Disposable

This one is for Mackenzie, by request.

Yesterday on Facebook, one of my former roommates shared an anecdote about when we were living together. Bill and I shared an apartment in Haseldorf, Willamette University’s off-campus housing, when I was a sophomore and he was a junior. (He dated Kris during the first semester, and I dated her during the second semester.)

Anyhow, Bill wrote on my Facebook wall:

With this post I finally get to tell my favorite story of rooming with you years ago. A list I once saw of “things to do” that contained the following items: 1. Write paper for lit class 2. Call brother 3. Shave. 4. Be nicer to people. Something about that combo of things has always seemed sublime to me. You were a fun roomy.

This story made me smile. I don’t remember the list myself, but Kris and I agree that this list is a pretty good summation of who I am. A lot of people read my personal finance blog, and they see one side of me there. But this to-do list that Bill shared captures me very well in just a few words — both the good and the bad!

But the reason I’m writing today is to share another story about razors from when we were rooming together.

Shaving hurts my face
Shaving hurts my face. It always has. I have sensitive skin. During my freshman year of college, I had purchased a fancy electric razor on a charge card at Meier & Frank. (This was actually my first foray into debt, the beginning of a 20-year habit.) I thought it would be great. It wasn’t. It still hurt my face.

When I started rooming with Bill, he convinced me that I should try shaving with an actual razor. I walked a mile to Safeway, looked at their selection, and was utterly confused. Rather than sort through the various razor handle and blade combinations, I just bought a bag of disposable razors.

For one thing, I liked the notion of “disposable”. How convenient! When I was finished with one, I could flush it down the toilet. Because that’s what disposable means, right? Right? Okay, it sounds stupid even to me. But I’m the nearly 41-year-old J.D., not the 18-year-old J.D. My younger self truly believed this.

Anyhow, I began to shave with the disposable razors. It was rough going at first. I didn’t really get it. Eventually, though, I learned how to follow the contours of my face, and how to press lightly instead of firmly so that I wasn’t carving off hunks of flesh. (Though I still nicked and cut myself all the time.)

And, of course, when I had used a disposable razor for one shave (!!!), I disposed of it by flushing it down the toilet.

The inevitable occurs
Time passed.

I had a good time that semester. In fact, that semester was one of the highlights of my life. I had many good friends, dated several young women, and felt myself intellectually challenged. It was a great time. And all the while, I was shaving and flushing my disposable razors down the toilet.

Around Thanksgiving, we began to have problems with the toilet. (You saw this coming, right?) It would clog for no apparent reason. We’d plunge and things would be better. But then one day, plunging didn’t work. We called in the maintenance department.

I was home the day the maintenance guys came to fix the toilet. I was there when the guy came out of the bathroom holding a plastic bag filled with (literally) shitty disposable razors. He gave me a look. “Do you know anything about these?” he asked.

“Uh…” I stammered. What could I say? Actually, I don’t remember what I said. I don’t know if I tried to deny responsibility (highly likely) or whether I fessed up (not so likely). But I do know this: I never again flushed a disposable razor down the toilet.

Lessons learned
Nowadays, I don’t use disposable razors. I don’t use an electric razor, either. No, I use a fancy old-fashioned safety razor. (And I’d like to try a straight razor at some point.) One of my favorite luxuries in life is the $35-per-tub shaving cream I buy from London mail-order outfits. I lather it up with a real badger-hair brush. It’s not as close a shave as you could get with a Fusion five-blade razor, but so what? I love the feeling of using my safety razor and my “limes” shave cream.

And best of all? There’s no danger of me clogging the toilet with disposable razors.

Note: Bill’s bio at the UAH philosophy page intrigues me. He has two subjects of interest. The second is “the relationship between subjectivity, freedom, and the consciousness of time”. !!!!! Could anything be more Proustian? I think Bill and I could have some things to chat about if he ever gets back here — or if I ever get to Alabama.

Consumed: The Burden of Writing a Book

“You’re doing it again,” Kris told me last night.

