Sunday, April 18, 2010

How to dismantle our obsession with greener grasses

A reflection inspired by Dan Gilbert’s talk “Dan Gilbert asks, why are we happy?” on

In Dan Gilbert’s talk, he shows us that happiness requires boundaries, limitations. I think it is obvious that our modern culture is not currently in line with this idea. As a case in point, our educational systems encourage youth to strive for limitless opportunities. In essence, we tell youth that any projected future they may dream up can become a reality. If we take Gilbert’s idea into consideration, this way of educating our youth can only lead to unhappiness. Once youth become adults, they still have this ideal in their minds that they can and indeed must reach for the stars, that they must pursue limitless opportunities. Chasing limitless opportunities is obviously a vain enterprise; only failure can result from pursuing something that has no end. As a result of this impossible task we encourage our youth to pursue, we set them up for dissatisfaction. By believing that there are no limits, they can never be satisfied with the simple fact that in life, limits exist: limited knowledge, limited skills, limited possibilities, limited time, limited lifespan, etc.

I believe that this pressure on youth to reach for the limitless is fuelled by the consumerist society we live in. Our public educational system is built to create useful employees who fuel economic growth through ever-increasing consumerism. Though most of us are familiar with the saying that we can’t buy happiness, we still enthusiastically participate in consumerism in a vain attempt to purchase our way to a projected happiness. As an example, a person is dissatisfied with their house. This is encouraged by the media which are constantly telling them that bigger is better; they encourage this person, as well as each and every one of us, to want more then what they currently have. The result is that this person can’t be happy or satisfied with their current house. Though this person convinces themselves that having the larger house will make them happier, the reality is that consumerism is a never-ending cycle of wanting more. If we ignore the earth’s carrying capacity for a moment, we can say that there are no limitations to consumption. It is theoretically possible for anyone to consume without limitations. However, if happiness requires limitations, limitless consumerism can never give us happiness. It is therefore a terrible injustice to educate our youth to become employees whose purpose it is to be active participants in this limitless engine of consumerism.

If happiness is the goal of an individual’s life, as I think it should be, how then can we educate so that youth do not have the pressure of being obsessed with greener grasses? How can we educate so that they are satisfied with the path they chose in life? More importantly, how can we educate them so that they chose the path which is most appropriate for them?

For starters, voluntary simplicity – the conscious decision to set reasonable boundaries to our lifestyle – is a must. Each and every one of us who truly desires to be authentically happy needs to be contended with setting boundaries to our consumerism. We should all strive for a life of comfort, not excess. Obviously, everyone’s definition of comfort and excess will be different. I’m positive that the members of the Walton family or other multi-billionaires do not think their lifestyles and business practices are excessive. I think they are. I think a reasonable lifestyle is one that could be enjoyed by all humans without compromising the capacity of our planet to support us. This is a question of solidarity but it is also a question of happiness and limits. It is not possible for everyone in the world to live like a multi-billionaire. However, I believe that it is possible for everyone in the world to live like a lower-middle class North American. This then is my definition of a comfortable life.

If we embrace the idea of voluntary simplicity which leads to a comfortable life, we no longer need a job whose only purpose is to receive a fat paycheque. We no longer need or strive to make $150,000 per year. As a result of this, the career choices we make will not stem from a desire for lots and lots of money but rather something we enjoy doing. It is my fervent belief that in order for anyone to discover what they truly enjoy doing, we must maximise experiences; students, whether they’re manually or cerebrally inclined, must be exposed to as many different experiences as possible. This may involve mathematics, Shakespeare, biology and art class. However, education needs to be more dynamic. We must involve students in the educational process, ask students what they’d enjoy doing. Though the cynic may say that young people only want to sit in front of a screen and play video games, I would beg to differ. We all started out as incredibly curious people; think of the developmental stage in our childhood when we are constantly pestering our parents with the question “Why?” If classes could be something fluid which is forever delving into whatever the students are asking about, we would not have masses of bored teenagers zoning out in class. As it stands, education is the process by which we are discouraged from asking “Why?” Instead, we are told to sit down, be quiet and listen to what others think we should know. Our innate curiosity is murdered by the educational system. This creates the wrong sort of boundaries. We are forced into limiting our curiosity to a handful of academic topics which cannot possibly capture the curiosity of every single human being. And this doesn’t even take into consideration the other monumental problem of different learning styles.

