Thursday, July 28, 2005

Thesis Update

A few readers and colleagues have expressed interest in my thesis project, so you all get a quick update.

Last summer I started this site to collect ideas about the conflict between our values and our lifestyle choices, how decisions in one area of our lives affect other areas, and specifically how young people learn about and envision their future options. I borrowed the term lifestylism as the title of the project, as a way of unifying those concepts.

So now I've got a year's worth of research, reading and writing represented in the blog and I officially start working on the thesis in September. I still need an advisor, and I'm hoping to finish early next year. I've narrowed my topic a lot since my initial pondering and a bit more since my recent focusing efforts.

I plan to explore the aspirations of teenagers (educational, career, relionships, family, lifestyle) in education and outside of school, figure out how successful they've been in achieving those goals in the past decade or two, then create a proposal outlining how to use the web to help teens build engaging, holistic (lifestyle-oriented, rather than just career/college planning) reprentations of possible futures as a way to get them on the path to achieving their goals (or at least taking steps to pursue interesting things that will land them somewhere they didn't expect).

Materialism and Lifestylism

Materialism and the Evolution of Consciousness

This essay by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi rocked my world today. It's an attempt to answer the question of why so many of us have turned to materialism as the factor that motivates most of our lifestyle decisions (how we spend our time and money), even while we would say that we valued experiences, relationships, accomplishments and other non-material goals. I'm tempted to quote the entire article, but this will do for a taste:
"Thus evolution has built two contradictory motivations into our nervous system: pleasure, which is the well-being we feel when eating, resting and procreating; and enjoyment, which is the exhilarating sensation we feel when going beyond the requirements of survival (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993; Ryan and Deci, 2000; Waterman, 1993). Pleasure is a powerful source of motivation, but it does not produce change; it is a conservative force that makes us want to satisfy existing needs, achieve comfort and relaxation. It is the motivation that makes us look for material resources to improve the quality of life – after all these are scarce and everyone wants them, so they must be valuable. The concreteness of material goals also makes them seem more real than more complex goals. But the improvement that money, power, and comfort produce is often simply that of removing momentarily the anxiety we all experience when confronting mortality and finitude. 'More stuff' promises security and comfort, even when the benefits are short-lived and we need ever more stuff to regain equanimity in the face of the slings and arrows inherent in living. There is nothing wrong with seeking pleasure in material goals, but individuals for whom it becomes the main reason for living are not going to grow beyond what the genes have programmed them to desire."
So pleasure, in this sense, does not equal or lead to happiness. We get pleasure from a new toy or outfit, but it probably doesn't contribute much to our long-term happiness. The activities that are more likely to yield more lasting happiness tend to be more challenging and connect us to the people around us.

My interest in this all stems from my naive belief that if people could design lifestyles for themselves that were more closely aligned with their deeply held values, they would be less materialistic, watch less TV, work on more meaningful projects, spend more time with their loved ones and contribute more to their communities. Wouldn't the act of deciding in advance (design) how to best integrate the many strands of your future lifestyle choices help us engage in our lives to a greater degree and focus more attention/time/energy/money on the things that matter?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Work-Life Balance

I appreciated this personal account of trying to find work-life balance from a successful venture capitalist. Really personal:
"At age 34 when – on a long weekend with friends where I was completely absent and struggling to get through a difficult deal (for a company that eventually failed) – Amy turned to me and said 'I’m done. I’m not mad – I just can’t do this anymore. You either have to change, or it’s over.'"
I haven't much liked the idea of work-life balance because it seems to imply an either/or, rather than some sort of integration that acknowledges work as one component of a rich life full of relationships, creativity, learning, and balance always makes "life" sound like the remainder, or what's left over after work. That said, this is a great overview of the types of changes he had to make to save his marriage and make his lifestyle work. Thanks to Will for the link.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Value x Time = Happiness Level?

Help. I've hit an interesting and thorny challenge.

Let's say you're creating a picture of your future lifestyle. Each activity or action you plan to do has a time cost and an effect on your well-being. What I'm trying to do is figure out how varying experiences contribute to overall happiness.

