The Perils of Prosperity

I recently listened to The Vanishing American Adult by Senator Ben Sasse.

Before I began, my preconceptions unnerved me.

“I hope this isn’t another conservative curmudgeon spitting invective against my ‘lazy and entitled’ generation.”

Fortunately, he allayed my fears with those near-exact words in the first 10 minutes of listening.

Or was he just being defensive?

He wasn’t.  His book provided an engaging critique about why young adults today appear less resilient and gritty than previous generations.  While I can’t say I agreed with everything he said, he provided enough balance to keep me listening throughout.

One point that gave me pause was young people’s difficulties separating “needs” from “wants.”  

In one example, Sasse recalls a childhood experience around air-conditioning.  While his family had an air-conditioning unit, they rarely used it.  Nebraska does not have cool summers.  However, his family was not wealthy.  Therefore, Sasse’s father felt it imprudent to spend on the “luxury” of air conditioning.

This helped me raise an important question and turn a critical eye toward my own life.

To what extent is comfort a necessity?

In terms of air conditioning, it is tough for me to argue against its necessity during the sweltering, steamy Korean summer.  A hot-yoga studio apartment would likely wreak havoc on my sleep and mood.

But would living without AC kill me in a non-hyperbolic fashion? (Oh my God, if I don’t have AC I would literally die). 

Probably not.

Many people today deem previously non-existent pieces of technology as “necessities.”  These include smartphones, hot water heaters, and electric lights.  Some (like Adam Smith) argued that non-essential items graduate to necessities when one’s public image of economic respectability depends upon that item’s ownership.

In other words, a lack of electricity won’t kill you.  But an inability to pay the light bill typically bespeaks a low economic status.  Therefore, considering about 97% of American households own televisions, it’s fair to say that even more people have electricity (once you add in hipsters and snobs).  To be among the 2% without lights suggests a relative (but not absolute) privation.

I would argue that comfort and security negatively correlate with stress.  The more comfortable one feels the less stress they will experience.   Inversely, stressed out individuals don’t tend to identify as “comfortable.”

In other words, if I do not have an ever-present fear for my life, I will likely feel less stress than someone who does.  Food-secure individuals likely experience less stress than their food-insecure counterparts.

This is not just reserved for physical comforts.  Our mental, interpersonal, spiritual, and emotional selves all experience fluctuating levels of comfort and discomfort.

So if an absence of comfort can increase stress, then perhaps we would be wise to make our lives as comfortable as possible.

Many news outlets and self-help books would support this conclusion.  After all, isn’t stress what leads such much-maligned consequences as depression, heart disease, and death?

Probably.  

However, the relationship between stress and health is not that simple.  Stress does not inherently create negative life outcomes. Excessive and chronic stress do.  Chronic stress causes the hypothalamus, pituitary glands, and the adrenal glands to unleash a hormonal chain culminating with an overproduction of cortisol.  Chronically-elevated cortisol can weaken the immune system.  The body then invites problems like a Craigslist house party advert.

However, stress’ contribution to health complications does not prove that a stress-free life is ideal for one’s health.

What does a stress-free life entail?  The more I think about it, the more awful it sounds.  A life free of all difficulties, challenges, and strain is a recipe for boredom, personal stagnation, and nihilistic despair.

If everything in our lives was easy, what would be worth doing?  What would we celebrate?  What would provide purpose?

Many stressful experiences promote growth and foster resilience.  Deadlifting in the gym stimulates muscle growth.  Struggling through difficult math assignment stimulates intellectual growth.  Fighting to stay present in a meditation session stimulates mental and spiritual growth.  Meandering through small talk and first impressions stimulates social growth.

Nicholas Taleb argues this well in his book Antifragile.  As organic systems, humans perform optimally when exposed to alternating periods of moderate stress and adequate recovery.  We lift weights at the gym, then we consume food and sleep.  We struggle with a difficult math problem, then we indulge in novels and YouTube videos.  While chronic stress (with no time for recovery) will drive the body into the ground, a complete lack of stress will atrophy the body towards the same fate.

