Luck doesn’t have a lot to do with it

The Olympics have been over for a little two weeks (already?!?!?) but there is one thing that shocked me so much that I just had to blog about.

For most sports, I only tend to follow the results in the morning paper. However, not when it comes to track and field. It might have something to do with my cousins being athletes; it might have something to do with the amazing races that Donovan Bailey and Co. ran in 1998. Whatever the reason, I follow track and field more closely and the athletes never cease to amaze me. So obviously this year I heard of this guy called Usain Bolt. If the name means nothing to you, I hope your trip to Mars is going well.

I read a couple of posts on blogs and news sites that rankled me so much that I refuse to link them on my blog. In short, these posts insinuated that luck has a lot to do with these athletes achieving what they have. While some people are luck in that they are born in the United States and get millions in endorsements which gives them more time to train, it doesn’t mean that they don’t put their heart and soul into it and that they don’t work for hours on end to prefect every move to win Olympic Gold.

By the same token, good genes might make someone like Usain Bolt more adapted to running fast, but to chalk up his achievement to genetics is very insulting; it’s denying the hours he spent honing his skill as a sprinter as well as the work put in by his trainer. I am certain that usain Bolt didn’t come out of his mother’s womb running, and that even if he was already a fast runner before starting to train, he probably wasn’t anywhere near breaking any record. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

However it is certainly possible that their good genes makes it easier for ahletes to make their sport look cool. I only go for jogs and don’t look anywhere as cool, composed and blasé when I am back home. Dratted genes.

Money & happiness: the search for the confounding factor

In response to Steve Maich’s article in the May 5th issue of Maclean’s magazine titled “It’s official: money buys happiness”.

Many of my close friends would be shocked if I told them I do believe that money and happiness are linked. It seems that they, like many others, have a hard time admitting to this relationship, maybe because for the longest time we have related being rich to characteristics like greed, selfishness and less than ethical means of acquiring it, just to name a few.

But this is not always the case. Many lovely people are very rich because of hard work, are not greedy, are only slightly selfish (who isn’t?) and have impeccable work ethics. And these people are very happy.

Another reason it’s hard to admit the relationship between money and happiness is that it doesn’t always fit; there are many rich people who are not happy, and many poor people who are very happy. Are they the exception that confirm the rule, or do they form an argument that changes the nature of the correlation between money and happiness?

Money can definitely buy happiness, but in an ever changing world outdating yesterday’s reality in smaller and smaller timeframes, the question should be updated – yet it hasn’t. It isn’t anymore a matter of if money can buy happiness, but rather how money buys happiness. The reality of depressive rich people and giddy poor people clearly indicates that a confounding factor exists which has yet to be taken into consideration.

In some senses, it’s pretty obvious how money buys us certain levels of happiness. For example, money allows purchasing food and acquiring shelter. I think we can all agree that in general, not being chronically hungry and having a safe place to live in contributes to feeling happy.

But having more money allows you to eat foods that you like and have a shelter of your choice, rather than settling for what you can afford. We are all attracted to beautiful things (although that beauty is very relative *cough – big hideous expensive metal fountain across the street from where I use to work – cough*). Having more money allows us to quench this need created by our natural attraction to beauty, thus making us happier. Having even more money allows us to pursue other avenues of interest that satisfy higher manifestations of our attraction to beauty, such as painting, gardening, fashion, travelling etc. And so on, so forth.

There is also the fact that if the correlation between money and happiness was as simple in real life as it seems to be on paper, the curious phenomena of “relative wealth” wouldn’t exist. This concept makes even less sense if happiness was in direct correlation with wealth. The fact that a rich person can feel unhappy because his wealth isn’t at the same level or higher than that of his neighbour is but one of the cracks in the direct correlation of money and happiness. The concept of relative wealth also casts a disparaging view on humanity, as it devaluates our collective worth, talents and capacities into a race to who has the most money. Certainly a creature blessed with a natural attraction to beauty is meant to do more in this world than only acquire wealth?