For example, maybe you work 40 hours a week at a job you dislike. For pretty much the whole time you're working, the effect on your mental, emotional health is negative. In that same week, you engage in your beloved recreational pursuit (maybe windsurfing) for about four hours -- during that time, your mental, emotional and physical health is off the chart in the positive.

What I'm trying to do is to find a way to display an average or cumulative level of happiness over a period of time that includes all different kinds of activities. So let's stay with our example and assume that I want to be able to show a general happiness level for the week in which you were miserable for 40 hours at work and thrilled for four hours while you were windsurfing.

The main question is this: should those two activities have equal weight in the weekly calculation of happiness? Or should happiness (or negative effect) derived from each activity be multiplied by the amount of time spent doing it before averaging it out for the week?

Another quick example. You're a teacher, but you don't much like teaching. What you love about it is having 10 weeks of vacation every year. Over the course of your year, what is the net effect of having 42 weeks that you've rated as negative and 10 weeks of bliss? Or you're an oil-patch welder who hates his dangerous, uncomfortable, exhausting work, but you work two weeks on and two weeks off...and you love the time off. Is the net happiness result over the course of one month neutral?

I realize these are oversimplifications and generalizations, but I think there's the kernel of something important in this process. My theory is that wide fluctuation in happiness over the course of a day, week or month is probably not healthy for most of us. But I wonder if the inverse is true? Would less fluctuation always be better?

Social Network Mapping

Dave Pollard is thinking about mapping relationships with people, groups, places and things, and pondering how identity can be represented in ways that could help us understand our lives better.
"An application of all this that intrigues me is in assessing how we should (and can) change ourselves. I tend to agree with many of you that if we are to have any credibility as change advocates we need to be a role model, we need to show not tell people what needs to be done. We need to be the change. So do we start by a navel-gazing process that entails some personal, individual decisions and bold actions? Or, if our relationships and networks define us, do we start by first finding or redefining the circles, the communities to which we (and others) belong and then let those new and altered communities redefine and change us?"
He's approaching the complexity of relationships in exactly the right way, I think. We tend to view the strands of our lives (work, marriage, friendships, leisure, etc.) in isolation, as if a decision made in one strand wouldn't affect the others...or worse, thinking that a change in one would miraculously fix problems in others without any real sense of why that might be.

Find Your Spot

The Future of Work linked to this interesting web tool: Find Your Spot. You take an eight-page quiz with lifestyle and location questions, then get a list of recommended towns and cities that match your selections. From the FAQ:
Are you tired of your present job, your current community, or the terrible weather around you? Would you like to discover the perfect place for your style and interests? Thanks to advances in technology and the economy, more people than ever are choosing where to live based on the factors that really matter to them – the weather, schools, recreational activities, cost of living, and general quality of life. At, you can discover the perfect place for you AND find a great job, a great real estate professional, a great house, great travel deals...all in one central location.
That last part reveals a bit about the business model, I think. I suppose they're hoping to make some money on job/travel/real-estate referrals and interest-based marketing, which is fine. What I love about this model is that it is a relatively simple way to envision what your life might look like someplace else, getting you thinking about the weather there, jobs, house prices and lifestyle factors. The implementation isn't super slick, but the concept is great.

It sounds like NHL players could use a tool like this, too. The theory goes that since the new salary cap will equalize salaries across the league somewhat, players aren't just going to choose the team offering the most money -- they're looking at new factors:
"You don't buy free agents anymore, you sell them on the merits of joining your team. Lifestyle, climate, city, coach, teammates, chance to win a championship and a dozen other variables have become the new determining factors in who plays where."

On Character

More great stuff from Doug, this time writing about the concept of character and how it may have changed over the last few generations. I'm into this idea because I keep seeing evidence of incredibly high expectations and a sense of entitlement from young people, often leading to frustration and disappointment when their goals and dreams aren't coming true as quickly as they'd like them to. This has probably always been the case to a certain degree, but what if "character" is a resource in decline?
"My parents were born in the time of the Great Depression. They lived in very challenging times. As a result, many their age have a toughness, respect, and appreciation for life that is less visible in the age group of my peers and children. They cherish their relationships, not their stuff. They seldom seem bored or uninterested with life. They can adapt. They radiate true character.