Many conservatives (especially older men) criticize today’s young adults as spoiled, entitled, and fixed on instant gratification.  

At times I think that this is not entirely our fault.  It’s difficult to foster perseverance when technological advances make our day-to-day lives progressively easier.

 Food is cheaper and easier to acquire than any time in human history (one can select from tens of thousands of products at a supermarket or order a pizza online if the former task is too onerous).  We want to see a friend who lives 7 kilometers away?  What was once a 90-minute walk is now a 15-minute drive. This uses less time by a factor of 6 and fewer calories by a factor of 600.

Year by year, more human tasks automate as computers continue to advance at an exponential rate.  Some say that computers will replace 800 million jobs in the next 20 years (a frightening statistic beyond the scope of this post).

Is my generation too entitled and accustomed to instant gratification?  Maybe. But perhaps one reason is that nearly every daily task is easier today than it was 50 or even 20 years ago.

Maybe we shouldn’t always favor ease and convenience.  Maybe our challenge is to cultivate purpose, resilience, and grit through manufactured discomfort.   Maybe we need more positive, moderate stress.

How can we manufacture this discomfort?  

Go to the gym.  

Cook for yourself.  

Learn a new skill.  

Face a fear.  

Speak with someone who has different views.  

Take a cold shower.  

Bypass the elevator and take the stairs.  

Ride a bike to work.

Turn off your heater in the winter.

Turn off your AC in the summer.

Our capitalist economy will continue to select for innovations that make our lives easier.  This is not necessarily a problem. Our solution should not eschew innovations of convenience.  On the contrary, innovations of convenience allow us to allocate time from menial tasks to meaningful ones.

Our solution should involve moderately stressful activities to occupy our ever-increasing free time.  It means knowing the difference between recreation and leisure.

Leisure is passive.  It is mindless consumption – watching television, scrolling aimlessly through TumblFaceSnapGram, or eating out of boredom.  One can still do these tasks mindfully, but it takes mental effort. For example, if you spend an afternoon at the movies, did you mentally and emotionally engage with the story and its characters?  Or did you “zone out” and unconsciously consume a day’s worth of calories in popcorn and Coke?

I’ve done it before and felt no better for it.

On the other hand, recreation is just as the word implies.  It is the process of “re-creating” oneself.  Leisure is passive.  Recreation is active.  Leisure involves personal atrophy.    Recreation involves stimulating growth.  Leisure tricks us into thinking that we are “recharging our batteries.”  Recreating makes us stronger so we can face the challenges of life with ever-increasing vigor and preparedness.  

One can recreate in many ways.

Play a sport.

Go for a hike.

Read a good novel or nonfiction book.

Write.

Have a deep discussion with a friend.

Volunteer.

Each moment presents us with a choice. Will we strengthen ourselves through stress or will we rust from disuse?  Will we passively slip into boredom and purposelessness or will we actively seek to define what it means to truly live?  Challenge yourself.  You might just like it.

Photo Corner

My school had a fire drill yesterday.  I must say the theatrics and authenticity far surpass my experience in American public schools.

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I’m pretty sure you put out a fire by shooting water into the building, not the other way around.

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Some teachers carried a student out on a stretcher.  I think it was a boy who navigates the school in a powerchair.  So maybe he has special evacuation instructions.  Based on their smiles and laughs, it didn’t seem too serious.

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The fire department soon took my advice and turned their hose towards the building.  I got a bit wet in the process.

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In Korea, the firefighters start fires.

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Just to demonstrate proper fire extinguisher use.

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A teacher gave me this snack one day.  1,100 calories per bag.  I’m going to share it with my after-school class.  I only wish I knew what the “DMZ” in the bottom left corner meant.

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I see these cuties all around Mokpo.  I don’t know their names.  I just call them Lumpy and Lumpette.

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I know the Mokpo mascots have real names because Namak’s mascots have names.  I just need to do more research.

2 thoughts on “The Perils of Prosperity

  1. Very enjoyable (as usual ) read. A comment repeated many times over .
    “If we never felt lows, we would never know the feeling of a high”

    Like

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