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I dumped ice water on myself today

The first two paragraphs here are excerpted from a previous post, 16 Messy Miles:

 “Hey man, you’ve got a sweet red beard!” On the heels of a phone call, the words and face of a friendly stranger welcomed me back to the reality of my physical surroundings.  He knew what he was doing, but he didn’t know what chord he’d struck.  As a youngest child preceded by two red-haired siblings, my brown hair always made me feel slightly disconnected.  My red beard then, ties me back to my family roots, and more than that, is a part of my identity.  Though he couldn’t have read this, he certainly did read my “Habitat for Humanity” t-shirt and he certainly did know what he was doing as we proceeded into conversation.  I quickly learned that he had an agenda; he was a recruiter (or perhaps more aptly, a salesman) for Save the Children.
 I tried to fight against him: I’m a college student on a strict budget. Furthermore, I’m a follower of Christ and a leader in my community; I give my time and life to good causes.  I don’t need to help his cause; I’ve got enough problems of my own.  But thinking back, I wasn’t fighting him.  I was fighting against the image I projected of myself.  I am a red-bearded, habitat for humanity shirt wearing, non-profit interning, globally minded, Jesus loving, sacrifice-myself-for-the-betterment-of-others-in-all-situations kind of guy, at least in my own mind.  So he didn’t need to convince me to believe in him, he just had to convince me to believe in myself.  That’s all that was necessary to get me to spend money I didn’t have for a cause I didn’t fully understand on an organization whose business I hadn’t fully investigated.

This story came from an experience I had walking around downtown Seattle. The recruiter in this case won: I donated to his cause, and I’m sure he got a cut of it. I tell you this story though not to knock Save the Children, I’m sure they do a lot of good work with the money they do get, but to explain what happened afterward. You see, the recruiter had gotten me to do something that I hadn’t wanted to do; I left my conversation with him filled with so much buyer’s remorse that I went home, researched the organization, riled myself up about how wasteful they were going to be with my money (whether or not this was really true, I certainly felt it), and called to cancel my donation. Instead of feeling like I had given my money to a cause I support, I felt instead that I was the victim of conniving manipulation and peer pressure.  I believe wholeheartedly that we should be freely giving of both our time and our money, but I also believe that altruism is best when it comes from a place of understanding and sincerity, and that long-term, sustainable change is more likely to come through the harder struggles of relationships and work in the trenches. Continue Reading »

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As I referenced in my Back to the Basics post exploring poverty, one of the formative experiences in my life was a mission trip to Costa Rica where I did very little to aid the people of Costa Rica, but they did much to help me.  It was there that I first witnessed in a radical way the potential for disconnect between income and happiness or gratitude.  Some of the happiest and most gracious people I have ever met have lived in trailers, dirt-floor homes, and homeless shelters.

Because of this, it has always been slightly disconcerting to me as an economics student that my academic discipline is based partially on the relationship between money and utility (a measure of happiness or satisfaction) and the principle that “more is always better.” While I have never purported that there is no relationship between money and happiness or that “less is always better,”  my life experiences have taught me that there are often much more important things for my own personal satisfaction in life than just my wealth or possessions. I believe that most economists, if you asked them about their personal experiences, would say the exact same thing as me, and yet we continue to religiously watch the daily rise and fall of the stock market, hold up per capita GDP as the primary barometer for our country’s health, and read sensationalist articles telling us that “Money Can Buy Happiness.”

Thankfully, there is a growing movement to promote alternatives to GDP (Such as: the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Human Development Index, the Ecological Footprint, The Happy Planet Index, and Gross National Happiness), and many before me have given this movement ammunition by studying well-being at both personal and national levels.  A good synopsis of the breadth of research on this topic can be found in Alois Stutzer and Bruno S. Frey’s report here. It has been pretty widely established by now that the relationship between per capita GDP and a country’s well-being (as measured by subjective surveys) is logarithmic, that is, countries see dramatic increases in well-being as GDP initially rises, but each further increase in GDP brings about progressively smaller increases in well-being.  This makes sense; a five dollar bill is worth less to a millionaire than a beggar. The following chart from Ronald Inglehart (simplistically) further illustrates this transition: that after basic needs are met through economic growth, individuals do not see as much gain in well-being from improvements in income and “Non-economic aspects of life become increasingly important influences on how long, and how well, people live.” Lifestyle vs SurvivalAs a resident of a world where very few people have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, this economic-to-lifestyle transition felt very real to me.  Inglehart’s hypothesis seemed true to my own life experiences, but I didn’t just want trust his word.   For my senior economics thesis, I decided to build upon this hypothesis and the research reviewed above, seeing what the data had to say to either confirm or deny what was instinctively true to me.

