The point of death is life

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Several years ago, someone once asked me,

“What’s the point? We’re all going to die anyway.”

He suffered from depression and on that summer night was feeling particularly hopeless. He pondered why we had to strive to do well in school, to grow a successful career and form relationships and build a family, when in the end there was going to be no trace left of it, or of us. His tone was both resigned and desperate. I found myself unable to give him a convincing response. I fumbled, mumbling something along the lines of “Oh, but we can still enjoy it while it lasts.” But I doubted my answer the moment it came out, and saw no relief in his eyes.

This summer, I visited my Japanese grandmother’s grave on the second anniversary of her death. She is buried next to my grandfather in a beautiful cemetery overlooking Mt. Fuji, not far from her home in Nagatsuta, Yokohama, where my mother lived as a university student, and where began a precious relationship between two families spanning four decades.

My mother

My mother in the garden at the home in Nagatsuta, Yokohama

My mother, second from right, and Obaajama, left

My mother, second from right, and Obaajama, left

My mother arrived in Japan in 1969, on the Bank of Thailand’s scholarship to study Economics at Keio University in Tokyo. She ended up staying for seven years to complete both her bachelors and masters degrees. After two years in the dorms, my mother moved to Yokohama to live with a host family. She grew very close to her host parents, especially her host mother, and continued to correspond with them after she left Japan, visiting occasionally. I first met my mom’s host parents in 1991, six months after I was born, and they became known to me as Obaajama and Ojiijama (grandma and grandpa in Japanese) thereafter.

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Ojiijama, Obaajama, and I on the subway in 1991.

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Obaajama dressing me up in a kimono, 1991

Growing up, I saw Obaajama and Ojiijama almost every year. Some years we would go stay in Yokohama, in the same house my mother lived in; other years they would visit us in Bangkok. After Ojiijama passed away in 2004, Obaajama took solo trips to Thailand and sometimes vacationed abroad with us. The only grandparent I knew was my father’s mother, who passed away when I was 10. So since then, Obaajama was the one who would spoil me with treats and presents.

She was vibrant, funny, and extremely talkative. I speak very little Japanese and yet she would talk at me, and it gave me joy regardless of whether I understood what she was saying or not. She sent me handmade postcards with photos of Jack, her beloved pug. She loved to sing and was a member of an amateur opera group for seniors, which travelled to Europe annually to give concerts. She would compile piano accompaniments of her favorite arias for me to play while she sang. We went strawberry-picking together, and potato-digging, after which Obaajama made the most delicious potato soup. We picked flowers from her garden and pressed them. Whenever she and my mother visited each other, they would stay up for hours chatting over tea.

In May 2013, Obaajama lay in the hospice bed, two months after the lung cancer she had seven years prior had returned and metastasized to her bones. She was very weak and held my parents’ and my hands with her eyes closed. She thanked us. hontoni arigato. I listened to her last words to me with limited comprehension, that my mother was her musumesan (daugher) and I was her omagosan (grandchild); her first blood-related granddaughter would be born six months after her death. I like to think that I was an adequate substitute.

Perhaps the question that doesn’t get asked enough is not “What is the point of life?” but rather “What is the point of death?” Life and death are inherently part of the same cycle, but often death is not given the consideration it deserves. By making the most out of death, we necessarily make the most out of life. If I could go back to that night in junior year and attempt the question again, of what the point of life is, given that it ends in death, I would reassure my friend that yes, we will die, but when we do, someone will remember. And when they can no longer remember, it won’t mean that it wasn’t so. The value of love, joy, and happiness is intrinsic, a value that is realized when it is given and received. And it won’t matter even if no one is left to cherish the memory. All that matters is that, there was happiness, there was joy, and there was love.

Luxor, Egypt, 2010

Luxor, Egypt, 2010

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Obaajama's baby granddaughter

Sawa-chan, Obaajama’s baby granddaughter, 2015

This is what true love looks like

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Last night my aunt passed away. She had suddenly stopped breathing and slipped away in a matter of minutes. For over a decade, my aunt had suffered from dementia; it may have been Alzheimer’s but the diagnosis was unclear. It began when she started hallucinating and hearing voices. Then she stopped talking altogether. In the past year or so, she was unable to walk or eat solid food. And through the thirteen years of her sickness, her husband devoted himself to caring for her.

My uncle is a traditional Chinese man, who wasn’t the type to show affection to his wife. I remember visiting them as a child and hearing my uncle harshly berating my aunt for something. But that all changed when my aunt got sick. A while after she had stopped talking, my aunt no longer recognized her family, not even her only daughter; perhaps not even my uncle, but she seemed pacified by his presence. At family gatherings she would be unable to sit still and would cling to my uncle’s arm, tugging him away. I watched as my uncle cajoled her into eating, placing spoonful after spoonful before her lips.

He fed her, bathed her, walked with her when she seemed distressed but could no longer communicate why, and took care of her bathroom needs when she lost control of her bladder and bowels. He and their daughter had just installed a second-hand hospital bed designed for Alzheimer’s patients in the bedroom, since she had become bed-ridden and began receiving nutrition through a tube. They had planned to place another bed outside in the living room so she could get some fresh air.

The day that my aunt died, my uncle cried. Not wailing cries, but continuous soft moans. In a way, she had left long ago – her memories, her voice, the look of recognition on her face when she saw her family. But my uncle had spent the last thirteen years caring for the last fragment of her being, which gradually receded, and was gone.

