This past week, MSN Money carried an article about a multi-millionaire who has been giving away what he owns. Karl Rabeder, a 47-year-old Austrian, sold his business in 2004 and ever since then has been getting rid of his money and possessions, mostly by donating to a microcredit charity that he founded. Rabeder once owned a $2.2 million lakeside villa in the Alps and a 42-acre farm in Provence, but now is living in a two-room apartment in Innsbruck. MSN Money quotes him as telling the Daily Mail: ”My idea is to have nothing left. Absolutely nothing. Money is counterproductive — it prevents happiness.”

Happiness researchers wouldn’t exactly agree. As I described in an earlier post, studies have found a modest association between having a higher income and self-reported happiness, though, except for those on the low end of the scale, increases in income only contribute marginally to happiness. Researchers may also point out that, in acquiring expensive material goods, Rabeder was using an ineffective way of trying to bolster his happiness. Rather than using money to buy things, using it to purchase experiences such as a night at the theatre or a week at a resort would contribute more to self-reported happiness.

The problem with such research findings is that they are based on averages, and thus may not have much to say about particular individuals. Rabeder’s disaffection with wealth actually seems to have been precipitated by spending his money in a manner that researchers recommend for increasing life-satisfaction—he went on vacations. On a trip to Africa, he became bothered by the poverty he saw. Having one’s happiness adversely affected by crossing paths with the poor is reminiscent of the Buddha, whose contentment was shattered when, despite his father’s efforts to shelter him, he encountered poverty, sickness, and death. Rabeder’s disillusionment increased further during a trip to Hawaii. He reflects, “It was the biggest shock in my life when I realized how horrible, soulless and without feeling the five-star lifestyle is.” He started giving away what he had soon thereafter. He doesn’t tell others to do as he is doing: he says, “I was just listening to the voice of my heart and soul.”

"Christ and the Rich Young Ruler" by Heinrich Hofmann

All the synoptic gospels describe a conversation between Jesus and a man with plenty of money who was nonetheless discontented. The man’s question was not, as we moderns would ask, “What must I do to be happy?” but “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus listed the commandments; the man claimed that he had followed them since childhood. Jesus replied: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) A common response to the passage is to ask, “Does that mean that Jesus wants his disciples to give everything away?” It doesn’t, but our tendency to ask that question reveals both that we don’t really understand the freedom that Jesus promises and that we fear giving up control over the things we’ve acquired. Possessions so quickly turn from slave to master; perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Rabeder is so eager to get rid of everything. John Wesley once said, “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.” I admire Karl Rabeder for being able to hear and follow his own heart.

Yesterday I saw Crazy Heart, a movie about alcoholism, fading glory, and the redemptive possibilities of relationships.  Jeff Bridges has been widely praised—rightly so—for his portrayal of Bad Blake, an aging country-and-western singer who has descended from star billing to dates in third-rate venues before aging fans who don’t quite seem to get that he no longer amounts to much of anything.  Blake is drinking his way into oblivion; he has just enough pride in his craft to pull off halfway-coherent sets, even though they are sometimes punctuated by puking offstage.  His whiskey-fueled life of dissipation is interrupted when he grants an interview to Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring journalist at least 20 years his junior.  Jean’s own choices have not been all that good: as she puts it, “I made lots of mistakes; I’m just trying not to make them twice.”  Bad, though, is a mistake she can’t seem to keep herself from making.  Bad flirts throughout the interview, the two of them wind up in bed, and before long Bad is not only calling Jean from the road but also trying to be the male figure in her 4-year-old son’s life.

We learn that Bad has been married 4 times and has a 28-year old son he hasn’t seen since the boy was 4.  So, we wonder, will he destroy another relationship, or will Jean’s love be the redemptive force that turns his life around?  There is some degree of redemption in the film, though it seems to me that, though the relationship with Jean prompts some soul-searching on Bad’s part, it is other people in his life who exert the most positive influence on him.  Tommy Sweet (played by Colin Ferrell), a former member of Bad’s band who has gone on to stardom and is grateful to Bad for giving him his first break, recruits Bad as his opening act and tries to persuade the reluctant Bad to write songs for him.  Robert Duvall plays a bartender who welcomes Bad as a friend rather than as a two-bit celebrity, takes him fishing, and helps him up when he falls lower than ever before.  Though Bad initially seems impervious to such ministrations, his friends’ constancy does make quite a difference in the end.