“Doing what?” I asked.

“You haven’t posted a new entry at foldedspace in nearly two weeks,” she said. “You’re in danger of letting it get all musty again.”

Kris is right, of course (as she nearly always is). But she also knows the reason for my silence: The Book. The Book is consuming my life. I’ve always wondered why my friends and colleagues allowed their blogs to lapse as they were working on their books. Now I know. The Book is going to kill me.

I can reveal The Book’s title now, by the way. It’ll be Your Money: The Missing Manual, and it’s scheduled to be published next spring by O’Reilly. O’Reilly is best known for its wide range of well-respected computer books, including the “Missing Manual” series. They’re trying to expand a little, and have recently published Your Body: The Missing Manual, Your Brain: The Missing Manual, and Living Green: The Missing Manual. Mine will be another entry in this series.

But writing a book isn’t like writing a blog. When I sit down to write a blog post — like this one — I can just go with the flow. Sometimes I have a beginning and/or an end in mind, but often I just start telling my story. I trust that after years of doing this I can shape my piece into the form I want.

That’s not how it works with a book. A book is planned meticulously. And even when it’s planned, you have a tendency to go off course, which just makes writing it more difficult.

Also, a blog post is 250 words. Or 750. Or, in extreme cases, 1500 words. I don’t usually pay attention to the word count. I just say what I want to say and leave it at that. But a book has a specific length. I know going into this project that Your Money: The Missing Manual will have 250-300 pages (with a preference toward the high end). I also know that other books in this series have a about 300 words per page. That tells me that I’m going to write 75,000 to 90,000 words, which will be divided into chapters of 5,000 or 6,000 words. These chapters are much longer than a blog post, have to possess continuity, and have to be packed with information.

Some of the chapters require research. I had to spend days surveying the literature on money and happiness, for example. Other chapters will require images or figures, which are easy enough, but which are time-consuming. And if I want to quote extensively from another source, I need to get clearance. (Dave thinks I need to get clearance if I quote at all.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is: Writing a book is work. It’s taking all of my time. And the deadlines are killing me.

A typical schedule for a book is: Write for a year, give the publisher a year to put it on the market. That’s not how this one is working. This one is: Write for three months, give the publisher three months to get it on the market. In other words, I’m doing this in a quarter of the time it takes for most books.

I’m required to turn in one chapter every Monday. That’s a chapter a week. A normal book schedule would require about a chapter every month.

As a result, I live up here in this office, surrounded by my Diet Pepsi bottles and pork rind wrappers. My diet sucks. I have barely any free time. Gone are those recent days of walking and reading. Instead, I come up here, I write (and eat like crap), I go home to have dinner with Kris, we watch an episode of All Creatures Great and Small, and I go to bed.

The good news? This is a finite project. I can see the end of it — even if it’s still more than two months away. I now know that this is not how I want to live. I love to write, but on my own terms and my own schedule. Once the book project is over, I’m going to return to my beloved pastoral lifestyle…

Benevolence and Enlightened Self-Interest

Over the weekend, I posted an article at Get Rich Slowly about the guilt of wealth. I was nervous about the piece, and almost didn’t share it. It felt too personal. In the end, though, I’m glad I did. It spurred one of the best discussions we’ve had at GRS in a very long time.

I find it curious that the conversation has veered toward a discussion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Rand wrote dreadful novels (in the sense that they were poorly written) filled with great ideas (in the sense that they sparked intellectual debate). Her ideas were brilliant, but she was repudiated by both the Left and the Right. Because Rand was a touch messianic, this caused her a bit of consternation.

Now, however, a curious thing has happened. One segment of the American conservative community has openly embraced Rand as an inspiration. They cling to that part of her ideology that rejects the notion of working for the benefit of others. In it they find reason to argue against the liberal agenda. (At the same time, these conservatives choose to ignore that Rand was about as atheistic as they come. She would be just as angry at their belief in god as she would be at the liberal desire for universal health care.)

