Monday, September 30, 2013

Reflect on Your Life...and Be Satisfied

...Reflect on your Life
Time isn't Real
How Much Time Can you Kill?...

I promise this blogpost isn't going to be corny (okay, not too much).  It isn't even about stuff that happened to me this summer and the cheesy lessons I learned from it (cf., my last post).  Instead, it is about things I learned (which just so happened to be during the summer) second-hand through the interwebs.

The topic: the science of happiness.

It turns out that researchers know a great deal about what doesn't make us happy, including money (at least above the magical 75K/year that basically protects you from the misery and uncertainty of poverty, but see here), lots of possessions, life achievements or other objective measures of success and status (although it turns out that movie stars who win academy awards (or scientists who win Nobel prizes) live longer than those who were simply nominated, so there may be some psychological payoff to professional recognition).

There is also much that researchers know about what does make us happy.  There is, first of all, the unsettling fact that some people are simply born happier than others; so yeah, there is a genetic component to all of it that you can't do a goddamn thing about.  There is also social contactmarriage (although this works better for men than women), as well as pets.

Then there is the biochemical component, which is also to a great degree biologically determined.  However, this turns out to be something you can do something about through the use of drugs (namely, SSRIs, as well as certain supplements) that can increase the amount of serotonin (happy brain chemicals) that sticks around in your neural synapses and gives you a nice biochemical boost. (Coffee and other stimulants, plus sunshine and a range of other things also make people, especially women, somewhat less prone to depression.)

The good news is that there are things you can do to change biological destiny short of drugs--things that can actually change your brain nonetheless.  Turns out that how good we feel has much to do with how we reflect on our lives from one moment to the next.  

This is the essence of cognitive therapy, which I read about in a recent issue of the Stanford alumni magazine (my mom keeps these around for me to read whenever I visit).  I learned that a psychologist, a Stanford alumnus, had discovered through decades of practice that actively monitoring and logically countering the unrealistic negative automatic thoughts that we have on a daily basis was actually more effective than drugs in helping people with mild to even the most severe depression.  And it helped people immediately.  His book is literally a classic in the self-help genre:  Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, just fyi.

What the book comes down to is deliberately, painstakingly recalibrating one's processing of daily experiences so that our interpretations of events has a (1) neutral, (2) realistic, and/or (3) positive spin.  Further, this recalibration is continuous until it becomes automatic.  At its core, the book suggests that we should be calmer about everything.  It also suggests we should be grateful, focus our energy outward, and not act like an entitled jerk.

It was easy to recall stories of extremely happy people with a habit of doing this.

One was featured in a recent episode of This American Life, a syndicated National Public Radio show.  The person in question, Emir Kamenica, is a brilliant young economist who began his journey as a poor son of refugees from the 1990s Bosnian War.  He tells his story as one of unbelievable good fortune, where he and his family had been brought to the U.S. where he was enrolled in a under-performing public school that doomed its pupils to failure.  The only thing that saved him--sending him to Harvard and ultimately University of Chicago where he now teaches economics--was a student teacher who had come to believe he was brilliant because of an essay assignment that he had plagiarized from memory.  On the strength of his plagiarized essay, he recalled, she pulled strings to get him into a fancy private school tuition-free, setting him on the path to success.

The radio show producers then tracked down the teacher, and her story turned out to be at odds with the one told by her former student.  She explained that her pupil's success had nothing to do with the plagiarized story--that all of his teachers had discerned his brilliance and plotted to get him moved long before the story in question (which she barely remembered). She also averred that he would have succeeded regardless of where he had gone to school.  When confronted with this alternative version of events, the man refused to believe it, choosing instead to believe that his success was based on good fortune and the kindness of strangers (here, the substitute teacher).

The TAL host observed that his attitude was probably at the heart of the economist's extraordinary happiness.  Emir was grateful for everything that he had received in life.  He felt that merit had little to do with his success, and this conviction made him very, very happy.  He says that his current life is far more wonderful than he ever even imagined it could be when he was a child.

