Monday, January 12, 2015

Sustainable Boundaries

Being poor is horrible. Being rich is 'great'. I use the inverted commas because there is definitely a case of careful what you wish for. Malcolm Gladwell touches on this in 'David & Goliath'. 'Getting bigger' is a real challenge for businesses trying to maintain their culture, and for individuals with poor regulations trying to compensate for a loss of trust (see 'sent away'). If you look at an individual as a tiny business, they face similar wealth scale issues. Beyond a certain point where people largely leave each other alone to sort out their own affairs, money actually falls away as a useful 'tool of exchange'. When a really wealthy person walks into a restaurant, the owner may decide to give them the meal on the house. Once we go beyond things that we need into 'Placebo World' the rules go out of the window. You are in story land. People are unsure how to deal with each other and their behaviour changes. Normally considerate people may go the party of a wealthy friend and start wastefully leaving leaving half drunk glasses of expensive champagne, just cause they can. Like the entourages surrounding young rock stars, the Star may not know who their friends are, and who the hyenas are. In 'Sex at Dawn', Ryan and Jetha talk about how students of our closest animal relatives realised that providing food to chimps, to attract and make them easier to observe, changed their behaviour. They became aggressive and instead of helping each other, reciprocating for food that was difficult to come by, they fought over easy pickings.



Money falling away as a signal is also difficult, whether at the two extremes or in the middle, when we look at another source of happiness: Volunteering. When you take money away as a source of compensation and your time becomes a gift, it can be incredibly rewarding. Knowing how to balance this is a challenge. With money and jobs, you don't feel any guilt at all for not working for the competitor. Perhaps the closest we come to this is during interviews where there is a choice between job offers (you should be so lucky say struggling job hunters). When giving time to good causes, typically the need is great. A bottomless need. The more you give, the more those who receive know you are available and it is unlikely they are going to stop asking if they still need help. Saying no when you know that you are using your time for something less important doesn't feel great. Even though you are just a person, not a hero. Peter Singer argues in 'The Life You Can Save' that examples are more useful than heroes anyway. If you can do something sustainable, others are more likely to try and imitate you. If you are a martyr or a saint you are less likely to be able to keep up your ways, and observers are less likely to see that a slight positive change in their behaviour is possible.


Jeffrey Cufaude, who recently wrote a guest post on lifelong learning, is working on a book called 'Say Yes Less'. I hope he touches on the emotional side of saying no. It often sucks. Setting boundaries sucks. But whether it is volunteering just an hour to wash dishes at a yoga centre, or limiting the amount of champagne your chimp friends drink - boundaries are important for sustainable happiness. Being able to set them may mean you volunteer more. That is a good thing.
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