Note: Most people pronounce “Ayn” like “Ann”. Most people are wrong. “Ayn” is actually pronounced to rhyme with “mine”.

When I was young — just out of college — I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and many of Rand’s other works. I had a vast library of Rand materials, much of it obscure. There’s no question that her work had a profound effect on my life. It continues to have such an effect to this day. Much of my personal philosophy is based on her work.

Much of my philosophy — but not all of it.

In particular, I’m troubled by what my cousin Nick calls the “Eddie Willers problem”. In Atlas Shrugged, the great men and women of the world go on strike. They follow the great John Galt to a secluded spot in the Rocky Mountains where they establish a sort of industrialist Utopia in which no man lives his life for any other man. And when they go on strike, the world stops. It cannot function without them.

One of these great men is Dagny Taggart, the main character of the book. (And yes, I know she’s not a man. But using this terminology is hilarious to me, especially given Rand’s thoughts on the subject. (She believed no woman should ever be President of the United States.)) Taggart is the manager of a railroad empire and one of the great industrialist thinkers who goes on strike.

When she leaves, though, she leaves behind her loyal friend and assistant, Eddie Willers. Willers is no great thinker. He’s no rich capitalist. He’s just a hard-working loyal man. And he’s left behind. He’s not good enough to be included in the little “industrialist club”. As Nick says, this is a Problem.

It’s also a problem that Rand argues against altruism. She believes that altruism is evil, the direct opposite of enlightened self-interest. Good objectivists abhor altruism. This has always bugged me.

To return to where I started, in the thread over at GRS, a commenter named Amy pointed to an article on the benefits and hazards of Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden. Branden was once a close associate with Rand. She considered him the embodiment of her ideals. But after nearly 20 years together, they had a split in 1968, and Branden went his own way. In 1984, after Rand’s death, he gave a talk, and this paper is the written version of his lecture.

First, he covers an overview of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, enumerating ten main points:

  1. That reality is what it is, that things are what they are, independent of anyone’s beliefs, feelings, judgments or opinions—that existence exists, that A is A;
  2. That reason, the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the various senses, is fully competent, in principle, to understand the facts of reality;
  3. That any form of irrationalism, supernaturalism, or mysticism, any claim to a nonsensory, nonrational form of knowledge, is to be rejected;
  4. That a rational code of ethics is possible and is derivable from an appropriate assessment of the nature of human beings as well as the nature of reality;
  5. That the standard of the good is not God or the alleged needs of society but rather “Man’s life,” that which is objectively required for man’s or woman’s life, survival, and well-being;
  6. That a human being is an end in him- or herself, that each one of us has the right to exist for our own sake, neither sacrificing others to self nor self to others;
  7. That the principles of justice and respect for individuality autonomy, and personal rights must replace the principle of sacrifice in human relationships;
  8. That no individual—and no group—has the moral right to initiate the use of force against others;
  9. That force is permissible only in retaliation and only against those who have initiated its use;
  10. That the organizing principle of a moral society is respect for individual rights and that the sole appropriate function of government is to act as guardian and protector of individual rights.

Next, he summarizes the benefits of Rand’s world view and explains why it holds such a powerful draw for so many young people. Including me. If you want to know the origins of my personal philosophy, you can see them in the ten points above.

Note: Although these points form the basis of my philosophy, they don’t describe it fully. For one, I’m still informed by the religions of my youth. For another, Rand is an absolutist. I am not. The older I get, the more of a relativist I become. At Get Rich Slowly, my motto is “do what works for you”. In truth, that is my motto for life. Rand would hate that.