The second story is a PBS documentary from Bill Moyers that showcased two American families that have fallen on hard times in the Milwaukee area over the past two decades.  Both families had lost the single breadwinner unionized job that had sustained them in the 1980s.  With such jobs now in short supply, both parents in each family had to go into paid work--substituting two low-wage jobs (with few or no benefits) for the now-extinct union jobs.

Over two decades, both families struggled mightily, but, while the first couple divorced (the husband even leaving his family), the second couple persevered through it all.  What struck me was a scene in a church (the husband was also an ordained minister who led a small congregation on the weekends, in addition to his regular paid work).  In this scene in church, the man preached emphatically that you might lose your job, your health care, even your home, but you had to thank the Lord anyway. 

This is profound, it really is.  It is not to say you should minimize life's problems or live in denial.  It's saying the harder your life, the more grateful you have to be for the things that are going right.

By the end of the documentary, the second family was no less poor than the first family, but they were much much happier. and they were together.  This is at least partly because they continually gave thanks to God for the many things that they did have.

This story has lessons for secular folk as well--whatever happens in your life, you must be grateful for your good fortune, for everyone is fortunate in life, one way or another.

For inspiration...

Sunday, September 8, 2013

My Greyhound Trip to California: Adventures in the Underclass

I am continuing a recent trend, dear readers, toward blogging in the first-person.  I find it is one thing to write about a social problem using impersonal facts and quite another to write about the same problem using experiences--however short and superficial.  My topic is poverty, and the experience is a 12-hour Greyhound bus trip to California.

I recently went on an overnight bus trip from Tacoma, Washington to Weed, California to renew my California driver license (you have to renew in person if you’ve done it twice by mail). Turns out that getting a Washington driver license is expensive and time-consuming if you let your out-of-state license lapse.

The back story:

Washington state partially privatized its DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) last year, ostensibly to reduce the time you have to wait in line to get a license.  I doubt many would agree the system is better today.  Starting this year, you must pay the WA DMV $80 (rising from $45 in 2012) to apply and get a new license; you must also go to a private “driving school” in your area to take the written and driving tests--costing an additional $65 or more (as much as tripling the cost of new WA licenses). This is in line with the general trend toward privatizing public services across the country—for a premium, you may get a slightly more convenient/upgraded interface with the government for vehicle licensing, parking, police and fire protection, and so on...just as often, however, the service stays the same or gets worse.  Either way, it is more expensive.

Back to my bus trip.

I figured the entire amount of getting a WA driver license (around 145 USD) would be about the same (ok, a little less) as taking a Greyhound bus overnight to the first Greyhound stop in California that has a DMV.  There, I could get my CA license renewed for 32 USD, and then get right back on the next northbound bus to Portland, Oregon, where I planned to visit my cousin.  Plus…adventure!!!

Here was my bus itinerary:

Okay, this is not my trip itinerary, nor it is even a Greyhound bus route--it's the Amtrak Coast Starlight route (rail)--Greyhound does not even publish route maps on the interwebs and their website is a mess.  BUT it (more-or-less) shows the Greyhound route I took from Tacoma, WA to Weed, which is a tiny pit-stop between Dunsmuir and Redding, CA.  Leaving at 7:40 p.m. on Weds., arriving at 8 a.m. on Thurs.--a little over 12 hours.

For those who have never taken a Greyhound bus across state lines, it is an adventure, and you will definitely have stories to tell your friends once you get there.  Especially if you happen to attract really out-there folks who feel they have a cosmic electro-magnetic connection with you.  

Today, the people who take long-haul Greyhound rides are a
motley crew.  Granted, many passengers are "jus folks" who like adventure or need to travel long distances but are cost-conscious or broke (buses being significantly cheaper than planes or even trains).  But many, so many, are itinerant folks who are some combination of (borderline) homeless, mentally ill, drug-addicted, or victims of abuse.  Just a few years ago, a Greyhound passenger stabbed, decapitated and began to eat a fellow passenger in Western Canada.

