In response to JD Roth’s “The death of Anthony Bourdain: Thoughts on productivity, pleasure, and depression”

I’m doing a 3 hour workshop on Financial Freedom at World Domination Summit next week with my new friend JD Roth. I'm excited: he’s a big reason why I teach Financial Freedom. Indeed I didn’t know I had had saved enough money to "retire"until I attended his and Mr Money Mustache's WDS workshop in 2015 and did the math on my finances. Our workshop is 9am to noon on Thursday, June 28th, in downtown Portland. For more info (or to register), you should go here. (Please note: Although there’s a nominal fee to attend this presentation, JD and I aren’t paid, we’re doing this as a gift to the community. WDS is mostly volunteer run, which is part of the magic of the event)

JD runs a fantastic FIRE (financial independence, retiring early) website at getrichslowly.com. I suggest subscribing to his weekly email newsletters, it'll help you keep financial literacy in your inbox. Last week he posted a heartfelt essay called “The death of Anthony Bourdain: Thoughts on productivity, pleasure, and depression” and it's been on my mind ever since. It’s worth reading the whole thing for the deeper issues of how American society expresses the human condition and how that shows up in our relationship with money.

The Productivity Trap

In it, JD talks about the Productivity Trap, linking to a HBS essay “If you’re so successful, how come you’re working 70 hours a week?”  As I mentioned briefly in my previous blog post that my ten-week trip around the world gave me a new perspective about American culture. Here’s one thing that I thought a lot: The people I saw around the world lived more leisurely, widely spaced lives. In comparison, Americans are really busy. Do you feel busy? Americans tend to pack as many things into a day as possible: a job, a workout, seeing friends, meditation, a hobby. It’s a very full life. Perhaps too full?

In the course, we talk about lagom, the Swedish word that is roughly translated to enough. To the Swedes, lagom is better than too much: lagom food is better than overeating, a lagom social life is better than having too many engagements. It’s a mellower, more contained life.

With work specifically, the struggle is two-fold. Job insecurity is one reason Americans work harder and longer than we have in a century. But there’s another, more subtle reason: the demand that our careers provide purpose and identity for our lives. So many of us derive so much meaning from our careers: our work is supposed to express what we cared about, or as Parker Palmer writes "lets your life speak." "Do what you love" is another common phrase. But that attitude, obviously privileged and bourgois, has a shadow side: the subject (and quality) of your work is a reflection of you and how you express yourself in the world. When our self-esteem, status, and sense of personhood are tied to what we do for work, how can we not feel stressed? If you read the HBS article, you'll see how corporate culture takes advantage of that too. There are plenty of platitudes of “You are not your job” and “You are not what you do” but I don't think Americans, particularly those with education and status, truly believe that. I mean, is what you do for 8 hours a day important to you? Does it take a big chunk of your intellectual and emotional energy? 

The Pleasure Trap

JD continues with writing about the “pleasure trap,” our desire for “experiences” like travel over crass commercialism and the purchase of “things.” All of Instagram culture is predicated on the display of experiences, it's the social currency of educated urban Americans. Anthony Bourdain’s immense popularity was based on performance of “authenticity” and “experience,” we could experience different foods, cultures, and conversations through him and try to emulate them ourselves. But, as JD's essay posits “... in many ways, collecting experiences is no better (nor any different) than collecting things.”

I absolutely agree with that. After traveling around the world, I consumed the experience of other cultures (which are increasingly catering to tourists instead of locals and thus becoming increasingly homogenous, but that’s a topic for another day) and I’m not permanently better or happier than before. Or better or happier than any of the people I met who would probably never travel to see me. It reminds me of my friend Harsha, who, after doing a 10 day silent meditation retreat, told me he didn’t feel magically changed by the experience in any long-lasting way. They are just experiences and experiences, compared to the long drip of daily living, are ephemeral sensations.