Branden’s article/lecture continues, however, by describing the problems with Rand’s philosophy. Eventually, he makes the brilliant point that Rand conflates sacrifice and benevolence (emphasis added):

I am referring to the principle of benevolence, mutual helpfulness and mutual aid between human beings. I believe it is a virtue to support life. I believe it is a virtue to assist those who are struggling for life. I believe it is a virtue to seek to alleviate suffering. None of this entails the notion of self-sacrifice. I am not saying that we should place the interests of others above our own. I am not saying that our primary moral obligation is to alleviate the pain of others. I am not saying that we do not have the right to place our own interests first. I am saying that the principle of benevolence and mutual aid is entirely compatible with an ethic of self-interest and more: An ethic of self-interest logically must advocate the principle of benevolence and mutual aid.

Given that we live in society, and given that misfortune or tragedy can strike any one of us, it is clearly in our self-interest to live in a world in which human beings deal with one another in a spirit of mutual benevolence and helpfulness. Could anyone seriously argue that the principle of mutual aid does not have survival value?

[…]

There are too many immature, narcissistic individuals whose thinking stops at the point of hearing that they have no obligation to sacrifice themselves to others. True enough, they don’t. Is there nothing else to be said on the subject of help to others? I think there is and I think so precisely on the basis of the objectivist standard of ethics: man’s/woman’s life and well-being.

Go, Nathaniel Branden!

One topic that I would love to research more (and write about more) is social capital, the idea that there’s a sort of hidden economy of neighborliness and mutual aid. In Robet Putnam’s influential Bowling Alone, he argues that the decline in social capital in this country is responsible for many of its social ills. Social capital is a sort of glue that bonds society together. (Note that social capital is not always good. Think of the KKK.)

Rand would reject the notion of social capital. It doesn’t fit her philosophical system. Yet social capital is very real and very important. As Branden says in the quote above, the principle of mutual aid has survival value. When we give without expectation of return, we’re improving our community and our society. We’re making the world a better place. And that is in your self-interest. Just because you cannot see an immediate benefit from some action does not mean it’s not in your interest.

I think this point is lost on a lot of businesses. For the past six months, I’ve been working closely with a business that is moving into a new realm. This business is expert at doing one thing, and is trying to leverage new technology to do it in a new way. (Sorry to be vague; it can’t be helped.) But this business has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to look beyond the immediate benefits. If they can’t see a payoff today, they’re not going to take action or make a deal. This is unfortunate. As a result, they’ve missed several opportunities to improve their environment. And they’ve missed out on possible future rewards.

I don’t know where I’m going with all of this. I just thought the discussion at Get Rich Slowly was interesting, and I had more to say, but this seemed like a better forum than over there. I’m glad to have found the paper from Nathaniel Branden. I’ve bookmarked it for future reference.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to my life of enlightened self-interest (with a touch of benevolence)…

The View of Her Tomatoes

Some of the biggest conflicts of our marriage come when Kris and I cannot agree on where to place things. We’ve had huge rows about seating arrangements for dinner parties, for example. And when we receive our furniture shipment later today, I’m sure there’ll be some tension as we try to find the ideal layout.

But for now, this moment, we’re fighting over blueberries.

Kris doesn’t really like blueberries. And because I don’t do as much as I should to help in the garden, she’s leaving the current blueberry project to me. I tore out three of our blueberries (the 25-year-old plants the neighbors gave us) as well as our two gooseberries. Yesterday we bought three new plants, and we have two more coming by mail. It’s up to me to decide where to plant them.

In theory, I’d simply plant them where the old plants were. But the old plants didn’t thrive. Part of this was because I didn’t water them enough, but there’s also the problem that they didn’t get enough sun, and that they were spaced too closely together.

I’d like to create a dedicated blueberry patch in our yard. This morning, I walked through the north side, looking for a place to put the plants. There really isn’t one. The north side gets full sun, but it’s packed with fruit trees. It’s our orchard. There’s really no place to put blueberries.

Fortunately, there are a couple of spaces on the south side of the house that might work. The best spot, in my opinion, is running east-to-west next to the vegetable garden. There’s plenty of space, it gets full sun, and I could alter the soil as needed.

Unfortunately, Kris hates this idea. For some reason, she refuses to let me put the blueberries there. We’ve been butting heads now for an hour.