I’ve never been much of a fan of movies where the main characters make terrible decisions about how to live their lives.  Both Bad and Jean reminded me of Augustine’s dictum, “Such is each one as is his love.”  When loves are disordered—as in loving the bottle or loving someone bound to let you down—what we thought would bring happiness brings misery instead.  Of course, there is no shortage of movies that make this point.  This movie is worth seeing not for of the originality of the theme or even for Bridges’ superlative acting, but for the songs.   Our society has sought to drive away lament, but it has found refuge in country music, especially in the rueful sort of songs that are Bad’s stock in trade.  The film features several classic country songs and a number of original pieces written by T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton.  Bridges’ rough voice pumps heartache into the room, while guitars howl along.  Misery never sounded better.

I got most of the way through this day before running across a report that today is ostensibly the most depressing day of the year.  Apparently, a few years ago British psychologist Cliff Arnall identified the third Monday in January as such, based not on any empirical evidence showing that we are all in the pits that day, but on a rationalistic analysis having to do with time elapsed since Christmas, failed New Year’s resolutions, bleak weather, and the like.  Yes, it’s junk science, but where would my discipline of psychology be without occasional meaningless calculations like this?

 I was actually feeling pretty good today.  I’m off work, the weather is beautiful, and I’m looking forward to the year to come.  Learning that this day is supposed to be the most depressing actually lifts my mood more.  If this is a bad day, the good days to come are bound to be really great!  I can’t wait until June 18, which Dr. Arnall predicts will be the happiest day this year!

The magazine Business Week recently tried to determine the most unhappy cities (among the 50 largest) in America.   To make their estimates, they combined several measures that they judged would indicate misery among the populace.  The factors weighted most heavily were depression level, suicide rate, crime rate, and economic factors.  The first three of these certainly make sense; though income level is a fairly weak predictor of unhappiness, the economic indicators that were chosen–unemployment and job loss–may be a better predictor.  Attention was also given to divorce, the amount of green space, and number of cloudy days.  So, what rust belt city came out on top . . . er, on bottom?  None of them did!  Number one in misery was instead awarded to:


That’s Portland, Oregon, with Mt. Hood in the background.  Portland residents have achieved their lofty rating by having the highest depression rate of any of the 50 cities.  They also divorce a lot (ranking fourth in that category) and have plenty of cloudy days (220 a year).  Second prize goes to St. Louis largely by virtue of having the highest crime rate of any of the cities studied; third was New Orleans and fourth was Detroit.  More dreary Midwestern cities made the top ten, but so did sunbelt havens Las Vegas and Jacksonville, Florida.  The entire report can be found here. 

I wonder about the methodology of the study.  Though some of the measures at least have good face validity, others are more arguable.  How sure can we be that the clouds over Portland actually make its residents more unhappy?  Green space is nice to have, but does it really contribute substantially to happiness?  Depression estimates were based on doctor/hospital reports and insurance claims.  Maybe Portland’s high depression rating is an artifact of more people in Portland than elsewhere discussing their mood with their physician.  Or it could be that Portland doctors are more prone to use the mental health codes from the diagnostic manual when billing insurance providers.

Regardless of how accurate the specific rankings are, it does make sense to think that some cities have more unhappiness than others.  Though factors such as those examined by the Business Week writers may start the unhappiness ball rolling, it probably acquires a momentum of its own.  I blogged earlier about the contagion of happiness–happiness, like the flu, seems to pass from one individual to the next.  It makes sense to think that unhappiness works the same way.  So, Portlanders, watch out for those depressed neighbors!  Washing your hands often and sucking up zinc capsules may ward off colds, but they won’t keep you from catching this form of dis-ease!

I recently saw “The Soloist,” a movie about the real-life relationship between a journalist (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) and a homeless schizophrenic street musician (played by Jamie Foxx).  The journalist–Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez–has a brief encounter with Nathaniel Ayers, the musician, in front of a statue of Beethoven, Nathaniel’s idol.  Between playing bursts of music on a violin with only two working strings, Nathaniel gives a mostly incoherent discourse on the benefits of being homeless in Los Angeles rather than Cleveland and on his efforts to bring music to the city.  Steve, in need of a subject for his column, researches Nathaniel’s background and learns that Nathaniel was, as he had claimed, educated at Julliard, where his preferred instrument was the cello.  In a series of flashbacks, the audience sees the adolescent Nathaniel practicing the cello devotedly, Nathaniel as a young man arriving at Julliard, and Nathaniel a few years later being hounded by hallucinations that eventually drive him from school. soloist

