Finding political happiness has more to do with skill than wealth, politics and power
Even celebrities and power politicians can have a difficult time figuring this out.
There was once a meme floating around with pictures showing how Hillary Clinton looked before and after the 2016 presidential election. Before: her face is filled with her hope of winning the election. After: her face has lost much of its color and the muscles are slack.
Hillary Clinton was long considered one of the most powerful women in American politics. How could she let herself feel so bad about losing an election? I’ve seen some on social media claim that Hillary was dying or that she looked like death becomes her. Yes, her demeanor has changed, but I don’t subscribe to those views about her state of being. I think she’s just really tired.
Running for president is a brutal and daunting task for anyone. Only the strongest among us can sustain the journey, even with legions of people helping. I think it’s also important to remember that Hillary is just a human being. She does not possess any superpowers and is not immortal. I say this not as a defense of her — I did not support her in that election and I actively opposed her throughout the primaries in 2016. I say these things because they are facts.
The same is true for Donald Trump and all of the rest of us. We’re just human beings. That means at some point in the future, we’re all going to die, so we might as well make the best of it while we’re here. Wishing for Hillary or Trump to die (as I’ve seen some people do) isn’t going to help anyone and it won’t really make anyone happy if their death were somehow, premature.
Like all of us, Hillary Clinton was seeking happiness. How we go about seeking happiness depends on the skills we have to create the circumstances that allow us to experience it. Happiness is not a place, it is not a goal and it doesn’t come from external circumstances. Happiness is not, as some people seem to think, a life without problems, for that is a life that never was. Wouldn’t life be boring if everything went right? A month of Sundays, anyone?
I do not find happiness exclusively in people, places and things. I allow them to add to the happiness I have already found for I have little control over my external conditions. When I do experience happiness, it is only a temporary state of existence. It comes and it goes. But it does so only to the extent that I allow it to. Happiness is a choice, but I have found that it is something more than that. To find true happiness requires some skill to experience it. Allow me to demonstrate this point with some familiar examples.
I’m a huge fan of the Beatles. I love all of their music, particularly the later albums, and have enjoyed listening to the progression of their music from the early years to their last album, Abbey Road. On “The Beatles”, aka, “The White Album”, there are a few, not so happy songs, one of them being, “Yer Blues”. From the Wikipedia page regarding the composition of the same song:
Lennon said that, while “trying to reach God and feeling suicidal” in India, he wanted to write a blues song, but was unsure if he could imitate the likes of Sleepy John Estes and other original blues artists he had listened to in school. In “Yer Blues,” he alludes to this insecurity with a reference to the character Mr. Jones from Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and with the third verse, which draws on Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail.” Instead, Lennon wrote and composed “Yer Blues” as a parody of British imitators of the blues, featuring tongue-in-cheek guitar solos and rock and roll-inspired swing blues passages.
I’ve heard that song many times myself and am even playing it in my head right now. John Lennon felt insecure? The man who once said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus once felt suicidal? C’mon!
The White Album has another not so happy track, “I’m So Tired”. Again, Wikipedia shows a familiar refrain, that of personal suffering:
Lennon wrote the song at a Transcendental Meditation camp when he could not sleep; the Beatles had gone on a retreat to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. After three weeks of constant meditation and lectures, Lennon missed Yoko Ono, who he’d yet to start a relationship with, and was plagued by insomnia, which inspired the song. One of dozens of songs the Beatles wrote in India, “I’m So Tired” detailed Lennon’s fragile state of mind. It was also an open letter to Ono, whose postcards to Lennon in India were a lifeline. “I got so excited about her letters,” he said. “I started thinking of her as a woman, and not just an intellectual woman.”Lennon later said of it: “One of my favourite tracks. I just like the sound of it, and I sing it well”.
In both songs, we hear of a John Lennon in a state of mental agitation. Suicidal thoughts. Insomnia. Longing for someone else. From his songs, he shares with us that in every respect, he is only human.
We also see that he’s sitting on a pile of money, living large while visiting India. He’s receiving guidance from people who really know how to meditate and he’s meditating. We see that he made an effort to find peace, yet he still suffered. Could he find happiness with better skills or more money?
In the documentary, George Harrison: Living In This Material World, three of the Beatles made some very interesting observations. At about 32 minutes, we see Ringo Starr, recounting his experience of their rise to the top:
“It’s great at the beginning, you know, when you’re recognized. You get a great seat in a restaurant, and things are bigger and things come to you faster. Um, you know, all that is great. And then you really want that to end.”