It occurred to me that I didn’t know exactly why she didn’t want me to plant the blueberries between the house and the vegetable garden. So I asked her. And here was her reply: “They’ll block my view,” she said.

“View of what?” I asked.

“The view of my tomatoes,” she said. “I like to look out and admire them. I try to make the garden beautiful and pleasing to me. I put a lot of work into it. I want to be able to see it.”

sigh

Far be it from me to deprive Kris of a view of her tomatoes. She does a lot of work around here, and she deserves to be able to see the fruits of her labor. (Literally.) I’ll find someplace else to put the blueberries. (I’ll probably put them in the spots we had originally designated.)

But when the Man Room furniture comes in a couple of hours, I’m going to be assertive! Just once in our 20+ years together, I’d like to win one of these arguments about where to put things. Kris can’t always be right — can she?

Shaking the Dust Off My Feet

“I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world: Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum.” — George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life

For years, I’ve wanted to make travel a priority. I’ve had tastes of adventure now and then recently, but it’s never been something that I had the time or the money to pursue.

Now, however, it looks like I may be able to finally make travel a recurring part of my life. In the past week, three trips for 2010 have fallen into place. When combined with my tentative plans for 2011, I have a lot of fun ahead of me:

  • Early next spring, I’ll fly to Washington, D.C., to attend a blog conference. Thought the conference is only a day, I’m hoping that Kris and I can spend a week or so exploring the city. Maybe we’ll even venture up to New York.
  • Later in the spring, Mac and I will travel to Alaska with my neighbor, John. John is retired. He spends his summers puttering around on a fishing boat. We’ll join him for a jaunt from Petersburg to Sitka.
  • Next autumn, Kris and I will take our trip to Europe. First we’ll spend time in Italy exploring Venice, Florence, and Rome. Then we’ll take the train to France, where she’s booked us on a river cruise from Paris to Normandy. (If I had my way, we’d do the river cruise and then take a tour of southern France. We’d save Italy for another trip. But Kris — who is always right — says this will be more fun.)
  • In 2011, I have tentative plans to hike across England with my colleague Fraser from Astronomy Today. We’ll spend a few weeks on one of the many walking paths. I’m actually hoping that one or more of my other friends can join us.

Beyond these trips, who knows? These are pretty tame, I know. I’d love to venture to Latin America or Southeast Asia at some point. And I’ve always wanted to visit Africa. There’s a chance I’ll join Chris Guillebeau for a trip to Ethiopia in the fall of 2011. We’ll see. That’s a long way off.

2009 Portland Marathon Race Report

I walked the Portland Marathon today, though the last few miles almost killed me. Pam asked for a race report, so I’m going to write one, even though this was far from a “race”. (Pam is an ultramarathoner and just completed a hundred-mile run, so a marathon is nothing to her. She would have finished second.)

In 2008 and 2009, I’ve spent my April through June training to run the marathon, but I keep getting hurt. My injury this year healed at the end of August, and it occurred to me that although it was too late to train to run the course, maybe I could walk it. Since I’ve been trying to walk 5-10 miles every day this summer, I decided to give it a go. I registered.

Last week, I put out a call for volunteers to walk with me and got three offers to help. So this morning, promptly at 7 am, I lined up to walk the marathon. (As I was waiting to start, I realized I had forgotten to eat breakfast. How stupid is that? Answer: Pretty damn stupid — but it didn’t seem to matter.)

My companions today included:

  • The redoubtable Chris Guillebeau, who writes one of the best damn blogs on the internet. Chris walked with me from the start to mile nine. He also carried my pack for me and paced me to roughly 15:15 miles, which was awesome.
  • Chris left me at mile nine to run home (literally) to his wife, Jolie, and Paul and Tiffany stepped in to take his place for five miles. They left me just after mile 14.
  • Mackenzie Smith, the master of getting fit slowly, joined me at mile 18 and stuck with me to the very end, putting up with my whining in an admirably stoic fashion. I couldn’t have finished the race without him.

