Monday, July 10, 2006

Alt and Alter

In a recent New York Times (6/20/06) I saw a little item that said that younger and older adults believe their happiness declines with age. When they conducted actual surveys, they found that there was little evidence to support this belief, and, in fact, older adults described themselves as happier than the younger people did. Other studies report that even sick people often report surprising levels of happiness.

It’s not clear how to interpret this data. There are three possibilities I can think of. The first is that older people are really happier, period. The other is that by the time people are older, they are better equipped to deal with difficult times, perhaps because they have more perspective or greater experience. It is not so much that they are happier but rather they are better at handling difficult moments.

I’m inclined to a third explanation. I believe the way older people maintain their happiness is similar to the way we won in Vietnam. We declared victory and went home. Happiness, after all, has something to do with the percentage of desires that are fulfilled. It’s a fraction of sorts…fulfilled desires divided by total desires. Cut down on what you want, the denominator, and your happiness goes up.

How many times have you heard an older person say, “I don’t do that. I used to do it but now… I just don’t do that.” “I used to go to comedy clubs, but now it’s not for me. I don’t do that. “I used to run, but now… I don’t do that.” “I used to stay out late at night, but now I’m happy having dinner at six o’ clock.” “I used to love when my grandchildren were around, but tell you the truth, I’m happier when they leave.” “I used to read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, cover to cover, but who needs that? Now I’m happy watching the ten o’ clock news.” These people are saying that in omitting many activities they become happier. If you can't have what you want, you try to want what you have.

This point was brought home to me recently when I was talking with my friends. The subject was the Barbara Streisand concert this fall at the United Stadium in Chicago. There are 18,000 seats available, prices range from $100, already sold out, to $750. The Triple-A Super best Seats for $1,000 and up are a bit more expensive because they include a $40 souvenir program. Seats were being offered on EBay, from the beginning, for $1500. Everyone said “We gotta go. We gotta go. How can we not go? It’s her final concert. For sure, she had two final concerts before this, but she means it this time, we know she means it this time.”

I protested, “What has Barbara Streisand done in the last thirty years? Why pay $2000 to see what cosmetic surgery can do for an older woman? It’s not as if she stands for some distinct sensibility that you can idealize. I mean, she’s not a Frank Sinatra, where at least you can think of yourself as a boozer and a womanizer. You’ve never seen a yenta before? Remember what Mike Myers did to this yeedina (elderly matron) on Saturday Night Live?”

“What about going,” I asked half in jest, “to the Shakira concert? She’s new, she’s young, she’s sexy, she's Lebanese, she's Latino, she's important." My friends said, in all sincerity and in unison, "Who is Shakira?"I let out a howl ad a expletive."You guys are a bunch of alter k..."It felt great. Most of the time they are rolling their eyes, muttering “I can’t believe he said that” when I offer one of my retarded insights on the point spread in the NCAA tournament and other such issues.

It happens to all of us. As we age, we lose touch with what's happening in the culture.We begin to live in the past. We remember and idealize the stars of our youth, and in doing so, we feel happy. My view is that even though we all fade out as we age, there's no mitzvah (obligation) to speed up the process. Nostalgia and sentimentality are the kiss of death for staying young. Instead of paring down and living in the past, I think there is something to be said for doubling up and living in the present.


At 11:47 AM, Anonymous MF said...

Heh, I have a similar theory, I used to own where I posted the three-word summary of my theory, my (former) formula for happiness: happiness = succes / expectations

However... I took down that web site when I realized the formula is wrong: there is a certain sadness to low expectations, especially when the low expectations come from a sense of resignment. The person who says, "Having a million dollars is the one and only goal that will truly make me happy in my soul; unless I win the lottery I'm never going to have a million dollars; therefore, I guess I'll have to accept the fact that I only have this $0.50 in my pocket, let me go use my final $0.50 to go get a bagel now, I hope I don't starve to death" -- there's something sad about his lowering his expectations and being resigned to the fact that he's not going to achieve his objective. Not to mention, do we believe him that he would have been truly happy had he achieved that goal? I don't. Lower expectations don't increase happiness; therefore, the formula is flawed.

My new model for happiness is different: I now think it's about the formula itself, not about the result of the calculation. It's a bit of a cliche, I know -- it's how you get there, not where you end up. It seems to me that, for your happiness, it is less important if you happen to achieve objective X or not -- and if you do achieve objective X, what almost always happens is, as soon as you get it, suddenly you realize that what you really want is object Y! (I know lots of people who dreamed of making a million dollars; did so; and then realized that they really want $10 million; etc.) The ladder of objectives never ends and therefore, by definition, you can't achieve happiness.

Therefore, I think that happiness is about acting in a certain way, while you are working your way up that ladder, and it doesn't make a difference if you make it to the top or if you happen to fall down as you're about to take your final step. I want to be happy in either case.

So, what is the way to act during that process to make you happy? Now that part, I believe is an individual choice: I enjoy doing A, B, and C while you enjoy doing D, E, and F!


At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A saying from the french movie
Jules et uses up happiness without noticing it. meaning............

At 1:35 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Your first point that lowering expectations is not a way to go was, I believe, made by Sir Isaiah Berlin maybe in his book “Two Concepts of Liberty,” I’m not sure. If you look carefully in my blog, I try to give the impression that lowering expectations is not a way to go.

The idea that one desire leads to another desire is found all over the socialist literature. In particular you might want to look at C.B. MacPherson’s book, “The political theory of possessive individualism”. It’s also the underlying premise of the Ethics of the Fathers. The idea is hammered home in all yeshiva Musar circles.

I certainly agree with your last point since I said it myself on my blog on Rabbi Meyer.(6/9/06)


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