Here, Ringo begins to notice that his rising success, something that many of his contemporaries aspired to have, was not making him happy. He had had enough. He goes on to say:
“You fight for it and then when you get it, you want it to end. But it never ends. That’s the deal.”
Later in the film, John Lennon says in an interview:
“Before we sort of, made it, as they say, uh, money was part of the goal, but it still wasn’t a, sort of, “Let’s get some money.” But we sort of got…We suddenly had money, and then it wasn’t all that good.”
Still later, George Harrison in another interview:
“By having the money, we found that money wasn’t the answer. Because we had lots of material things that people, sort of, spend their whole life to try and get. We managed to get them at quite an early age. And it was good really, because we learned that that wasn’t it. We still lacked something. And that something is something that religion is trying to give people.”
There are countless examples of human suffering in song and music. Many of them are written and performed by people who have achieved widespread fame and enormous wealth yet they continue to write and perform new songs about suffering even after wealth and the good life found them. If they’re happy, why are they still writing and singing songs about suffering?
There is one other character I’d like to talk about and he’s one of my favorites, actually: Bono. Bono is well known as the leader of “the world’s greatest rock band”, U2. Bono is also an activist who travels the world doing charity work, so he sees the suffering of the rest of the world first hand. “Until the End of the World” is a song characteristic of their style. Dark, moody, and a bit satirical. Here is an excerpt of the lyrics:
In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows, they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
Waves of regret and waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You, you said you’d wait
’Til the end of the world
To me, this captures the state of the human race. We know we’re blowing it and we don’t know how to stop. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. To me, suffering is not just a matter of choice. It’s a matter of skill or the lack of it.
Some time ago, I wrote “Some thoughts on the diminishing utility of wealth”. In that article, I show how as wealth increases, it has diminishing utility in the personal sense. You can only buy so many shoes and dresses. You can only drive one car at a time. You can only stay in one house at a time, even if you have three houses. A diamond ring is pretty, but it won’t make you happy. A trip to Europe is just an experience and then you have to come back down, to reality.
Unfortunately, there are some people who have very good skills at making money, but to do so, they have to step on a lot of people to do it. They seem to have sacrificed the skill of empathy for the skill of finance. Yes, there are some people who achieve their wealth by actually producing things that society needs or wants and still manage to pay their workers well (Elon Musk is one of the better examples). But anyone who has noticed our engorged financial industry may also notice that there are some who do not pull their own weight.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton exemplified the risk entailed by allowing external circumstances to control how we feel. She made a living telling wealthy people what they wanted to hear while telling everyone else, what she thought they wanted to hear. She talked progressive while promoting a very conservative trade agreement. She talked progressive while promoting military intervention as a good foreign policy. She talked progressive to us while courting the banks for money.
Did all that make Hillary happy? After losing the election, probably not. Did she have good intentions? Perhaps she did. Some people call her evil. I offer no defense of her here. I don’t dispute she has made some bad choices and she has not been held accountable for them. I don’t dispute that she’s hurt more than just a few people to get her way. But I don’t call her evil. I believe that if she could do better, she would. I believe that if she had the skills to conduct foreign policy without hurting others, I believe that she would have done that. I believe this because I believe that everyone wants to be able to go to sleep at night knowing they did the right thing.
I believe that when one person does something that is not so nice, maybe awful, maybe even heinous, to someone else, it is not for lack of a desire to do better. It is for a lack of skills. Meeting our basic needs makes us happy for a time, and that is by design. Hurting someone else doesn’t meet our basic needs. Never has, never will. Cooperating with someone else to get our needs met always makes us happier. That too is by design.
We have evolved to become more cooperative. We know this because scientists have conducted research to prove it. Scientists at Duke University compared skulls from different times in the fossil record with modern skulls of today and found evidence that around 50,000 years ago, the level of testosterone in humans suffered (enjoyed?) a serious decline. Maybe that’s because the most aggressive males had killed each other off, leaving the less aggressive males to procreate a kinder and gentler progeny.
This change in human physiology correlates well with a blossoming of culture and technology around the same time. From this article at archaeology.org:
“The modern human behaviors of technological innovation, making art and rapid cultural exchange probably came at the same time that we developed a more cooperative temperament,” said lead author Robert Cieri, a biology graduate student at the University of Utah who began this work as a senior at Duke University.