How did I do? Well, when I walk through my neighborhood — reading books as I go — I average a 17-minute mile. That seemed like a reasonable target, so my goal was a seven hour, 26 minute marathon. I actually finished in 6:54:07.

My chip time was actually 7:01:25. Because there can be a 15-minute delay between when the first runner and the last walker cross the starting line, every marathon participant wears a microchip. At various intervals on the course, there are mats to record your progress. This chip time is your official time. But chip time doesn’t account for bathroom breaks, stopping to change socks, etc. My GPS watch automatically pauses when I stop to do any of these things, so that’s the time I use. It really doesn’t matter, though. Whether my time is 6:54:07 or 7:01:25, I’m proud of finishing.

 

Here are my official results:


Click to view larger image in new window.

 

Look at that! I finished 13th from bottom for my age and gender. You know what? I don’t give a damn. Here’s the data directly from my GPS watch:


Click to view larger image in new window.

 

You’ll note that my GPS watch clocks a distance of 26.54 miles, which is longer than the 26.2 miles in a marathon. There are several reasons for this:

  • My watch (a Garmin Forerunner 305) consistently overreports distance.
  • I’m sure I didn’t follow the optimal “line” through the course.
  • I left the course from time-to-time to use the portapotties and to swap foot gear.
  • I forgot to turn off the watch after I crossed the finish line. I spent a couple of minutes wandering the finishers’ area before I realized my mistake.

For my purposes, I choose to go with the 6:54:07 finish time, but use a 26.2 mile distance. Strange? Perhaps, but that’s fine.

How did the race go? It was the best of time, it was the worst of times.

Chris Guillebeau walked with me for the first nine miles. He spurred me ahead while we talked about blogging and world travel. I had a great time. The first mile wandered through downtown, up Salmon to Broadway to Davis. After a mile, we turned south on Front. We walked south on Front for about two miles, including a modest incline. At about 3.5 miles, we turned and headed back north on Front. This entire time, we aimed for a 15:15 pace, which was well ahead of the 17-minute pace I was aiming for.

The ninth mile looks a little slow, but that’s because it includes a portapotty break.

At mile nine, the course doubled back on itself, heading back down Front. Chris left to run home, and I was joined by Paul and Tiffany. Their fresh legs pushed me to some solid times. We walked briskly and chatted about life. They invited me to dinner tonight, but I declined. I told them that if I finished, I was going to eat chicken wings with Mac. They left me after five miles, just past the 14-mile marker.

By this time, my feet were sore. Very sore. I’d brought two pairs of socks, and had already tried all possible permutations with them, but there was no doubt that I had terrible blisters on both heels and on my right pinky toe. I pushed on, trying to ignore the pain.

From mile 14 to mile 18, I walked alone. To distract myself, I posted to Twitter and Facebook (yes, really) and listened to high-intensity dance tunes. Though my mental stamina was flagging, I kept at it. I marched up the appraoch to the St. John’s Bridge (mile 16), passing tons of walkers. I was having a good time. On the way down the bridge, I even jogged a little.

But by mile 18, my mental and physical reserves were beginning to flag. My feet were killiing me. How could I last another 8.2 miles?

How? With the support of Mackenzie Smith. Mac joined me at about mile 18, and he kicked my ass. As I whined about my ailments — “oh my feet”, “oh my shins”, “do you have any ibuprofen? any hydrocodone?” — he just kept on walking. At first, he let me set the pace. But when I started to flag — and boy did I start to flag — he walked slightly ahead of me, tacitly goading me to keep up.

Mac and I were fortunate to have two long downhill sections, and we jogged down both of them. Because I was wearing street clothes (yes, really), I looked foolish jogging, but I didn’t reall care. The change of pace felt like heaven on my feet. (You can’t really see our first jog because it’s absorbed in miles 21 and 22. But you can see the second jog in mile 23. I did a 13:27 mile! That’s about what I would have aimed for if I’d run the marathon.)