Greyhound buses were not always the favored transportation of the most marginal in society.  The famed national bus service emerged in the interwar period out of the efforts to consolidate regional services by a Swedish immigrant.  Greyhound weathered the Great Depression, only to embark on a long slow decline after World War II when cars emerged as the preferred mode of long-distance travel.  The decline accelerated in the late twentieth century with the emergence of budget air travel.  Greyhound is today owned by a British corporation, which has introduced a number of subsidiaries to compete with regional low-cost buses (think the Chinatown bus from Manhattan to Boston).  Meanwhile, Greyhound buses have cut their services to small rural towns in favor of express services between major cities and commuters who travel between (sub/ex)urbs and metropolitan areas.  According to Loring Lawrence, editor of Bus Industry Magazine, Greyhound cut its stops from 5,851 in 1977 to 2,300 today. 

Greyhound bus stations have also taken a turn for the worse, with dedicated stations either disappearing or downsizing; in some cities Greyhound now shares space in Amtrak train stations.  This was the awesomely retro Greyhound station in Tacoma, WA back in the day:

And this is the Tacoma Greyhound bus station today where I waited for my bus a few days ago:

You can't even tell it is a bus station from the sad.

As run down and poorly serviced as they are, these buses are the only thing small towns have left, since trains rarely service them (Amtrak, too, has cut back passenger stops, turning many passenger train stations into thoroughfares for trains carrying freight from cargo ships to Big Box stores all across the country).

In bigger cities, class determines ridership.  With the middle and upper classes driving or taking planes or trains, long-haul Greyhound buses are mostly for the poor--often the really poor.  On my trip to Weed, CA, I had interactions with four separate passengers--two street kids on their way to Redding and Oakland, CA; a likely schizophrenic guy with a ticket that hit just about every Greyhound stop in the lower 48 (putting him in New York about 3 1/2 days later); and one older gentleman who had a questionable relationship with reality.

Along that 12-hour ride, I got to hear from one passenger about a war among demons over the throne of Hell (Hades had stepped down four days ago, and the passenger himself was a participant); the vision of another passenger wherein Jesus Christ had saved his life by reprimanding two black Cobras that had been menacing him; a third passenger who spoke of 8-12 dimensions wherein demons and angels alike walk amongst us; and the "scientifically proven" fact that many world leaders are lizard people (including, apparently, the Queen of England and Barack Obama).  (Fun fact: 12 million or 4 percent of Americans believe that lizard people run the country.)  And believe me when I say that these were just the highlights...

Oh, I was also groped twice--once by the elderly Vietnamese bus driver with whom I had a picture taken in Weed upon arrival, and once on the way back by my Native American seatmate, who had been (unconvincingly) feigning sleep.

My experiences in Weed, CA were another adventure in the American underclass.  Weed (originally named after a lumber mill owner rather than the substance) is a de-industrialized Northern Californian town of 3,000 residents situated in the shadow of Mt. Shasta.  It is set in a gorgeous natural environment, but the residents have long since lost their good-paying lumber mill jobs in favor of service jobs (the tourism sector is an important part of the local economy) that pay less than half what the mill paid when it closed.  According to one resident (whose assessment seemed plausible based on casual observation), many locals were addicted to drugs and on varying forms of public assistance.  I didn't take many pictures of the people I saw in Weed.  I did, however, see a number of people who resembled the Appalachian poor, in varying states of hygienic disrepair--a few wearing no shoes, and one dude openly smoking weed at a bus stop with a fresh-looking leg stump on display.

The whole trip may sound pretty awful, but actually I loved the people I met on the way to Weed and back.  I'm not sure I'm ready for another 12-hour bus ride across two state lines any time soon, but it was really great to get to know such warm people who thought nothing of sharing food they could barely afford, offering a coat to a stranger to use as a blanket, or making small gifts from the few possessions they had.  I think about the people I met along the way and wonder about their lives.  I hope that Derek, JC and Eddie have each found nice beds to sleep in with a roof over their heads and (hopefully, hopefully) other good people to help them along their travels.