My generation is once removed from a tough existence. Our parents protected us from the pains they suffered. So many of us grew up 'cared for'. Unintentionally, our parents denied us the opportunity to learn adaptability, consideration, and appreciation for small pleasures. We don't really know tough. So we make it up, fighting over things and 'who said what'. We have more who are still searching, still blaming, still waiting for something they cannot define.

My children are twice removed from tough times. We were even more protective of our kids, shaping their existence to foster their 'self-esteem'. Our kids are even less tough than we were, demanding that the world adapt itself for them or they will be 'unhappy'. It should not surprise us that we see less character and more queen bee in our children. It is predictable that a pampered generation will not seek commitment, delaying long-term anything to squeeze in a little more self-indulgence."

Monday, July 25, 2005

The New American Dream

I love what this organization is doing: The New American Dream. It's very closely aligned with the issues I've been exploring for my thesis, using the same language and a shared focus. Part of their mission is to get more people thinking about how they spend their time and money and how those decisions impact their quality of life and the world around them:
Living consciously means getting more of what really matters in life, being aware of what’s going on around you, finding balance, and having a little fun while you’re at it;

Buying wisely means becoming a positive force in the marketplace, using your purchasing power to support business practices that are safer for the environment and better for people;

Making a difference is all about making sure your citizen voices are heard, being active in your community and letting policymakers know where YOU stand.
I've occasionally railed against our vague assumptions about and implicit adoption of the American Dream, so this vision is welcome. It also reminds me that I keep meaning to post about Rifkin's The European Dream, a book I found fascinating a couple of months ago. Worth skimming, for sure.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Future Hindsight

Shamash posted a translation of the famous poem by Jorge Luis Borges, written as a reflection on what he'd do differently if he could live his life over again. Like Shamash says, it's got some cliches, but it's still inspiring as you think about how you want to live your own life. Good discussion in the comments, too.

I commented on one of her other posts that it's wise to use that sort of "future hindsight" to measure the value of your current days. Future hindsight sounds like a dumb oxymoron, but I love the concept. Trying to imagine how we'll look back on our lives (regrets, highlights, joys, sorrows) in old age reveals much about what we really value now -- it forces a sort of gap analysis between how we're living and how we wish we were living.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Needs, Goals and Well-Being

The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior
It's not an easy read, but this stuff is really solid. Each argument and theory is backed up by studies and references, and it's packed with ideas that apply to my thesis work (1, 2). I thought this section was great (if a bit convoluted):
Ryan, Sheldon, Kasser, and Deci (1996) argued that the pursuit and attainment of some life goals may provide greater satisfaction of the basic psychological needs than the pursuit and attainment of others, and that those providing greater satisfaction would be associated with greater well-being. Specifically, T. Kasser and Ryan (1993, 1996) distinguished between intrinsic aspirations (i.e., goals such as affiliation, personal growth, and community contribution, which are closely associated with basic need satisfaction) and extrinsic aspirations (i.e., goals such as attaining wealth, fame, and image, which are more related to obtaining contingent approval or external signs of worth, and thus are, on average, expected to be less likely to yield direct need satisfaction and may even distract from it).
Basically, they go on to show how pursuing (and even achieving) external measures of success like wealth and fame do not tend to make people happy, at least compared to the sense of well-being they get from pursuing (and achieving) goals related to more intrinsic measures like personal growth and community contribution. Seems kind of obvious, but don't you think most of us tend to focus more of our time/money on the former (extrinsic aspirations)?

No mention of values in this section of the paper, with the focus firmly on motivations. I need to think through the relationship between the two...

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Where to Live Before Where to Work

From an excellent post on the Future of Work Weblog on the growth of smaller cities
"As we say so often, work can now go to people, rather than people having to commute to work. We’re willing to bet that these Census Bureau findings have a lot to do with the fact that more and more people are choosing where to work first, based on things like cost of living, weather, quality of life, local schools, and potential peers – and only then do they start worrying about finding work."