While I was slightly limited by my lack of a PhD or access to any data that wasn’t free, my research was subject to critique by both my peers and superiors and, I believe, representative of the highest achievable academic quality at the undergraduate level. I began by analyzing whether there really was a difference between high and low-income countries in terms of what makes their citizens happiest.  Setting $8,500 in per capita GDP as the cutoff point between low and high-income, I found that there were indeed massive differences between the two groups.  The 5 most important variables for the collective well-being of a low-income country were:

1. Subjective Assessment of  Individual Health

2. Level of Freedom of Choice and Control

3. Lack of Materialistic Priorities

4. Per Capita GDP

5. A Low Unemployment Rate.

For High-Income Countries, the top 5 were:

1. Subjective Assessment of Individual Health

2. Lack of Materialistic Priorities

3. Importance Given to Leisure Time

4. Level of Confidence in “the churches”

5. Having Fewer Working Hours

While subjective assessments of health and levels of materialism remained important in all countries, the other 3 variables for each group were markedly distinct from each other.  This result seemed to justify my decision to look more selectively at just high-income countries for analyzing national well-being, as most previous analyses had lumped all countries together for their tests.

As I analyzed this subset of countries further, I explored many different questions and came away with two more observations that are worthy of sharing here. The first was that while increases in GDP do still result in increased well-being among high income countries, this effect is overshadowed by the more important 5 factors shown above. Furthermore, it almost entirely disappears when the decreases in unemployment and annual working hours that typically accompany GDP are taken into account.  This suggests that if we really want to increase our well-being as a country, we ought to decrease our average working hours per person, allowing for more leisure time and more employment.  The second observation had to do with our views on the government’s role in environmental protection.  It seems that there is a stark contrast between those who are willing to spend personal income for environmental protection and those who would like the government to do so.  Citizens willing to spend their personal incomes typically reside in less wealthy countries that place more emphasis on leisure time, while citizens encouraging their government to stop pollution typically reside in higher income countries with lower ecological footprints and less trust among the population.

Overall, I must say that while not everything turned out exactly as I expected, my research did little to sway the priorities that I had learned from life prior to my semester of statistical analysis.  Whether we look at psychological studies, econometric analysis, or personal experience, it seems that if we really want to be happier both individually and collectively, we must follow Christ’s example: ensure that the poor, widowed, and orphaned have the basics they need for survival; realize that finding sufficiency in a job, money, or material possessions is an ultimately hollow pursuit; and cultivate strong relationships that engender trust with those around us as a Church body united in Christ.

My full paper is available for free download here

 

As a sometimes leader and frequent participant of discussion and community-based groups, I’ve been subjected to many a “Get To Know You” or “Team Building” exercise. While these have been most common in the church and school groups that I have been a part of, you probably all know the drill: “Go around the room and tell us your name, occupation, and one fun fact about yourself,” or, “Let’s all do ‘Trust Falls‘ and bond with each other hope no one gets hurt!”  These activities can often lead to a few fun moments and conversations, but I’ve often found them lacking and superficial.  In my experience, forming community requires getting to know the people around you on a deeper level, and, second only to shared experience, the key to learning about a person is knowing what questions to ask.