When two human beings cooperate in the spirit of goodwill, they get a nice feeling about it. I know that from personal experience. I really enjoy working in teams because I like how I feel when I help others. I like being a husband because I help my wife and she helps me. I like being a dad because I like helping and teaching my kids and playing with them. These are all forms of cooperation and cooperation is a skill.
Where do we learn these skills first? Usually our parents. But if they don’t have those skills, then we must learn them later in life, from teachers, friends, or…the police. Most of us have learned from our families that when people have power, they don’t have to listen to the people they have power over. We learn that when we have power, we can dismiss the concerns of others and force them to do what we want them to do.
In his book, Raising Human Beings, by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., we learn that the style of parenting where parents impose their will upon their kids is called Plan A. Plan A means that as a parent, you can dismiss the concerns of your kids. You can impose your will on them through the threat of force. That’s the kind of parenting most of us are familiar with. I believe that kind of parenting got us here, to this place, this moment where we have a government that is mostly unresponsive to us.
We have leadership in our government that doesn’t believe they have to listen to us. Congress had a 97% reelection rate. That’s because districts are drawn for safe seats so, once you get in Congress, you’re set for a while. That means as a member of Congress, you don’t really have to listen to the people, but you do have to listen to the money. That is Plan A in politics.
What does Plan B look like? In parenting, Plan B is about noticing problems that give rise to challenging behavior in kids and collaborating with our kids to solve those problems. When we solve the problems, the challenging behavior goes away. We collaborate with our kids to solve those problems. When we collaborate with our kids to solve problems, we teach them the life skills they must have to get their needs met as adults.
To put this in political terms without judging anyone, we have leaders who follow the money, not the people they represent. Because they’re not listening to the people they represent, they must use Plan A and impose their will upon the rest of us. That’s why people protest. We saw it in Ferguson and we saw it again after Trump was elected. People are protesting Trump because they fear a Plan A President and Congress.
How do we know we have a Plan A Congress? Here’s a study that reviewed more than 1700 different political issues and compared voting records over 20 years. The conclusion: ordinary people have very little influence over Congress.
If you don’t listen to your kids, you won’t know what problems they’re trying to solve, so the solutions you impose won’t work. If you’re a Plan A parent, and the solution doesn’t work, then you apply more force until the solution works.
Likewise, if you’re in Congress and you don’t listen to the people you represent, you won’t know what problems they’re trying to solve. The solutions you legislate won’t work. Furthermore, if you’re not listening to the people you represent, you won’t really understand why you need bodyguards and armored vehicles when you back to your district. You tend to avoid town halls. Get the picture now?
We need a Plan B government. That means a government that collaborates with the people to produce mutually beneficial and durable solutions that work for as many people as possible. Current power-play politics is not sustainable and it will lead to greater and greater unrest until the people are heard and the government becomes responsive to them and not just the 1%.
In 2016, The Democrats in Congress wanted Chuck “Mr. Moneybags” Schumer as Minority Leader. The DNC had floated Tim “milk-toast” Kaine as the next candidate for president. Representative Carolyn Maloney offers a suggestion to Trump: appoint Hillary Clinton as a UN ambassador.
Meanwhile, progressives roll their eyes and wonder aloud why Bernie Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard, and Nina Tuner aren’t being recruited for more important positions. It’s almost as if establishment Democrats truly believe that big money in politics will make up for their losses in the last election.
Money and power are terrible substitutes for interpersonal skills. Pop culture glorifies money and power while giving lip service to teamwork and collaboration. Pop culture tells us that given enough force, we can resolve our differences. Negotiations are boring. Let’s make things go boom instead. Defeating the enemy is more exciting than turning them into a negotiating partner for a better life together. We’re stronger together, right?
So what’s more effective, protesting or getting involved in politics? I’d say if we’re involved in politics, we’ll spend a lot less time protesting. If we solve problems with our kids, we teach them to collaborate and negotiate, and we raise a generation of kids less prone to totalitarian attitudes. If we get involved in politics, we spend more time collaborating with our government than complaining about it or fighting it.
Plan B requires us to be the change we want to see. That is how we achieve true political happiness. We develop the skills required to achieve happiness. There is no better way to have it.
Originally published on my blog, The Digital Firehose, Sunday, November 20th, 2016. Updated for grammar, clarity and a turn of phrase here and there.