Cost-Benefit Analysis on Future Lifestyles

From Future Tense (via The Future of Work): Thirtysomethings and disaffection with corporate life, which outlines an anecdotal trend seeing ladder-climbers getting off the ladder when they hit their early thirties:
"Being logical women, we did a cost-benefit analysis of the previous 9 years and, while the benefits were high, the costs were high too -- and growing. Both of us made similar decisions: We walked. Katie is starting her studies for her master's degree full time in the fall. I slept for about six months, fell into consulting, and realized I loved being an independent."
It's nothing new to recognize that many of us get more in tune with what we actually want when we're feeling more grown up, but I really love the approach at the beginning of the quote -- I don't think we're very good at doing that sort of cost-benefit analysis on all aspects of our lives. It made me think that doing the analysis on the past would be a fine place to start, but even better would be to build skills in doing the cost-benefit analysis on our ideas for the future lifestyles.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Your Preferred Story

Thanks to Stephen for pointing to Story/Narrative in Career Counseling. This is a fascinating approach, particularly in the focus on creating a "preferred story" for your future...much more holistic than a career goal or career plan.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Jory followed one of my links a couple of weeks ago and got thinking about defining success:
"I thought about how tired I’d been in the past just working for money, with no personal investment in the outcome. I thought about how I’d always had a plan in the back of my mind that all of the work I was doing in the present was for the purpose of building my future profile, of earning my right to quit the boring stuff and do what I was passionate about, whatever that was."
Read the whole thing -- this is great writing about important stuff.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Proactive Living

Doug's last month or so of writing about Proactive Living has been fantastic. Very thoughtful and intense -- read the last three or four posts, especially his grad advice.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Incomes and Home Prices

Our homes are intertwined with our lifestyle choices -- the location, property type and costs of where we choose to live affect our day-to-day lives and most of our financial decisions. One thing that has fascinated me about the current real estate boom is that wages and incomes have stayed relatively flat while the costs of homes skyrockets. This article talks about some of the issues and pitfalls surrounding mortgages in the current climate:
"Particularly in urban and coastal areas, these local bubbles are characterized by a frenzy of speculation, home turnover and large margins between median house prices and median incomes. In California, for instance, the median household income is $53,540, but the median house price is currently $488,600. To qualify for a traditional fixed-rate mortgage for such a house, a buyer would need to earn almost twice the median income.

In part, house prices are being pushed up by those purchasing multiple homes—three-fourths of all homes for sale are bought by owners of multiple homes, with the intention of converting them into rental units, or “flipping” them back onto the market after remodeling in order to turn a profit. Those in the working class who are seeking to buy are thus effectively and systematically out-priced by the voracious demand of speculators, driving demand, competition and prices still higher."

Spending Cap Not Defined by Income

Consumer debt is a disturbing manifestation of our apparent belief that our desires are more important than the sustainability of our lifestyles. Check out How does your debt compare? and ponder the irrational truth in this quote:
"The most unsettling aspect of all these credit card transactions is that many Americans don’t see their income as a spending cap. About 43% of U.S. families spend more than they earn, according to a Federal Reserve study. And on average, Americans spend $1.22 for every dollar they earn, according to"

Lifestylism Questions

Lifestylism means aligning your lifestyle (how and where you spend your time, money and energy) with your values (what is most important to you), and optimizing that alignment. When I started this project, I was assuming that when most people reflected on their core values, they would find that those values were inherently positive. That was naive. I've been e-mailing with a friend about the potential dark side, and it is yielding some good questions:
  • What if aligning your lifestyle with your values hurts the people around you?
  • What if the result of everyone living out their values wrecks the environment?
  • What if our values really suck and our priorities are all wrong?
  • What if we use our personal self-actualization as an excuse to shirk our responsibilities and obligations (resulting from past choices)?
  • Consequences, responsibilities, compromises, sacrifice...are these the real dirty words to the self-actualizer?