On Money and Happiness

seedling growing from a pile of coins.

Is it grotesque to want to make mountains of money? I’m a female, so generally, I’ve been socialized to respond: Ew, gross. Wanting and talking about money is yuck. What’s worse, I’m the white and privileged kind. That doesn’t seem fair. So here I am, being rich already, and plotting ways to try to get even more. I guess some important questions to ask might be: how rich am I and what do I want to do with all that extra money?

For starters, I am sofa king rich.  I have four toilets. Four! Do you know how many toilets the average person has? Zero. That’s right, 60% of the world’s population owns zero toilets. Almost a quarter of all schools in the world also have zero toilets. And I am sitting around with four. I don’t even use them all. I just have them. What else? Our family of five lives in a 4000sq ft. house. That is ridiculous. We each have about 800 sq ft. to stretch into (except that we all magically pile into the same location at the same time and fight over the same chair–as if we didn’t even need all that extra space). Each one of us has more independent space than the average-sized family home worldwide,  which packs considerably more family members in, offering less than 100 square feet per person. So, here we are sitting around with all our toilets and square footage. What else? Let’s see. We have money saved for our children’s college tuition, we have retirement savings, and I have a pension coming my way if I’m able to work another decade and change. I make $75,000 a year for a job in which I set the majority of my own hours. That’s about double the amount psychologists think prevents unhappiness due to real financial stressors (like the kind that lead to food and shelter insecurity, not the kind that has you worrying about the brand of your sneakers and zip code). I’m a college professor so some of my ‘hard work’ includes sitting around thinking or reading or writing or listening or talking. I mean, I can’t complain. Also, I love to travel. That’s about the extent of my richness. I have safety, security, and opportunity. Hence, my thesis: things are pretty grand here is privileged white female land. Except for that nagging detail of still having a human brain. 

Generally, things are going along fine, except they aren’t. I already have it all. Why can’t I just be happy? Because we humans can’t truly enjoy what we have, when others have not. According to the World Happiness Index, the gap between rich and poor is an important metric used to determine population-level happiness. So, the wider the gap, the less happy a country would be. It comes as no surprise then, that the U.S. is less happy compared to most other developed nations. We are more happy than countries with less freedom, more war, and more endemic poverty/population explosions. I mean, we are fine, but we are also a little meh. We have most of the ingredients for happiness, but this inequality thing brings us all down.

The way I see it, we have three options here in the US. The first is to pretend inequality doesn’t exist. This is a popular one. It’s pretty easy to do. The only downside is that all you get in return is pretend happiness. The second is to notice inequality exists and then decide you are too powerless to do anything about it. This leads to unhappiness and feels only slightly better than pretend happiness. The third option is to become aware that both you and inequality exist as part of a larger system in which you are an actor, there are no audience members. Donella Meadows, genius scientist, explains that as individuals, we can’t ever hope to control ‘the system’, but once we are willing to figure out how it works, we can learn how to work within it—steer it in a certain direction.  

Here is the current reality as I see it: We live in a society where unequal opportunity exists. ‘Opportunity begets opportunity’ says economist John Heckman. All systems need a balancing mechanism to restore harmony in situations where non-linear growth occurs. A less fancy-pants way of saying it would be when one team has an advantage that leads to more advantages, the game is inevitably rigged and things predictably spiral out of control. Think Monopoly when one person owns all the hotels. Speaking of Monopoly, it used to be called the Landlord’s Game with two versions, the one we know today, which warned of the dangers of concentrations of power, and the other, which had balancing mechanisms in place so that everybody wins. The message that winners don’t require losers to win got lost in translation. What’s the incentive, really, to balance out the system if you are already winning? Most bloody revolutions are a consequence of inequality reaching unsustainable levels. The folks who were ‘winning’ tend to find themselves without heads and whatnot. 

As I was saying, option three is to do something about it. If everyone and everything is connected, whether we like it or not, then it doesn’t really matter where we start. Here are some things I care about: Regenerating the natural environment to mitigate massive climate change, providing equal access to opportunities for learning, destigmatizing all the things we label ‘mental health conditions’, and ending mass incarceration. That last one is a pretty obvious low hanging fruit. It actually costs more money and emotion to stay the same. 

A brilliant friend of mine, let’s call him Byron, suggested I open a subversive forest school. It’s not a bad idea. He and I met when he was a student and I was his teacher in a juvenile detention setting. So we both know a little something about unequal access to opportunities for learning and stigmatization. While I was a teacher of ‘the bad kids’, I was gobsmacked by the truly brilliant and compassionate minds that came through there and then graduated on to jail. 

My impression was that they saw exactly how the system operates and, as children, felt powerless to effect change. It’s pretty terrifying to watch all the adults walking around like zombies, habituated to the injustices playing on repeat in the background. Sadly, peers are no source of comfort at that age because they are usually confused and think pretend happiness is the goal. So, these brilliant young minds, misunderstood and underestimated, start collecting labels like ‘emotionally handicapped’ and decide, well fuck it. Imagine that. Being called crazy for acknowledging the larger reality in which we live. By the people pursuing pretend happiness. 

