

Anonymous said...

You never asked! It's ok, nobody promised me a rose garden. I wouldn't have brought it up except for the annoying assumption that always comes along with Buddhist/perennialist/third way rhetoric that everyone reading is relatively comfortable and has fat to trim. It's not true, some people have some very nasty rows to hoe and loss of what we have would plunge us into deep poverty and/or total inability to fulfill the duties of our station in life. I really should not have had to expose myself to make this point. - Karen