Now one might say that by creating an educational system which nurtures boundless curiosity is contrary to Gilbert’s idea that happiness requires boundaries. Of course, I would argue that these are not contrary ideas at all. You see, the boundaries the current educational system erects on our curiosity inhibits youth from discovering those things for which they have a true passion. I would be the first to admit that this quest for something which truly resonates with who we are is probably one of the hardest things a person can do in their lives. To find that thing which you’re good at and which you enjoy doing is probably the metaphorical equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. Despite this difficulty, I still think that we should all have the opportunity to try and find this needle. This, I believe, cannot be achieved as well as it could in our current model of education. The process of education, of growing into ourselves, needs to be without boundaries since creating boundaries at those stages of our lives leads us into lives which don’t necessarily make us happy. In his talk, Gilbert says that whatever the situation, we eventually convince ourselves that we’re happy. Though this might be true, I don’t think it is fair to educate our youth to adopt consumerist lifestyles whose limitlessness, as previously mentioned, can only lead to unhappiness.

I believe that experiences fuelled by their own curiosity allow students to discover what they enjoy doing. It also makes the classroom dynamic and, let’s be frank, more fun. Students can chose to spend their days on a farm or watching talks about behavioural psychology or dancing or volunteering at the local mortuary. The options for experiences, as compared to the current education system, are boundless. The interesting thing, I think, is that by making education boundless, we encourage students to find their boundaries. I don’t mean to be confusing here. What I mean is that by trying on a bunch of different hats, students can discover their likes and dislikes. They can move forward in a seemingly half hazard way which will eventually lead them into something more specific. For example, my schooling consisted of the traditional elementary, high school and university. However, what I decided to do after this was not what I would call traditional, evident by the fact that nearly everyone in my family thought I was completely out of my mind.

After university, my girlfriend and I moved from Ontario to New Brunswick. I wanted to try my hand at getting a job without having done a degree which clearly states which job I should do (i.e. a nursing degree makes you a nurse; an engineering degree makes you an engineer; etc.). I had done a degree in English literature and philosophy which doesn’t fit into the criteria for most jobs outside of teaching. In the year following university, I bought an apartment building, lost thousands of dollars and sold the damned edifice. I worked as a server and cook in two restaurants. I worked in a microbrewery. I tried countless times to make myself into a writer or poet. I worked in a roadside assistance call centre and in a debt collection agency. I worked as a teller at a bank. I returned to university in business for one semester as I watched the economy collapse while these professors were trying to convince me that the economic practice of limitless growth makes total sense. I then found a job as a youth outreach coordinator with an environmental organisation. In this job, I work with youth environmental groups, trying to give them tools to organise activities or campaigns as well as helping them network with other youth environmental groups. I’ve organised province-wide events. I’ve worked with government people and community based environmental groups. I learnt more useful skills in one year than what I did in four years of university. With this job, all the other ones I mentioned and with some of the other things I did, these are some of the things I’ve learned:
• I cannot be happy with decisions made for monetary reasons;
• Owning and operating a restaurant is not nearly as fun as serving in a restaurant;
• Working in a restaurant kitchen is nothing at all like cooking at home;
• Debt collection agencies are really negative working environments;
• I need to work with people, preferably face-to-face;
• I have the right personality to be an inclusive leader;
• Participatory education is a really interesting topic to explore;
• I am a philosopher (not in a conceited way but in its etymological meaning of being a “lover of knowledge”);
• Taking the moral high ground is really, really hard;
• I love gardening;
• Farmer’s have really crazy work schedules and are lucky if they make enough money to survive;
• I miss Northern Ontario;
• I must get a better paying job, though I like what I’m doing, in order to pay my student debt.

The reason I wrote all of this was to show how much I learnt in a few years of bouncing around, exploring things I thought I might enjoy doing and in the process discovering myself. A result of discovering myself is that I now have a better idea of my boundaries and the boundaries I am willing to accept. I’ve made several mistakes. I’ve been really miserable at times. But ultimately, I have a better idea of what I’m good at and what I enjoy. Yes I’m going to do my teaching degree which I could have done in a year after by bachelor’s degree. However, I have chosen to do my teaching degree because I know that I will enjoy being a teacher. I will also have a much more diverse perspective than most teachers who’ve never been out of the school system. I don’t know if I’ll be a teacher for thirty years. What I do know is that I won’t be a cook, a collection agent or a real estate tycoon.

If people’s educational upbringing allowed their curiosity to explore in order to find what they find most appealing, I believe this would allow people to discover their own boundaries. They would be less likely to imagine greener grasses since they would have been given the opportunity to explore greener grasses – which, more often than not, brings one to the realisation that grass is grass is grass. As a result of an education of boundless exploration and experiences, I believe that people would more easily be satisfied with whatever they chose to do with their lives. By freeing them from the misguided pursuit of more and more money, people’s choice of their place in society could be based on that which most resonates with who they are and not with a lifestyle which is constantly running ahead of them. As more well rounded people, the boundaries to our lives over which we have less control, such as chance and other people, would not be as overwhelming. Therefore, within the boundaries we’ve chosen or have more easily come to terms with, our happiness could be greater. We would be bounded and happy.

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