Knowing that questions are important is one thing, but knowing what questions to ask has been, for me, quite another.  Fortunately for me, one of the guys I lived with in Seattle was a crazy North Carolinian who had (and still has) a beard long enough to match his list of eclectic ideas and interests.  He had struggled with some of the same questions as me, and lived out some possible answers: If strong relationships are forged in the places where we are challenged to get outside of ourselves and step into a new place together, are there questions to be asked in conversations that can take us through this process?  How can we find common ground with people from diverse backgrounds  to see each other as kindred spirits struggling to make a place in this world just as we are?  His response to these questions was pretty adventurous and at the same time very simple: why don’t we just put a bunch of people from different backgrounds in a room together and start asking each other questions?

When my wife and I decided to start hosting some of our own dinners to get to know our community better, I consulted him on what worked for him, and what didn’t.  After getting his suggestions, we tried out a few that we liked, added some, and modified others.  I’ve found the prompting questions he gave me to be very helpful both in getting to know others and learning about myself.  I’ve also had several friends who liked them so much they asked for their own copy of my list.  So, I’d like to share them with you today, but before I do, I must make one stipulation: these questions should be asked within the context of a “social contract.”

The idea of a social contract, originally based on theories about government, is that within certain social situations, participants are implicitly agreeing to cooperate to achieve a collective benefit.  What I mean by the use of this term, then, is that these questions must be asked in the context of a group where participants have at least somewhat bought in to the idea of going beyond the superficial, opening up, and doing it together, because this really isn’t about the questions, it’s about the thoughts, conversations, and actions that can flow from them.  

Without further ado, here are the questions, in roughly normal to intense order:

1. What is something you learned recently that blew your mind?

2. What would be the first rule of your own island?

3. If your mind was a room, what would it look like?

4. What non-physical characteristic of the opposite sex do you find most attractive?

5. If you could do anything in public without being judged, what would you do?

6. If you could be instantly given the skills to do anything as a career, what would you choose?

7. What are one or two experiences/events in your life that have impacted and shaped you the most?

8. When do you/have you felt most connected to your creativity and/or spirituality?

9. If you could soapbox to the U.S. and/or world about anything, what would it be?

10.  If there was a photo of you that described your whole life, what would you be doing in it?

If you have ideas for other questions to start meaningful conversations, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Slow Hobbies

428 Days.

In that time I have accomplished much. I: survived the end of the Mayan calendar,* wrote a 12-page paper exploring the intersection between Degrowth economics and development in the global south, ate an entire Munchies 420 “Fat Daddy” in one sitting, rang in the New Year twice, got engaged, pulled all-nighters learning the ins and outs of CERCLA, brushed my teeth a lot, flossed a lot less, wrote  a 26 page senior thesis, tried to learn Spanish and failed, moved to Indianapolis, spent my days researching things like “traded clusters,” “all appropriate inquiries,” and “The Flood of 1913,” spent my nights passing off wedding planning to my now wife, married said wife, accidentally made my wife fall in love with Goshen, IN, got stranded in Florida when the Midwest was experiencing record cold, shoveled 4 cars out of snow in one day as God’s retribution for my time in Florida, and finally, moved to North Carolina.

In that time I have not accomplished: the writing of a blog post.  I’ve jotted down ideas, I’ve written down tangents to be pursued later, and I’ve even started a few drafts, but nothing has quite come to fruition.  My blogging has been nothing short of utter failure.  So why has this happened?  The answer I’d like to propose is that blogging, at least reflective blogging, is a “Slow Hobby,” and I haven’t yet acquired the requisite slowness to do it properly.

The Lessons of My Eldersphoto (8)

Perhaps the type of slowness to which I refer can be best articulated through the example of my grandparents.  As my wife and I were visiting them recently I found myself reflecting on the ways they spend their free time.  Sure, they watch television, visit family, and read books like the rest of us, but they each have a particular hobby that is in my own life unparalleled.

My grandfather makes intricate dollhouses.  He buys them as kits with just the wood paneling to be put together, and then he assembles them and decorates them.  It may be an exercise in woodworking, but it is much more an exercise in detail and deliberation.  He will put together little pieces of furniture, paint their facades, and cover their roofs, shingle by tiny shingle.  The result is not grand, but it is beautiful in its own way.  When the great-grandchildren come over to play with the creation their great-grandpa has made, I wonder, is the beauty of his work lost on them?  Too often, I wonder, is this beauty lost on me as well?