Ok, so what can I do about this? My original plan was to become a carbon farmer (a person who grows vegetation for the purposes of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere) and employer of criminals. The brilliant and compassionate kind who have trouble securing meaningful employment with a record. I imagine we would both benefit from that transaction. That seemed like enough life to me. Then Byron comes along with this subversive forest school idea. I wish he hadn’t said that. Obvs, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, all the economists know that. But it also sounds like a lot of work. I’ve been a teacher for a long time and being the receiver of emotional pain is energy intensive. Growing uncomplicated and non-verbal trees sounds easier. On the other hand, this imaginary forest school allows me to indulge in all sorts of perfectionist fantasies. For example, say this subversive education occurs in a carbon-neutral, zero-waste facility with a permaculture garden and chickens and bamboo forests. That sounds fun. It’s also starting to sound expensive. I’d probably need a whole lot of money to pull it off. 

This is what Donella means by learning how to work within the system. We live in a society where money represents stored energy. I have a lot of things I want to do, so I’m going to need a lot of energy. Even if I were just a computer, and not a human with emotions, this plan makes excellent sense. Let’s start with the carbon farm. I live in Charleston, South Carolina. I’m sitting in one of the most fertile and productive fiber baskets in the world. I think land may increase in value as we convert to wind and solar. And timber will emerge as a hot commodity, in place of concrete and coal. So, it’s not like I’m Polly-Annaing my way into saving the planet. If you think about long-term investment strategies, I’d stand to profit financially, with relatively low risk versus reward. But that’s like Stage Three, and we are still in Stage One. 

Next up: my unique human resources strategy as employer of ‘criminals’, the brilliant and compassionate kind. Okay, are all these criminals our society has created brilliant and compassionate? No they are not. By definition, gifted people are in the minority across all settings. That’s how standard deviations work. Gifted people with access to their emotions are even rarer, but they are worth finding. Everybody wins. I’d have all that brain power working with me and very low turnover, on account of the limited options for employment elsewhere. Besides, there are worse fates than growing trees and communing with nature in exchange for money. 

But what are the chances, really, that some highly talented person is going to find themselves in jail? Statistically speaking, I won’t have to try that hard. Students identified as gifted (scoring above the 95%ile) still dropout of high school, self-medicate via substance abuse, find themselves pregnant or in jail. Being gifted doesn’t protect you from life, it intensifies your experience of it. Which is why gifted kids can be such a pain to teach. They don’t want to do the worksheet because they don’t see the point in it–in the grand scheme of things–and they are often right. School can get pretty boring. So, a student might create a rich inner life or act on their environment to combat understimulation. I really hate feeling bored, so I get this. Anyways, they decide school is not for them and then suffer the same consequences as everybody else who drops out of high school. Steven Levitt, another economist, calls dropping out of high school ‘an economic death sentence’. Without a high school diploma you are simply more likely to be a drain on society rather than a contributing member—put another way, you’ll be at the bottom of the equality game. Except that you also have overwhelming insight into all the ways in which the rules are stacked against you. This leads some people to justify cheating, to level the playing field so to speak. It leads other people to give up on trying to play the game at all. What a waste of talent and potential. 

For a variety of reasons, South Carolina seems like a great place to set up shop. Charleston was the Slave Trade Capitol of North America a mere 159 years ago, so I have plenty of opportunity to balance out all kinds of inequality at my doorstep. Except the South Carolina Department of Education isn’t exactly a bastion of open-mindedness. So I don’t think ‘Subversive Forest School’ is going to fly. I think what Byron means by subversive is to get all the way down into our subconscious, or our mental models, and examine what we believe. Innovative, or some other vanilla word, might be more palatable. Perhaps some benevolent billionaire will want to endow this forest school. For now, let’s say (To Be Named) Forest School decided to put down the medical model, and all the accompanying language that implies disability, damage, in need of fixing, or otherwise worth less. What if instead we accepted all humans have unique brains. And as humans, we benefit from some guidance, maintenance, and trial and error when it comes to operating them. Especially the powerful ones. They can go off on all sorts of tangents when left unattended. 

Anyhow, even though I’m already rich, with my extra toilets and all, I’ll still require some additional capital inputs to enact Phase Two of Jane Garland’s Master Plan. With Phase Two being the Idyllic Forest School for Underestimated Humans, and Phase One being: figuring out how to get there. By Phase Three, my arboreal endeavors (another Byron-ism) should be both carbon sequestering and revenue-generating, creating a fully sustainable system. What would I do with all that money? Compensate teachers appropriately. But that is a story for another day. For today, help me brainstorm. It’s the fastest way to balance out our systems.

Photo by micheile dot com on Unsplash

Thank you for reading this post. You may enjoy reading Lady Garland Tames Her Dragons available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.

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