World renowned economist and philosopher Amartya Sen elegantly demonstrated the fact that development is freedom to choose what one wants to do. This freedom has been related to happiness; but is this happiness related to net monetary worth, or rather to the choice of the person who has freedom?

When one has to worry about necessities such as water and food, one doesn’t think about much more than that. But once development has been achieved, once a certain level of material comfort, related to money, has been achieved, the people have the freedom to start thinking about other things. What they choose to think of and how they choose to live their lives in a way that will make them happy depend on the person’s values. What if these values are the confounding factor of the correlation between money and happiness?

And what really is happiness? Are those who say they are happy truly happy? We can easily fool ourselves into believing that we are happy; having money probably allows us to make that assumption more easily. Maybe they think they are happy because they have reduced the scope of their humanity to making money and reaping the fruits of having that money. The more money you have, the stronger the illusion that it is buying you happiness can hold. But it seems clearer and clearer that while more money definitely make happiness more easily attainable, when it is the only factor contributing to said happiness, the illusion can easily be shattered and the happiness easily lost.

Personal values seem to be the sticky point, the not-so-elusive confounding factor of the correlation between money and happiness. Everyone has personal values, and they affect every aspect of our lives. Money gives us the opportunity to use our money in ways that can bring us happiness; personally values are the guidelines that we use our money by.

So if our personal values make us share our money, then having more money gives us the luxury of being generous. Being generous has been linked numerous times to happiness. So money would bring generous people happiness because it gives them the power to do good deeds and help others, making the world a more beautiful place. Because of our inherent attraction to beauty, this is what truly makes us happy.

Then again, maybe I have it all wrong. If someone would be kind enough to give me ten million dollars to experiment, I’d oblige and share the conclusion of a very assiduous and thorough study with them. What can I say – it’s a manifestation of my attraction to the beauty of truth.

Perpetuating injustice (or trying to be nice)

I was recently faced with quite an interesting ethical dilemma. My friend is a RA (research assistant) at a local, world-renown university. The professor she works for is brilliant and very sweet. While this means that his research is published quite often, it also means that many walk all over him (let’s call him The Professor). My friend is only one of five RAs, but she often feels like she is the only one.

The problem is that, being too sweet, The Professor never reinforces deadlines and accepts even the most transparently bold lie on why work hasn’t been done. My friend, who has a deep professional respect for this professor but has also developed a strong bond of friendship with him, does everything she can to help him cope with the work of his four lazy and profiteering RAs.

While I find it quite commendable that my friend is willing to help The Professor through odd hours of the night to meet important grant and publication deadlines, I find it appalling that she has to do the work other people are getting paid for. I have been telling her this for a long while now, but only recently did it hit me that not only she was being unfair towards herself, but that her actions, stemming from professionalism and empathy, were in fact perpetuating injustice.

At the most basic level, it boils down to this. While in the short term, my friend might be helping the Professor, in the long term she’s encouraging him not to stand up for himself. If the Professor doesn’t stand up to the four RAs – let’s call them the Foolish Four – then they will be able to get away with being paid for nothing. The more they get away with it, the more they will be tempted to do it, not only at work, but at home and at any community activity they might be involved in. Because let’s admit it: most people would love to be paid for doing nothing.

However, my friend does have a good reason not to stand up to the Foolish Four; they have connections within the Faculty where they work and have already caused problems for other people. It seems that their addiction to being paid for doing nothing is so strong that they won’t let anyone stand in their way. So the initial people who didn’t change the way the Foolish Four worked – or didn’t work – has created a vicious cycle perpetuating injustice.

I do think that things are a lot more complicated than what I presented in this post, but often the solutions are quite simple. In this case, The Professor, who is lucky enough to have a solid and respected reputation as well as being as asset to the Faculty and the University he works for, could probably get rid of the Foolish Four. But since the injustice has been perpetuated for so long because of him being ‘nice’, there is a need for an external force to encourage this change. This force could be in the shape of my friend, who could, lovingly and patiently, present the above argument to him and brainstorm on ways to make sure such injustice isn’t perpetuated anymore. Hopefully this will happen soon; I’ll make sure to keep you posted when it does.