My grandmother makes quilts.  She buys them as flat patterns on cloth, stuffs them, and makes them come alive through her stitching.  She makes them for others.  She has 6 children and 14 grandchildren, and she’s made a quilt for each of them.  The projects take many weeks, often several months at a time, but she’s made so many that she’s going around a second time.  This is in addition to the countless quilts and dollhouses that my grandparents have donated to auctions for causes of need.  They make them for others… but I think they really make them for themselves.

It is this kind of dedication to extensive, somewhat tedious tasks that I and maybe many others in my generation have yet to discover.  It is this kind of commitment to the process of carrying out tasks that are not required of us which I propose to call “Slow Hobbies.”  Continue Reading »

A Motion Towards Local Action

This post doesn’t quite fit into my “Back to the Basics” series, as it isn’t broad enough, but I wanted to comment on it nonetheless.  Mustard Seed Associates, where I interned this summer, posted this video the other day:

First, let me make this clear: I am not an anarchist.  I think that the government plays a valuable and important role.  However, although I disagree with him on that point, I think that he has a lot of important and challenging points to make in this video, and I think it ties into my previous post on poverty as well.

One of the points I made about poverty is that it is intensely personal.  As such is the case, it has to be solved in the messiness of personal interactions.  So, while I don’t advocate abolishing the government, I think there is absolutely something to be said for living life without relying on it.

The reality of life is that no matter what issue we are addressing, no matter what policy or legislation or social movement we consider, when it really comes down to it, it is dealing with people.  And people aren’t straightforward, easy to solve, or all the same.  Principles are all well and good until they interact with conflicting stories; strategies are excellent until they actually must be applied to messy situations.

So, I’ve come to believe that I can’t save the world. I can’t really effect apt change unless I actually know the problem and the people it affects.  For this reason (among others, which I may mention at another time) I am, in general, a proponent of localization.  Because if I really want to change the world, I can’t actually begin by changing the whole world.  What I can change, is how I live my life, how I interact with others, and the actions I take to solve the problems in my own local context.

A photo with children and friends at an orphanage, taken on my trip to Costa Rica

One of my favorite stories to tell is from my time in Costa Rica.  A sheltered high school kid, my first experience in a non-western culture was a 13 day mission trip to Costa Rica during Christmas Break of my junior year.  Though I had been exposed to it in limited ways before, this trip was also my first full-fledged encounter with material insufficiency.  Dirt floor houses, improper sanitation, overused water supplies, all were novelties to me.  You could say that this trip was my enlightenment, my discovery of what true poverty looks like, and you’d be right.  I found poverty during my trip to Costa Rica.  But the poverty I found wasn’t Costa Rican; the poverty I found was American. Continue Reading »

Back to the Basics: Intro

August 29th, how long ago you were.  That’s the last time I’ve posted anything here, and I’m not too happy about it.  It seems this happens every year though. I post like crazy during the summer, and then as soon as school starts, I lose my ability to manage time and it takes me a few months to get things under control, before I can resume posting.  Well, I’m here to announce that I have things under control again! (Hopefully, no guarantees.)

Introducing… a new series! I’ve been tossing around a number of post ideas for the past few weeks now, and it occurred to me that all of my inspirations had to do with my views on broader concepts in life.  Therefore, my new series will be entitled, “Back to the Basics,” and it is meant to be an exploration of the definitions and functions we attribute to these various broader aspects of life.  Specifically, I will hope to be putting words to some of my ideas and philosophies about some of the misconceptions that our society may have in these areas.  Potential topics could include: Poverty, Economy, Health, the Environment, Work, Happiness, etc…  I’m looking forward to it!  Of course, as a disclaimer, I won’t be proclaiming to know everything about the world, or everything in it, but I do hope to provide an interesting take on some of these issues, one that you may or may not have heard before.  Feel free to provide feedback, discussions, or expletive-laced verbal assaults on my personal character at any point along the way.

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