Sunday, January 22, 2006


The other night I got a chance to catch up with a friend who has just returned from a stint in Africa as part of the Peace Corps.

She said that her cultural adjustment has been pretty easy, except for the ugly Seattle winter weather. We were talking about places to live and prices, and she mentioned a cheap studio she read about: "It's probably a shithole, but I just lived in a worse shithole for two years, so I wouldn't even care."

We also talked about the materialism of this country, and how ridiculous it is. I mentioned how New York is especially bad, with the prevalence of hipsters with their iPods and such. She mentioned that in her town's market, white toilet paper cost more, so she always got the rougher pink or blue stuff. I excitedly told her about the wonder of 99-cent stores out here, how you can furnish nearly your whole house there, even the kitchen. She was like, that is so cool!

About the weather and jobs, I asked if she had thought about moving to another place with nicer, warmer weather to get a job. She replied that she needed to be home with her friends and family more than anything else, as that was more important than anything else. Also that though she definitely identified with Seattle, she mostly identified as being a citizen of the United States, rather than any one particular region of the US.

I hope she doesn't mind me sharing all this (Hi, L!), but I found it really fascinating, and also a bit validating for my own opinions. I only went to the East Coast in AmeriCorps, and moved across the country later, but I too have developed a sour taste for many of the American ideals (namely, materialism). Sure, I love my digital camera and computer and television, but I live in the outer boroughs and I probably won't ever leave. In the city, I have to admit that a bit shamefacedly, because 'real' New Yorkers, or even other transplants who live in the city, are always like, "Oh no, you HAVE to move here and live in Manhattan. There's nothing like it; it's so fun!"

And I don't doubt that at all. There's all kinds of nightlife and interesting people out and about all hours of the day and night. But I just don't care to spend any higher percentage of my income on rent than I already do. And if I teach out here, why the hell move farther away and increase my commute? Ugh.

As for the trappings of modernity and hipsterism and New Yorkishness...spare me, please. I'm going to continue buying my non-name brand clothes either on clearance or at Marshall's. I'm not going to wear cute shoes; I cannot stand my feet hurting.

Even after a year and a half, I still feel like an outsider and a minority in New York. I come from a different place and I can't help identifying more with that place. I can't help but be frustrated and disappointed when native/transplant New Yorkers have not even a clue about how the rest of the country works, or what it's like to travel other places. Don't even get me started about all the times I get the question, "But why would you travel alone?" I don't know if the West Coast has more open-minded people or more solo-minded travelers or not, but I'm tired of feeling like a weirdo.

That said, now that I've been here for this amount of time, and knowing that I'll be here until at least June of 2007, I wonder about my future here. I have been here and away from Seattle long enough that even though I occasionally forget where I am (truly!), I'm not sure I'm ready to jump back into Seattle life, either. I'm unaware of anything going on there, and it seems so far away and almost foreign. Naturally, Manhattan seems the same way. :)

I could never imagine myself settling here in New York, in any borough. But since the fall, I've been feeling happier with my situation: my job is better, and I have developed a wonderful social circle (even if I don't always see them very often). Against my better judgment, I seem to actually be settling here. The idea of going back to Seattle, leaving my students and my fantastic friends, and starting over professionally and socially (other than my few college friends, whom I love, but I'd need to widen the circle a bit), is daunting and exhausting to think about.

Obviously, this won't matter much for the next year and a half, but amazingly, I am looking at time in adult way. I haven't lived in one place for more than two years since high school (nearly nine years ago). I've been a nomad, wandering the planet for my place. While I don't think New York is THE place for me, it is A place for me at the moment. Maybe the distinction will get clearer as time goes on.

Where did all this come from? Occasionally, I get forwards from my boss at my college job. Most of them are God-related, or jokes, or whatever. But this one came along the other day, and totally hit home. All of this stuff finally made sense.

From this site:

We're also wired to strive for the things we think will make us happy--but to never quite achieve happiness itself. We're constantly thinking that happiness is just around the next corner--that happiness will finally be ours once we acquire the products we desire or achieve our personal and professional goals. Yet, invariably, after a brief burst of delight upon finally getting that hefty pay raise or that fancy new laptop, it's just a matter of time before we return to our usual level of happiness--and a new set of desires whose fulfillment we believe will finally make us happy (this time, for real).

More! Bigger! Better!
Why is this so? Probably because for most of the time humankind has been around on Earth, the ability to accumulate material goods meant an increased likelihood of passing on one's genes--thus, our never-sated desire for more, more, more. These days, though, when we talk about material wealth, we're not talking about necessities like nuts and berries to eat and buffalo skins to wear. We're talking about non-essentials like iPods, PDAs, and SUVs. And owning a BMW makes you no more likely to have children than owning a Toyota.

Regardless, when it comes to happiness, this is our lot: We want what our peers want--but even when we get it, we end up dissatisfied. Scholars call this cycle the "hedonic treadmill" and have shown that living life on this treadmill increases stress and undermines good health. It categorically does not lead to happiness.

Unfortunately, our culture, with its focus on materialism and glorification of competition, makes it exceedingly difficult to step off the hedonic treadmill. Every day, seemingly everywhere we turn, we're bombarded by marketing messages. These days, there are even ads printed on urinal disinfectant cakes and on the tops of city buses (the latter targeting office workers, who can see the ads when they look down on the street from their office towers). Most of these messages are aimed at trying to get us to desire things that we don't really need, at convincing us that we won't be happy--not really--unless we have this or that product.

And while it typically encourages innovation, lowers prices, and increases efficiency, capitalism has its faults--among them, that it reinforces the idea that we can measure our worth as people by how much material and financial wealth we accumulate. (Back in college, a guy in my dorm had a poster that stated this attitude quite succinctly: "He who dies with the most toys wins.") This is ridiculous, of course. Our society is wealthier than it's ever been--on average, we've far surpassed "a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot"--yet studies show that we're no happier, on the whole, than we were 50 years ago. Indeed, if sales of antidepressants are any indication, we may well be less happy than ever.
One sure step in the right direction is to increase the sense of community in your life. Indeed, a recent study showed that the happiest people are those who spend the most time socializing. So join a club. Volunteer. Get involved in your church, or in your children's activities. Start a book group. Make an effort to get together with friends more often.

Humor is also a key component to a happier life. One recent study showed a decrease in cortisol and adrenaline (chemicals associated with stress) in participants who'd just watched videos of their favorite comedians. So take your attention off the bottom line, now and then, and share a laugh with your friends and coworkers.

Other steps to increased happiness, suggested by a variety of experts, include getting regular exercise, taking care of your health, and giving your life more meaning by serving something bigger than yourself, whether that means your community or your deity.

Perhaps even more important to achieving happiness than any of these things, though, is what Buddhists call "mindfulness" and psychologists call "flow": a sense of being so absorbed in the present moment--in whatever task you're currently involved in--that any regrets or worries you might have about the past or the future recede from your consciousness. Studies of both Buddhist monks and people who regularly achieve a "flow" state of concentration show vastly increased brain activity of the kind associated with positive feelings.

The psychologist Martin Seligman puts it as follows: The good life consists of the roots that lead to flow. It consists of first knowing what your signature strengths are and then recrafting your life to use them more --recrafting your work, your romance, your friendships, your leisure, and your parenting to deploy the things you're best at. What you get out of that is not the propensity to giggle a lot; what you get is flow, and the more you deploy your highest strengths the more flow you get in life.

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