Steve writes a column about Nathaniel.  A reader of Steve’s column donates a cello, and Steve tries to use it as bait to lure Nathaniel off the street.  A relationship—it can’t yet be called a friendship—ensues, in which Nathaniel resists but eventually succumbs to Steve’s efforts to get him into a homeless shelter, then an apartment.  Steve isn’t entirely altruistic; he’s getting plenty of good copy for his column out of Nathaniel.  In most of his encounters with the homeless, deluded, or terminally odd people that populate Nathaniel’s world, he opportunistically pushes a tape recorder towards the person and interjects, “You don’t mind if I record this, do you?”  Both Nathaniel and Steve are impaired in their capacity for relationships—Nathaniel because of hallucinations and delusions, Steve because of his drive to meet his deadline. 

At one point, Steve manages to get permission for him and Nathaniel to attend a Los Angeles Philharmonic’s rehearsal of Beethoven’s “Eroica.”  Nathaniel is enraptured; his hushed, reverential comment to Steve is, “Beethoven is in the room.”  Later Steve tells his ex-wife (who also happens to be his editor), “I’ve never loved anything like that.”  In this story of two unhappy men, the filmmakers contrast Steve’s double-mindedness (enjoying life but turning it into grist for his column, helping Nathaniel but insisting it be on his own terms, forming relationships but avoiding commitment) and Nathaniel’s single-minded passion for music.  The film clearly favors single-mindedness.   The danger of homelessness and the terror of psychosis are portrayed realistically.  Still, the filmmakers are sympathetic to Nathaniel’s choice to avoid the consolations of shelter and psychotropics, perhaps unduly so .  It’s not surprising that Nathaniel’s guiding spirit is Beethoven; what other composer would be so likely to bless enduring a life of misery in order to achieve occasional moments of transcendent joy from music?  The “soloist” of the title can be taken as a reference to Nathaniel’s isolation; I take it to be a reference to his singular devotion. 

Steve exploits and tries to save Nathaniel; Nathaniel deifies Steve (at one point even saying, “You are my god”).  None of these ploys work.   Eventually, the two abandon such stratagems and become friends.  The movie is a story of a lost soul’s redemption, but the soul being redeemed isn’t Nathaniel’s.  Steve makes this clear in the last scene.  The point is made for a final time right after the credits have finished.  The last sound heard is of a tape recorder rewinding, then coming to an abrupt stop.          

Daniel Nettle--Sketch from his Personal Page

Daniel Nettle--Sketch from his Personal Page

According to Freudian theory, neurotic individuals overuse defense mechanisms in order to cope with the anxiety that results from inner conflict.  Neurosis used to be an important diagnostic category, but the American Psychiatric Association eliminated the term from its diagnostic manual in 1980.  Neurosis lives on, though, in the popular imagination and in personality research.  The dimension of “neuroticism vs. emotional stability” is one of the “Big Five” personality variables identified by factor analysis, a statistical means of reducing correlations between large numbers of measures into a smaller number of clusters that best account for the statistical variance. 

As a personality variable, neuroticism has to do with the experience of negative emotions.  As we go through our days, we all encounter unpleasant experiences and, in response, have emotions such as sadness, fear, guilt, shame, and the like.  Some people have more intense and frequent negative reactions than do others.  These people are likely to report that they worry a lot, feel down for no reason, or are often tense.   Scores on measures of neuroticism tend to be fairly stable, and it seems that there is some genetic tendency to have either high or low levels of negative emotions (though, as with many psychological variables, the nature vs. nurture question can’t be easily resolved).

There are several personality tests that measure this tendency to be either emotionally stable or neurotic.  A free online test both of Neuroticism and of Introversion-Extraversion using the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire is available here.  

Obviously, the tendency to have lots of negative emotions has implications for happiness.   If I have that tendency, it will be hard for me to be happy, but if I have the opposite proclivity I’ll probably be happy no matter what I do.  This is another form of inequality, to be added to the inequalities of social class, nationality, race, and the like.  Like the others, it may prove intractable, for, though drugs may mitigate negative feelings and positive thoughts can foster determination and hope despite those feelings, there seem to be plenty of people who will always be somewhat glum.    Psychologist Daniel Nettlefound that high scores on Neuroticism predict low self-reported happiness, so much so that it is quite uncommon for the most neurotic individuals to have happiness scores anywhere near those of non-neurotic persons. 