During the last couple of miles, I was in dark black place. If Mac hadn’t been there, I would not have finished. My feet hurt like hell. But Mac was there, and I did finish.

After the race, I took off my shoes and socks. I had gigantic blisters on both heels, as well as various other blisters around my feet. (Some are actually double blisters.) As Mac watched me put my shoes on, he stopped me.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “How tight do you have those tied?”

“Pretty tight,” I said. I showed him.

Mac laughed. “Dude, you need to loosen the laces. No wonder you’re in such pain.” I loosened the laces. The pain wasn’t gone, but my feet felt much better. I realized he was right. No wonder I was in such agony.

According to my “body bug” fitness monitor, I burned just under 3500 calories during the marathon. Some of you will understand that 3500 calories is roughly a pound of body weight. By walking a marathon, I only lost a pound. Good grief.

I always say that I take about 2000 steps per mile. I walked 26.54 miles today. According to my pedometer, I took 53,208 steps. That’s about 2005 steps per mile. Eerie, huh?

 

As I write this at 6pm, I’ve burned 4844 calories. I’ll end up having burned about 5500 calories for the day. Cool, huh? That makes up for the chicken wings I had with Mac, and the pork rinds and alcohol I consumed since returning home. But you know what? It’s nothing compared to the contestants on The Bigger Loser. The women aim to burn 6000 calories per day, and the men aim for 8000. Yes, they’re much larger than I am, but still…

Anyhow, I’m proud to have finished this race, but I’m glad I can cross this off my life goals list. I’d still like to run a marathon sometime, but it won’t be next year. Maybe in 2011?

Footnote: Call me crazy, but hours after finishing the race, I’m still wearing the finishers’ medal around the house, even though I’m all by myself this weekend. I think I’ll even wear it to bed. (I plan to go to sleep early.) Update: Did wear it to bed. Still wearing it the next morning…

Happier

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” — Aristotle

For a long time, I was unhappy. I used to think that this was because of my overwhelming debt. I believed that if I were debt-free, happiness would come to me. It didn’t.

After I paid off my consumer debt, I was still unhappy. “Maybe it’s my job,” I thought. I’d always hated working for the family box factory; it had been a job of last resort, and I’d never shaken free of it.

But even after I quit my day job, happiness remained elusive. I now know that some of this was due to low-level depression. I’ve also come to understand that part of the problem was that I expected money to solve my problems. I expected money to make me happy. Money and happiness, however, are mostly unrelated. That’s just not how it works.

Happier
While beginning to research for my own book, I recently read Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. Happier is a great book. Derived from Ben-Shahar’s Harvard course on positive psychology, this slim volume summarizes research into the subject of human happiness — and offers exercises to help readers live happier, more fulfilling lives.

Ben-Shahar rejects certain artificial dichotomies our culture clings to. He writes, for example:

One of my students at Harvard came to talk to me after receiving a job offer from a prestigious consulting firm. She told me that she was uninterested in the work she would be doing but felt she could not turn down this opportunity…She asked me at what point in life — at what age — she could stop thinking about the future and start being happy.

I did not accept her question with its implicit either-or approach to happiness. I told her that instead of asking, “Should I be happy now or in the future?” she should ask, “How can I be happy now and in the future?”

This is brilliant. I, too, used to think that my choice was either now or then. I didn’t realize I could have both. I believed that in order to have happiness (or wealth) in the future, I had to sacrifice happiness (or wealth) in the present. This isn’t the case. Ben-Shahar elaborates:

Some people might be concerned that pursuing meaning and pleasure over accolades and wealth could come at the price of success…I had similar concerns about my own success as I contemplated the shift toward the happiness archetype. The “no pain, no gain” formula had served me well, in terms of quantifiable success, and I feared that my resolve would weaken — that the next milestone would lose its appeal and no longer sustain me as it did when I was a rat racer. What happened, however, was the exact opposite.

