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Foucault Just another PokerSavvy weblog

8Sep/09Off
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Relative Happiness, Part 2

As I ended Part 1, my girlfriend and I had just driven home a virtually new car (2009 Subaru Forester with about 4000 miles on it), but we weren't as happy/excited about this as I felt we should be. I was aware that a great many people in the world would love to be in a financial situation where they are able to pay cash up front for such a nice vehicle, but the process had been stressful and annoying enough to swamp what ought to have been an objectively exciting situation.

It was now 8PM Friday night. According to a sternly worded letter from our landlord, which was most likely a bluff, we would face stiff fines if our apartment wasn't empty and spotless by 10 PM Monday. We had no new apartment to move into, but we did have a 5×5 cell in a self-storage facility and now a new car that we'd be living out of for
the next four months. All that stood between us and the freedom of the open road was an apartment absolutely jammed to the gills with stuff.

With the exception of our computers, very little of it was valuable. Even our furniture was mostly 5-year old junk from Ikea. We sold what we could on Craig's List and planned to throw the rest out. All day Saturday and Sunday was spent boxing up the stuff we did care about to get it ready for storage. On Sunday, we donated a carload of stuff to Salvation Army, dropped some nicer clothes off with a charity that provides office attire for low-income women to wear to job interviews and such, and then brought another carload out to the self-storage
facility. There was still a lot to do, even if we pulled an all-nighter, but I was feeling good about our progress. If we could keep working as efficiently as we had been, I was confident we'd get it done.

The storage facility has a number of "loading bays" with garage-style doors large enough to back a car into. We backed our Forester up to one of the bays, opened the hatchback, unloaded some boxes onto a cart, and then I took the cart up to the second floor on the elevator while Emily began loading up a second cart. By the time I returned, she was ready to take her cart upstairs, and I started putting the last of our stuff on my cart.

A grinding sound caught my attention, and I turned to see the loading bay door closing down on the open hatch of the car. There was an emergency stop for the garage door inside, but getting to it would require running Indiana Jones-style under the closing door, which didn't seem safe. I opted instead to hop into the driver's seat and pull the car out from under the closing door as quickly as I could. I pulled forward about 6 inches, which was all it took, but as I did so I heard a horrible crashing sound as the closing door shattered the glass in the rear window. Then I heard a scream, which was apparently Emily coming off of the elevator just in time to see the garage door closing amidst a rain of shattered glass.

We spent a few minutes staring at the glass and broken rear window in shock, contemplating just how fucked we were. There didn't appear to be much damage to the car aside from the window, but we needed the car to move, and we absolutely did not have time to deal with this.

I walked around to the front of the facility. It was about 9:30, well past the hours when the office was open, but I was looking for a number to call in case of an emergency. All I could find was an (800) number for the national office, which was also not open and did not provide so much as an opportunity to leave a voice mail.

Inside the facility, there was a button to press for assistance, but no one responded to that. The "Call for Assistance" button on the keypad for the parking lot gate was similarly useless. We even tried calling the local police, who had no way of contacting the owner or manager and said they wouldn't come for a report because the damage occurred on private property.

Eventually, we decided to put the rest of our stuff in our storage unit, then use some plastic we had to cover up the back window and drive home. This we did, only to find that after 10PM, the parking lot gate would not open even from the inside. There was a small gate we could walk out of, but the car was stuck outside until morning. This
made it even more infuriating that we had no way of getting in touch with the manager.

With no other options available to us, we caught a cab at a gas station across the street and went back to our apartment. At this point, sleep was out of the question. We'd wasted far too much time already and would have to spend even more tomorrow trying to find a car to rent on the busiest moving day in Boston, dealing with insurance, etc.

After a little more griping about how fucked we were, I walked over to the 7-11 to pick up some caffeine. It was a pleasant night, warm but not humid and with a nice breeze, and the walk was calming. This particular 7-11 nearly always has panhandlers outside, some of them quite aggressive, but I was not feeling very generous.

When I got to the door, though, the only person there was a friendly-looking guy in his early 50's seated near the door. He greeted me pleasantly and asked if I could spare any change. I told him I'd get him on the way out, and he answered happily, "That'd be just perfect."

I decided I could use a little karma, so I gave him a dollar bill in addition to the change. "Heeey!" he smiled, seeming genuinely impressed. "That's just great, thanks. You have a good night."

"Yeah, you too." I also needed to pick up some packing tape at CVS, and I was getting such a good vibe from this guy that I decided I'd bring him the change from that purchase as well. "Found some more
change," I told him upon my return.

"Ah, aren't you the best! Take care," he called cheerily after me.

I know it's trite to say, but it struck me just how relative happiness is. Here I am in a shit mood because my new car just got damaged and I have all these belongings I have to deal with before
embarking on what is essentially a four-month-long vacation. Meanwhile,
a guy who has nothing and is out on the street begging is in a good mood because the weather is nice and someone just gave him $1.73.

Fast forward to 6PM the next day. Emily was up all night, I slept for less than three hours and have been on my feet carrying out trash and tearing apart furniture too large to fit through the door (remember it's Ikea stuff so it came in in pieces and was assembled inside) for hours upon hours. My back is sore, my feet are killing me, and the box spring from our bed is absolutely not going to fit down the back stairs of the apartment building. Nor, for that matter, is there anywhere to put it behind our building.

