Sunday, June 25, 2023

Happiness is Ferrari, Contentment is Toyota Camry

Young men fantasize about having their "dream car!"  Dreams often turn into nightmares.

I wrote before about happiness versus contentment - and again, more recently.  We are exhorted to seek out happiness - by the media and commercial interests.  Disney sells itself as the "happiest place on earth!" with over-the-top sensory overload rides and attractions.  Soft drink and snack food sellers push their sugary and starchy foods and drinks which give you a sugar rush - before you crash an hour later.  No worries!  Just eat a candy bar and get right back on the type-II diabetes train.

Drug users love to do things like LSD or today, Ecstasy. The problem with these drugs isn't the constant feeling of euphoria, but what happens when the drugs wear off.  I noted before that doing LSD is a lot of fun (unless you have a "bad trip") and everything seems interesting and pleasurable. Waves of pleasure wash over your body and you wish every day could feel this way.  But the next day, the drug wears off and everything seems boring as hell.  Food tastes bland, there is nothing on television you want to watch, even music seems boring.  You just sit around and wait for the feeling to wear off.

Maybe God hands out only so much pleasure at a time, and when you do a drug like that, you are over-drawing your account, and the next day, your pleasure balance is bankrupt.

Maybe. Maybe this also applies to other aspects of life.  You go to Disney and have an orgasmic experience. On the long ride home, the kids are fussy and your spouse is bitchy.  Fun's over - back to mean, old reality.  And reality isn't "fun" is it?  Or maybe it can be, if you don't keep trying to seek out happiness.

It is the mechanism that drives drug addiction or any compulsive behavior.  Like I said, sugary and starchy treats cause your blood sugar to spike, making you feel happy and alert.  Then you crash, so you seek out that "high" with more sugar.  Eventually, you balloon to 300 lbs and end up on dialysis.

Alcohol works the same way.  You have one drink and feel warm and fuzzy.  So why not another one?  Booze give pleasure, the lizard brain says.  But before long, you are feeling ill, rather than warm and fuzzy - if you drink too much.  And this happens to kids, because they are young and robust and their bodies can take a lot (up to a point - alcohol poisoning kills hundreds every year). Before long, they are "praying to the porcelain god" and swearing never to drink again.  Older people don't have this problem as much - their bodies cannot physically process that much alcohol, and they fall asleep or just get tired before they can drink too much - in some cases, anyway.

Consumerism works the same way - people keep trying to relive that "rush" they get from buying things, and often bankrupt themselves in the process.  And merchants know this, which is why they make the ritual of carefully putting your new clothes in a string-tote paper bag with the store logo emblazoned upon it, with crumpled tissue poking out the top.  For many people, the best part of shopping is carrying that bag home.  I know this as a friend of mine had a closet full of such bags, all with brand-new clothes, never worn.  I have another friend who buys clothes and then keeps them in the bags, in order of purchase, to take back for a refund or store credit, before the expiry date of the return policy.  It seems like madness, until you understand addiction.

And you can get addicted to anything - shopping, porn, sex, drugs, alcohol, caffeine, food, work - and I am sure there are many more.  The addiction narrative is like an unstable system - people swing from peak to valley with ever-increasing oscillations, until they crash and crash hard.  Even then, after hitting "rock bottom" they may simply get back on the wagon (or fall off it) and start all over again.

Seeking happiness often leads to this pattern.  Seek contentment instead.  A reader writes regarding this idea and I thought I should elaborate on it.  We are trained from birth - at least in this country - to think of happiness in terms of possessions and wealth. Mega-wealth, fancy cars, yachts, exclusive clubs, designer clothes, and of course, the "trophy wife" (for men). And when it all goes South, you just trade it all in for replacements - including a new wife.  And even your appearance can be rejuvenated, until you have those weird slits for eyelids and the Joker smile.

But are people like that really happy?  Some researchers suggest that there is a "sweet spot" for happiness in terms of wealth.  Too little and you are miserable - constantly scrambling to survive in an almost feral state.  Too much and you spend all your time chasing false dreams and worrying someone is after your hoard.  Just right and you are content.

I use the allegory of the Ferrari versus the Camry as an example.  As a young man, we are told by the media and our peers that our "dream car" is some fancy Italian import that, realistically speaking, we would never be able to afford to buy.  It is like the poster of Pamela Anderson that many a teen has above their bed, next to the Ferrari poster.  Both are unattainable and unrealistic dreams.  Reality for a teenager is Mom's old minivan and Pamela Handerson.   But no one is content with that, right?