I know it’s contrarian and perhaps a little aggravating for me to tell you that the purchase and consumption of experiences aren’t important or worth spending money on. JD writes "a meaningful life doesn’t consist of a series of cool experiences, or traveling or eating cool stuff… It may be the opposite — the continuity and free-time to invest in loving relationships may actually be the key to happiness." While I agree, I would go one step further: I don't think that happiness is something we should be pursuing.

Back to American fundamental beliefs, we believe in the “pursuit of happiness.” It's in our founding document. Read that again: the pursuit of happiness. Doesn't constantly pursuing something sound exhausting? Doesn't constantly reaching for something make us uncentered? If we’re always wanting, are we ever settled? Do we ever catch happiness and possess it? I’m reminded of a quote from Eknath Easwaran:

To enjoy anything, we cannot be attached to it. William Blake understood this beautifully: He who binds to himself a Joy, Doth the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the Joy as it flies / Lives in Eternity’s sunrise. What we usually try to do is capture any joy that comes our way before it can escape. We have our butterfly net and go after the joy like a hunter stalking his prey. We hide and wait, pounce on it, catch it, and take it home to put on our wall. When our friends come to visit, we say, “Hey, Stu, would you like to see my joy?” There it is on the wall - dead. We try to cling to pleasure, but all we succeed in doing is making ourselves frustrated because, whatever it promises, pleasure simply cannot last. But if I am willing to kiss the joy as it flies, I say, ‘Yes, this moment is beautiful. I won’t grab it. I’ll let it go.’

Happiness is a feeling. When it becomes the goal, we run into problems. I think the insistence that we always need to be happy is paradoxically a source of discontent. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, "Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you." We can’t always expect to be happy anymore we can expect to always feel full. If we do, we’ll always be disappointed. That’s the paradox of why Danes are the “happiest people in the world,” they, humorously, have the lowest expectations. I thought a lot about that as I met people on my trip: their demands on life were so much less than mine, and because of that, they could live with less.

 chatting with my seatmateOn a bus to lake kivu, rwanda.

chatting with my seatmateOn a bus to lake kivu, rwanda.

Happiness, Depression, and Peace

In my 30s, I read all the books about the science of happiness. Pursued all the things: meaningful relationships, meaningful career, and sense of purpose. Did the yoga and the meditation. At the same time, I was living through a extended, multi-year stretch of depression. At the time, the depression felt unrelenting and I didn’t know if it would ever end. And then it gradually went away. Without me noticing, that oppressive blanket slowly withdrew. Depression is a complex topic and I don’t know how it went away for me (my guess is that as I got older, my hormones changed), but I know that all my attempts at pursuing happiness didn’t alleviate my condition. 

Here on the other side, the thing I’ve found is a sense of inner peace and contentment. In many ways, I spent most of my adult life trying to be good, trying to make the world better. But I’ve come to believe that the desire for “goodness” in both me and the world around me, meant by definition dissatisfaction in me and in the world around me. I was looking at what was wrong and wishing it were better, i.e. more of something else. There is that word more again. It was when I realized that the world was enough, even with Trump, even with poverty, even with loneliness, could I find peace. Being at peace with myself and world, as it is, is the sum of all my wisdom, of anything I could ever impart. 

So what does this have to do about money? Well, everything. We live in a society where literally hundreds of billions of dollars are spent triggering the feeling that we are not enough and with the purchase and consumption of things or experiences, we can be different and better. This is not a conspiracy theory. That's how marketing and advertising professionals explicitly describe their jobs. Financial freedom is taking an active stance away from that. As we talk about in the course, the inner belief in enough vs. more is a spiritual condition. Our external actions, and specifically, how we spend our money, are expressions of our internal worlds. The productivity and pleasure traps and our relentless pursuit of happiness are expressions of an internal yearning for something deeper: esteem and status in our lives, or avoidance of uncomfortable feelings we don't like. Doing the internal work to address that is more sustainable (and cheaper) than anything else. Unless we do that, nothing else works. 

Many thanks to JD Roth for his essay. Come see us at WDS on Thursday.