February 09, 2009

I must wonder at anyone in the business of economic forecasting who still retains the ability to be shocked by the latest numbers. At this point in time, having access to presumably better financial data than I, the only surprise ought to be if numbers are somehow significantly better than forecast: since it would indicate that the credit-consumer confidence-unemployment feedback cycle has finally spiralled to a new point of balance, and thus that the depression is coming close to an end.

To think that such bottoming out is already close to happening speaks to me more of wishful thinking than of any objective observation. Me, I don't think we are even close, not yet, not for another five years -- although for the last year or two, we might start to even out.

(If you think this painful, consider that a very real alternative to economic depression, here and now, had been hyperinflation. We were drifting very close to it for a time. Why do we assume we are somehow immune to the economic and societal extremes?)

It is ironic that we would recognise this pattern at once in another's dating behaviour. We even have a formal psychological term for it, "avoidant attachment style", where attitudes toward social relationship (and thus outcomes of attempted social relationships) are characterised by a lack of trust. We know, in the abstract and in other people from whom we can detach emotionally, that such lack of trust is one of the hardest handicaps to overcome. Yet, as in so many other things, we seem unable to see exactly the same patterns when they are our own.

(Most of the things I write about have formal psychological terms attached to them, along with a great deal of experimental support linked to those terms. Yet were I to use them with any more frequency than I already do, this blog would become only so much more psychobabble cluttering up the Internet -- and what is the point of that?)

There is a survival mechanism in our personal psychology that usually requires us to see the world as more favourable to us than it really is. I sometimes think I have spent the better part of my life learning how to see things as they are without sinking into that depression, working on the premise that nothing is perfect, that non zero sum improvement is always a desirable thing, and that we can't improve what we refuse to see. I know it can be done, if there is a will.

(Psychology has not found it yet, but I suspect that a solid test for clinical depression will eventually come out of the gap between overall accuracy in self-assessment and accuracy only in assessing those situations which are not under the individual's total control -- and in the inverse of that same gap, perhaps, resides the conundrum of the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

Yet when I speak what I see and it is not unequivocably positive, I am still met with a vehement resistance that shouts of defensiveness and of a hidden fear that must not be faced. It seems that to be acceptable to others I must speak only positive or not at all: and lately even that the acceptability of others within the in-group is measured against their willingness to hear and rebut what I have to say. I even know of one promotion at least partly on that basis: and that is all I can say about it without jeopardising the person's self-image and opening up a new and truly nasty can of worms. The mechanics of it are not dissimilar to those of affirmative action, along with all the associated baggage were it to be seen too clearly.

And yet there has never been any shortage of yes-sayers, so "Yes" is seen quite clearly enough without my adding to it and thereby adding to the illusion of absolute, unquestioning consensus. It is amazing, the amount of energy and time and logical fallacies people are willing to invest in calling the current state of things the best of all possible outcomes.

Which leads to interesting questions about the nature of happiness.

We use the term so very loosely, I should first make some kind of distinction between different types of what is called happiness. The first, call it a radiant joy, is often relegated to the realms of first loves, profound spiritual experiences, and other overwhelmingly positive emotional experiences. It is a rare and beautiful thing, which perhaps adds to its wonder and its specialness. Once experienced, it colours one's life forever. But it is also an overwhelmingly personal thing, and so it is almost never considered when attempting to measure the relative happiness of different people and different societies.

"Happiness" is also used as synonymous with contentment, the degree to which we are at peace with ourselves. This is sometimes assumed to be the same as being equally at peace with the current state of our social and physical environments: which leads to the secondary assumption that contentment cannot co-exist with a drive for improvement. In those studies where happiness quotients are corrected for consumer wealth and where Buddhist monks seem continually to come out on top, I suspect it is this kind of happiness which is being measured.

The third emotion which we often name "happiness" is the filling of various needs and wants. This one perhaps is the most ephemeral of all. It stops in briefly when a want or need has been satisfied, and then flees almost at once as the next want or need is identified. When we learn to measure in this way, we will also find that there will always be another want or need -- manufactured, if so many of our existing needs and wants have already been filled that we cannot quickly enough think of another for ourselves. In those studies where consumer societies are identified as measuring highest on happiness indices, I suspect it is this kind of happiness which is being measured.

(Once we become dependant on wants that have been manufactured for us -- which happens very quickly, we are very lazy thinkers and even more reluctant to examine our own motives too closely -- it is a very small step to constantly feeling out of sorts with the world, feeling that somewhere out there is the answer to all our unhappiness, did we but know what it was. ... And now you might begin to guess my true reasons, having nothing to do with conservative protection of the free market or liberal seeking of accountability or socialist desire to bring under government control or libertarian desire to eradicate all governmental restrictions, for opposing corporate subsidy where there can be no corresponding corporate societal responsibility, only fiscal responsibility to stockholders.)

This last kind of happiness is sometimes confused with contentment, in that we think ourselves content when all our needs and wants have been filled: but contentment actually stands entirely apart from the need/want hamster wheel and focuses only on self-discrepancy.

To constantly yea-say, to constantly seek acceptance through consensus, to constantly deny that things could stand improvement, are all aspects of seeking contentment by deliberately closing one's eyes to those things which don't fit, and quickly hammering them down when they so rudely force themselves upon awareness. To borrow a phrase from the 1990's: "Dude, you are interrupting my Zen."

Yet in this day and age, it seems almost criminal to me that we might choose to pursue our own happiness at the expense of others. We can only get away with it at all by clinging to a firm belief that things should be different, and above all by avoiding thinking of those others as real people. I could never be content, knowing I had stood by and watched in silence while my lack of speaking supported a narrow frame of want-fulfillment built on a foundation which takes away from others.

Because I speak, seeing just as readily from the perspective of those others as from that of what people assume to be my in-group, many look at my actions and think that I must be a deeply unhappy person: because why else wouldn't I want to accept the tightly localised positives as they are and leave it there?

Why, indeed?

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