Wednesday, June 20, 2007

:: The Joneses ::

Studies in sociology and psychology show that, given the choice, most of us would prefer to make less money, but more than our peers than to make more money, but less than our peers. It’s a riddle the solution to which is complicated, in large part because it seems a bit counterintuitive. What it suggests is that even for those of us who insist we don’t care about “keeping up with the Joneses,” our own sense of life satisfaction may be strongly influenced by whether or not we are the Joneses or the people trying to keep up.

Lately, for probably about the last year, Brian and I have talked a lot about how badly we would like to buy a house and move out of our condo. While we have loved living here for the last three-plus years, there are many reasons for our dissatisfaction. For one, we’re starting to outgrow it. Our spare bedroom is now a nursery, meaning that when guests come to stay, we will give up our own room for them and join baby in the nursery for the night. We’ve filled all four of our floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, but don’t have an inch of space for more shelves, despite tumbling piles of books. We have Brian’s small filing cabinet stacked on top of my industrial-sized one in order to fit them both in our shared basement office. Our house is always cluttered because not everything we own has a “home” as they say. There’s no place for mail, for example, and no place indoors for recycling, meaning we pile items up on the counter or in front of the garage door throughout the day and take everything out to the bin in the garage at night. We have no pantry so despite the impending addition to our family, we haven’t really been able to stock up on shelf-stable foodgoods to get us through the early weeks with baby.

My own, much stronger dissatisfaction comes from feeling isolated. Friends of ours don’t come to Blacklick, not caring to venture out past the 270 outerbelt. Nor do they often think to call us when they’re doing things in the city or wherever they live. But more than this, Blacklick is not a real place, it’s just a zip code. Other than the post office, there is nothing purely “Blacklick” about Blacklick. No town or village hall. No library or rec center. No stoplight, even, that we might call our center. Blacklick, as I wrote in a poem once, “is in the outer parts of other places, parts those places no longer quite reach.” We’re a strange agglomeration of bits of land here and there that aren’t Gahanna, aren’t Reynoldsburg, and aren’t Columbus (even though our kids would go to Columbus City Schools). We’re having trouble getting our car seats inspected by one of the police or fire departments around here because the towns we live near all only do inspections for residents, and Columbus only does them sporadically. We’d have to wait until July 11th to have the Columbus folks do the inspection, which is one week after baby’s due date.

In addition to the lack of public services, there’s just a lack of center. There’s no sense of community. No park I might take baby to and run into the same moms over and over. No ice cream shop to frequent. No streetlights with baskets of cascading purple flowers hanging down from their cross poles. And that makes me lonely not just for companionship and friends but for something much more elemental – it makes me lonely for an experience of place that I felt as a kid but that I don’t feel now.

For Brian, I think the frustration is a different kind of frustration. While we’re not ones to compare ourselves to others (and while we’ve got a range of friends both more and less financially stable and commercially “satisfied” than we are to compare ourselves to, if we were going to be the ones to do so), I think that a large part of his dissatisfaction comes from comparing our reality to what he (and what we both) imagined our life would be like right now, financially speaking. I think that choosing law school, and sticking with it for three years and through the bar exam, was at least partly a decision to be financially stable. It was a way for him to at least marginally guarantee that he would be able to procure a job that would allow us to have a comfortable life – to live in a place of our choosing, to be able to afford doctor’s visits and car repairs, to save money for the future, to be able to buy free-range meat if we so desire or to buy an expensive bottle of wine. We endured three tough years (and Brian endured even more years before me) – years during which we didn’t go to the doctor when we might otherwise have, when we didn’t get our cars repaired, when we didn’t buy Brian’s favorite Naked drink (Berry Blast) except on exceptionally special occasions because it was too expensive – with the idea that once school was over, the burden would be lifted.

But we’re finding that despite the increase in Brian’s income, our standard of living hasn’t budged. Now, we find there are loans to pay, doctors to see, cars to fix, and the money we both make doesn’t stretch much further than a new Blockbuster Online membership and a family membership at the Y. Still no real saving for the future, still no living in the place of our choosing. Still no expensive bottles of wine, and not only because we’ve both given up alcohol during the pregnancy.

I raise these issues not really for their own sake – it’s not money I wanted to write about today – but because I am extremely interested in how it is that we’ve both talked ourselves into being so dissatisfied with our financial and residential situation when from day to day we would both report a startlingly high level of in-the-now satisfaction. We laugh a lot, joke often, and eat good food. We take long walks and spend time together in the evenings and on the weekends. We’re making more and more friends as years in Columbus accumulate. Each night, we do what my mom always just called Best Part:

“What was your best part?”

“Umm…” Long pause. “My latte. You?”

“Our walk.”

“Yeah, that was good. A close second for me.”

“Yeah? I debated between that and writing on my blog.”

We’re happy. And yet we’re both focused on, and at times downright obsessed with, our desire to get out of this place and move on up. We want better and we’re both frustrated not only by feeling like we have no options but also by feeling dissatisfied when we know we are happy with our lives.

Maybe what it comes down to is a difference between now and when. Psychologists distinguish between two kinds of happiness: moment-to-moment happiness (they call this positive affect) and satisfaction. Harvard’s own Daniel Gilbert (in Stumbling on Happiness, 2006) argues that satisfaction depends to a large degree on projecting what will make us happy rather than on what actually makes us happy. After all, he writes, “The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.” Unfortunately, Gilbert claims, we’re not very good at making this projection. What we anticipate will give us pleasure is not always what actually gives us pleasure. For example, “in an experiment in which subjects anticipated that they would prefer an assortment of snacks, when it actually came to eating the snacks week after week, subjects in the no-variety group said that they were more satisfied than the subjects in the variety group” (Michael Shermer, “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” published March 2007 in Scientific American).

In other words, while Brian and I both feel mostly happy in the present, we have a projection of what will make us happy in the future and we feel like that projection is currently unattainable. But the cruel trick, according to Gilbert, is that even if we work hard to achieve our goals, we may discover that we weren’t even right about what would make us happy.

But there is hope, or at least I like to think so. According to Emory University psychiatrist Gregory Berns (in Satisfaction, 2005), maybe satisfaction isn’t about the projection but about the meaning, and the effort, devoted to that projection. According to Berns, “satisfaction is an emotion that captures the uniquely human need to impart meaning to one’s activities.” He argues that satisfaction “can arise only by the conscious decision to do something.”

This doesn’t really help us find more satisfaction with our current situation, I don’t think, but it provides hope that we might find a way to take pleasure in doing the work it will take to achieve our projection.