It's one of the only items too heavy and bulky for me to carry by myself, so we end up half-carrying, half-dragging it out the front door of our building, then balancing it on a skateboard and rolling it around to the alley. Most of the alley is consumed by parking spaces,
but the portions closest to the streets at either end of the alley are just unadorned brick wall. This is the best, perhaps the only, place to leave an item of this size, and we are in the process of doing exactly that when a WASPy forty-something pauses to stick her nose in.

Let me interrupt here with a little background information about Back Bay, the neighborhood where I live. It's an upscale neighborhood, in a very convenient location, comprised of beautiful old brownstone rowhomes. Some of them have been chopped up into 10-12 apartments that are rented by students and young professionals such as ourselves, and others are sold as condos for $750K+. As you might imagine, this creates a pretty clear divide between the renters, who often don't have a lot of disposable income or a long-term stake in the neighborhood, and the owners, who are quite wealthy and have a strong financial interest in the feel and appearance of the neighborhood.

From her dress and demeanor, this woman seemed to be an owner, and she was none too happy about this large piece of garbage being dumped behind her building.

"Excuse me. What building do you live in?" she asked in a superficially polite tone that bubbled and popped with thinly veiled perturbation.

Emily answered her honestly, and the woman clucked her tongue and nodded. "Mmm hmm. You know you're not supposed to put garbage out until garbage day?" she said, voice fraught with faux friendliness.

"Well, we have to move out today," Emily explained testily.

The woman smiled a wolf's gin. "You couldn't have done that this morning?"

"Believe me, we've been at this since well before morning."

Obviously, the woman could care less. "Can you at least put it behind your own building?"

"There's nowhere to put it without squeezing between 3 BMW's and an Audi," Emily told her.

"Well, you aren't supposed to put garbage out until garbage day," the woman explained to us again.

"I understand that, but I'm explaining to you why we don't really have an option here."

The woman clucked her tongue and pursed her lips into an awkwardly forced smile. "I think you do have an option."

"Sorry, I don't see what else we can do."

The woman shook her head again, still smiling at us, "Mmmmm, I think you do have an option. Put it behind your own building."

"You're welcome to move it down there if you want," Emily told her, turning her back.

"I can also file a complaint with a specific description of the offenders. You'll be fined," the woman threatened, turning openly aggressive for the first time.

"You do that," I suggested over my shoulder.

"OK."

"OK."

It's not that the woman doesn't have a point or a legitimate complaint. We were imposing a very small cost (a few unsightly days) on our neighbors in the interest of avoiding a very large cost to ourselves (in the form of a fee imposed by our landlord) if we left
furniture in the apartment. I felt badly about it, and it wasn't anything we'd done in the five years since we'd lived there, but in this specific situation it was just something I was going to do.

The thing that gets me is just the sheer pettiness of the very rich. I feel like a woman who lives in a million dollar home ought to have
better things to do than stand in allies enforcing local garbage
disposal ordnances. In the last few years, as I've found myself with
some money in my pocket (thank you, poker), one of my top priorities
has been eliminating petty irritations from my life. I don't own expensive furniture, a luxury car, or a fancy watch, but I don't drive 10 miles out of my way to save $.05/gallon on gas, and when I fly to Las Vegas on Jet Blue, I put up the extra $40 for extended leg room.

There's actually an emerging academic field called "Happiness Studies" that applies psychological, sociological, and philosophical perspectives to the study of happiness. As I understand it, the best way to summarize the research on the correlation between money and
happiness is to say that for the most part, you can't buy happiness, but you can buy your way out of unhappiness.

Happiness is strongly correlated to a sense of control over your life and your surroundings but only weakly correlated to material belongings. To the extent that money enables you to know where your next meal will come from, where you will sleep tonight, and perhaps even where and how you will be living next year, it can buy you
happiness.

However, for people who already enjoy this minimum level of freedom
and control, more money brings only fleeting happiness. Even lottery
winners enjoy a "happiness spike" that lasts only about a year before returning to roughly the same level of happiness that they had before they became millionaires. The lesson is that once basic needs are satisfied, people very quickly become accustomed to new and improved material conditions.

The other major, seemingly paradoxical lesson from the research is that the more people think about themselves, the less happy they tend to be. It seems that virtually everyone is his own worst critic and tends to find someone to whom he can negatively compare himself. Thus, no matter how rich or successful you are, your natural temptation will be to worry that you are not as rich or successful as so-and-so and that you really ought to work harder or be smarter or spend more time at the gym or whatever.

Most people are happiest when they are focused on others. I'm sure we all know of exceptions, but on the whole married people are happier than singles, people with children are happier than those without, and people who volunteer or otherwise help others are happier than those who do not. The key here is where your mental energy is focused, so
while donating money to charity is nice and has some happiness benefits, time spent helping others is what really yields significant happiness.

This has certainly been my experience. One of the largest purchases I've ever made has already proved to be a hassle and a headache, and I am certainly looking forward to getting away, at least for a while, from having so much "stuff". In the longer term, I'm looking forward to spending more time helping others access the opportunities that have enriched my life and less time in back allies arguing with bitter old rich ladies.

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