The shift from being a rat racer to pursuing happiness is not about working less or with less fervor but about working as hard or harder at the right activities — those that are a source of both present and future benefit.

Ben-Shahar advocates balance. We find happiness when we consider tomorrow and today. People are happy who perform meaningful work that challenges them. They have goals — and the freedom to pursue them.

Happiness Boosters
Throughout the book, Ben-Shahar offers a series of exercises designed to boost the reader’s happiness. I’m the sort who usually loathes activities and exercises in self-help and personal-finance books, but I liked these. In fact, I’ve briefly summarized a handful of them below:

  • Create rituals. Ben-Shahar urges readers to do the things they love: reading, walking, gaming, knitting, whatever. But because it can be difficult to make time for these activities, he argues that we should create rituals around them. At a specific time every day, do the thing you love. For example, I’ve recently made it a ritual to walk a couple of miles to have lunch most afternoons. This makes me happy.
  • Express gratitude. I don’t do this enough. Research indicates that you can enjoy a heightened sense of well being by keeping a daily gratitude journal. Just jot down five things you’re grateful for every day. It’s okay to repeat yourself from one day to the next. This exercise forces you to become conscious of the good things in your life.
  • Set meaningful goals. When I was younger, I set goals that had little relation to who I was or what I wanted. I set goals based on what I felt was expected of me. For a goal to be worthwhile, it has to be related to your own interests. And it has to add something to your life. Pursuing meaningful goals can bring happiness to your life. (And note that it’s the pursuit of the goals that brings happiness, not the attainment of them.)
  • Play to your strengths. Ben-Shahar is a fan of Appreciative Inquiry. (That website is awful, by the way — it’s written in jargon.) Appreciative Inquiry ignores the things that do not work and looks instead what has been successful. By focusing on past positive outcomes, you can build upon your strengths. Do what you’re good at. (This reminds me of Tim Ferriss’ philosophy in The 4-Hour Workweek: “Emphasize your strengths, not your weaknesses.”)
  • Simplify. Ben-Shahar writes: “To raise our levels of well-being, there is no way around simplifying our lives. This means safeguarding our time, learning to say ‘no’ more often — to people as well as opportunities — which is not easy. It means prioritizing, choosing activities that we really, really want to do, while letting go of others.” As Derek Sivers recently wrote on his blog, if an opportunity doesn’t make you say “hell yeah!”, you’re better off saying “no”.

Happier provides plenty of other practical tips. It’s a goldmine of useful information.

Best Summer Ever
As I shared a couple of weeks ago, this has been one of the best summers of my life. I feel fulfilled. I am happy. Why? There are a number of reasons:

  • I’m doing meaningful work that challenges me.
  • I feel like I’m helping other people. I get e-mail every day that tells me I’m making a difference in people’s lives.
  • I’m making time for exercise. I’ve been walking five or six or ten miles every day. (This Sunday, I plan to walk 26.2!)
  • I’m reading more. I’ve always been a voracious reader. Pop fiction, personal finance, Proust — you name it. But for the past three years, I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d like. This summer, I’ve changed that.
  • I’m spending more time with family and friends.
  • I’m allowing myself to indulge in my hobbies once again. As you know, I cut back on comic book spending while working my way out of debt. I still have a budget for comics, but it’s not nearly as restrictive as it once was.

In short, I’m balancing the present with the future. I’m still looking out for tomorrow, but I’m not overlooking today. All of this reminds me of the end of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. It’s a cold winter evening and young Laura is listening while Pa plays “Auld Lang Syne” on his fiddle.

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

At the end of Happier, Ben-Shahar writes that we often imagine that something or someone in the future will bring us happiness. Or we find ourselves stuck in the past. But the key to happiness, he says, is to live in the now. “Rather than allowing ourselves to remain enslaved by our past or future,” he writes, “we must learn to make the most of what is presently in front of us and all around us.”

Go forth, my friends, and be happy.

For more reading on happiness, check out Gretch Rubin’s excellent blog, The Happiness Project.