Well, you can have more, not by shooting for the moon, but by plotting for contentment.  I realized this late in life when I looked back at the 30-some-odd cars I had owned over my lifetime. In the beginning,  I had a collection of $50-$100 junkers as I was poor and scrambling to get by.  I thought I wanted a fancy "look-at-me" car and made myself miserable trying to take plebian rides and "mod" them into something they never would be - sort of like the guy who puts Lambo doors on a Neon.

A guy I worked with at the Patent Office suggested I look at a used Camry and I bought it - a 1988 model, back from when they were still made in Japan.  It was the car of contentment - the first car I owned with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and cruise control.  It was not a "look at me!" car but a blend-right-in car, and it was comfortable and reliable.  I had it for several years and foolishly sold it for a "look at me!" Taurus SHO which proceeded to rack up a number of speeding tickets.  I was searching for happiness and eschewing contentment.

Over the years, I wasted a lot of money on fancy cars. They were fun and all, but eventually, I realized, that, like a trophy wife, they were fussy and high-maintenance - and expensive, too!  I sold the M Roadster and bought the Hamster.  People may laugh at it, but it is reliable and comfortable, with a leather interior and heated and cooled seats.  It has provided a sense of contentment that has lasted far longer than many of the fancy cars I have owned.

So-called "Supercars" are even worse, and often unsuitable for normal highway driving.  I recall reading online where some movie star bought a very fancy Porsche and it kept overheating in the stop-and-go traffic of LA.  He complained to the dealer, and the dealer basically said, "That's not what this car was designed for!" and told him to piss off. The same is true of a lot of fancy cars - they ride rough, are loud and noisy, and generally uncomfortable.  You have to be careful of what you wish for and "professional grade" crap is often wholly unsuited for consumer usage.

Contentment is waking up every morning when I want to, and not having to worry about "going to work" or having a job or, in fact, any obligations whatsoever - other than doing things I decide I want to do.  Contentment is knowing you have enough money to last the rest of your life, provided, of course, you are content with your life and don't spoil the whole thing by constantly seeking happiness instead.

This is not to say you should seek out mediocrity as a goal in life.  No, no.  Seek to be the best person you can be -  but be content with how your life turns out.  I never made as much money as I could have, working in a law firm.  Most of my friends and classmates ended up as partners in firms, making six-figure salaries.  And most of them told me how they envied my lifestyle - taking time off from work whenever I wanted to, and not being a slave to a desk and an office.  You can make a lot of money as a lawyer, but it doesn't happen unless you put in the long hours to do so.  Often this means sacrificing other parts of your life.  You are trading contentment for happiness - and finding the happiness fleeting.

Many men do this - making big bucks at some fancy "job" so they can "support their family" - a family they never see and treats them like a stranger.  Resentment ensues - on both sides.  My Dad, for example, worked long hours to support us - not to put bread on the table, but to send his kids to private schools and fancy colleges to get useless degrees.  I was fortunate he ran out of money by the time I came of age.  And of course, much of their money was spend trying to achieve status - live in the "right" neighborhood in a fancy house.

Looking back, I think my family and my Dad would have been happier if we lived in a normal neighborhood with real people, and my siblings all went to public schools and State colleges.  Maybe if Dad spent more time at home, we would have liked him - and he would have seen his family as more than an annoying parasite on his bank-account.  Sadly, a lot of men fall into this trap and by age 40 or so, wonder why the hell they are working so hard to support these ungrateful shitheads?  And divorce usually ensues.

As I get older, I embrace contentment and realize how lucky I am to have it.  Most people, it seems, never achieve it - and they are angry all the time as a result.  Today, I am more than suspicious of happiness or promises thereof. When I see an advertisement with all these happy smiling people who bought product X and are now ecstatic, I am skeptical.  I've been around too long to believe in it anymore.  The junk they are selling is just stuff - sometimes something you need, but more often than not, just something that clutters up your life and costs too much money.

So I am content with my $99 used smart phone.  Maybe when I was younger, I would have pined for the latest iPhone XXXIV, so I could show it off and rub other people's noses in it (that is, until they come out with the iPhone XXXVI!).  Young me fell for the siren song of commerce - that buying shit makes you happy.  And it does - for about ten minutes, until you realize the "new" thing you just bought is now used and worth half what you paid for it.  Contentment is paying half-price for last year's model and reveling in the savings.

Happiness is fine and all. And I'm not saying you shouldn't go to Disney.  I've been, I think twice.  It was fun and all, but I have no desire to go again, particularly the way people behave these days.  But others go every year or get a season pass - trying to recapture lightning in a bottle and relive that happiness again and again.   It's damn hard to do!  And expensive, too.