 Neuroticism may produce unhappiness, but it seems a different sort of unhappiness than that caused by having spent oneself to the verge of bankruptcy, having alienated friends by habitual deception, or having lost one’s job by embezzlement.  The unhappy neurotic isn’t unhappy as a result of immorality, incompetence, or foolishness.  His or her unhappiness is a product of genetic makeup or experiences.   It’s not the sort of unhappiness, then, that has the useful function of letting us know we are living our lives in a flawed or disordered manner.  Happiness critic Eric G. Wilsondescribes melancholy as “a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo. . . .“  Perhaps neuroticism can have some of that productive turbulence, and can lead to the insightfulness, creativity, and appreciation of beauty that Wilson attributes to melancholy.  For most neurotics, though, the misery outweighs the benefits. 

Daniel Nettle,  the psychologist reporting the negative relationship  between neuroticism and happiness, offers another finding that provides some consolation.  Compared to non-neurotics, neurotics report more times of feeling  unhappy.  However, they are no different from their sanguine counterparts in the amount of time they feel very happy.  So they travel back and forth between highs and lows, whereas the non-neurotics reside almost exclusively in positive or neutral territory.  Just as the sun seems brighter after a few days of rain, I imagine that the neurotics’ times of joy are more prized than such times in the lives of those who know nothing besides happiness. 

Recently, the Gallup organization released poll results quantifying the well-being of every state in the US (and every congressional district within each state).  The sample was a large one—over 330,000 adults, all interviewed by phone.  According to Gallup, the greatest well-being can be found in Utah, with Hawaii and Wyoming close behind.   And who was lowest?  The mountaineers of West Virginia.  The map at the Gallup site shows that all of the 10 lowest ranking states are contiguous with each other, with tenth-from-the-bottom Michigan being the northernmost member of this band of misery, third-from-the-bottom Mississippi being the southernmost member, and West Virginia and eighth-from-the-bottom Oklahoma being easternmost and westernmost, respectively.  Tables available at the AHIP-Hi-Wire site reveal that my state of residence, North Carolina, is 34th  among the 50 states in terms of well-being, and my congressional district ranks 299th out of 435 districts nationwide.  That’s pretty low, but it could have been worse: a few years ago I moved from North Carolina’s 7th congressional district (ranking 418), and I grew up in Michigan’s 5th district (coming in at 420).  According to the table, the folks here in NC-2 should be giddy by comparison (actually, I hadn’t noticed a difference). 

The well-being index is actually a composite of six different sub-indexes: Life Satisfaction, Workplace Environment, Healthy Behavior, Basic Access (including clean water; medical care; safe places to exercise; and money for food shelter, and healthcare), Physical Health (including sick days, pain, energy, and BMI), and Emotional Health.  Only two of these sub-indexes are based on questions that can be thought of as directly measuring happiness.  In particular, the Life Satisfaction index had each respondent rate on a 10-point scale her current life situation and what she anticipated her life situation would be in five years.  The other indicator of happiness, Emotional Health, asked whether the respondent had been diagnosed with depression, followed by questions about whether he had experienced smiling or laughter, enjoyment, happiness, worry, sadness, anger, stress, and a few other similar events the day before the interview.  For the most part, then, the Emotional Health Index is a self-report of whether daily life is experienced positively or negatively.

Happiness Haven

Happiness Haven

When the statewide scores on the two sub-indexes that directly measure happiness are compared, Hawaii is first on both of them.  Hawaiians win the happiness derby going away!  Interestingly, Hawaii ranks dead last among the fifty states on the Workplace Environment Index.  That index has to do with satisfaction with one’s job, trusting one’s employer, and being able to use one’s strengths at work.  For many of us, work is so central to our lives that it is hard to imagine being happy without some degree of work satisfaction.  Apparently the Hawaiians don’t see work that way, though.

At the other end of the statewide ratings, the West Virginians are not only lowest on the overall well-being index, but score lowest on the two sub-indexes that relate directly to happiness. Of the six sub-indexes, they are above average on only one—the Workplace Environment Index.  Once again, work and overall life satisfaction don’t seem all that closely related.   Studs Terkel, are you listening?

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