Book Review and Summary: “What Money Can’t Buy, The Moral Limits of Markets”

Happy New Year! After a long hiatus that was grad school application season, I am back.

While I hadn’t had the chance to write (other than application essays), I did read some books, one of which was “What Money Can’t Buy, The Moral Limits of Markets” by Michael Sandel, a political philosophy professor at Harvard. I found it a fascinating read so I decided to write a little book review/summary, along with a few personal anecdotes.

A small kitten facing a big dilemma

A small kitten facing a big dilemma

Markets for Death

Back in 2009, I read about life settlement securities, a new product of Wall Street, in my Money and Banking class. Investment banks were now doing what they did with mortgages, but using life insurance policies. They would buy policies from their holders, usually the sick and elderly, offering a price based on the present value of the future payout from the insurance company, which in turn depends on the life expectancy of the insured. These policies would then be spliced, packaged, and sold to security investors. The insured individual receives a lump sum in return for their illiquid asset, and the investors sit back and hope the insured dies promptly on schedule, or sooner, since investors are now responsible for the insurance premiums for as long as the insured is alive. Thus, to diversify risk, investment banks make sure the securities are spread across a range of ailing individuals, including cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s patients. Here’s an ad encouraging policy holders to trade in their life insurance for a lump sum of cash:

These two would be a bad investment - they look too healthy

These two would be a bad investment – they look too healthy

Fast forward to the summer of 2014, a group of Fed economists and research assistants (myself included) had gathered on the lawn outside the office to enjoy a picnic and some light lunchtime conversation. In an attempt to liven up the discussion, one of my coworkers asked the economists how they would allocate death, if they had no choice but to kill off one-third of the world’s population. Faced with this morbid task, the economists began proposing optimization schemes to ensure the most efficient outcome, whether it was by having people bid for survival (which presumably would allocate life to those who valued it the most—but of course this would kill off the poor, since you can only bid what you are willing and able to pay); killing off the sick and elderly (since they have the lowest life expectancy and thus would gain the least utility from surviving); or allowing individuals to save two people in return for volunteering themselves for execution, which would save the most valued lives from the volunteer’s perspective (although maximizing the welfare of the dead may not necessarily be the most efficient tactic).

Horrified? Yes, my sentiments exactly. But why does the idea of markets in death elicit such a strong negative reaction? Are there certain aspects of life (no pun intended) that should not be governed by markets? This is the subject of Michael Sandel’s book. "What Money Can't Buy" by Michael Sandel

The Fairness vs. Corruption Objections to Markets

Sandel identifies two objections to markets: one he calls the “fairness objection,” and the other the “corruption objection.” He gives an example of a case where a non-profit organization offered $300 to crack cocaine-addicted women who agreed to be sterilized, in order to reduce the number of potentially unwanted, drug-addicted babies being born. From an economic perspective, the cash for sterilization program is a win-win solution: it lowers social costs and the volunteers receive compensation which directly increases their welfare. Some critics of the program contested it on the grounds that, while the transaction was voluntary, the women who participated did so under the influence of their addiction and the need for drug money, which constitutes a form of coercion. This was the fairness objection: that participants were not acting with free will. This objection, however, does not contest the transaction on the grounds that the good being traded, i.e. the capacity to bear children, is something that should not be bought and sold. The idea that one’s capacity to procreate is priceless and sacred, or that creating a market for procreation demeans its value, falls under the corruption objection. It argues that commercializing a woman’s reproductive abilities is degrading, and changes the way women are regarded. In other words, the creation of markets sometimes crowds out nonmarket, social norms.

When markets crowd out nonmarket norms

It used to be all about truth and justice. Now, mostly I fight for market share.

According to Sandel, the conventional assumption is that markets themselves do not influence people’s attitudes towards or the value of goods being traded. This assumption is called into question, however, when markets enter aspects of life which they do not traditionally govern. He illustrates this with a study conducted at a day-care center, which began charging fees on parents who showed up late to pick up their child. Incidentally, the number of late pickups increased rather than decreased, because now parents saw late pickups as a service that they could pay for, guilt-free, rather than an inconvenience imposed on the teacher. The study also showed that once norms are eroded by the presence of markets, they are difficult to regain; even after the fee was removed, the initial increase in late pickups persisted. This is the concern of critics raising the corruption objection against the cash-for-sterilization program, that trafficking in procreation will alter the norms associated with it.

Efficiency vs. Ethics

Having established that markets do influence the goods being traded in some cases, Sandel goes on to illustrate situations in which economic efficiency must be weighed against ethics. One example is Canada’s ban on walrus hunting in 1928, due to dwindling population numbers. A special exception was made for the Inuit natives, whose culture and livelihood had depended on the animal for generations. However, the Inuit initiated an alternative, more economically attractive proposal, which was to sell their quota to tourists who wanted to shoot walruses. The Inuit would still collect and utilize the carcasses as they have always done, but would simply charge a fee for transportation and the right to shoot. Walruses are apparently slow moving, defenseless animals, posing no challenge in a “chase”, and hunters cannot even take the dead animal home as a trophy. The NYT described the hunt as “the approximate equivalent of a long boat ride to shoot a very large beanbag chair.”

From a market perspective, allowing the Inuit to sell their quota increases the utility of all parties involved (except the walruses, who suffer the same disutility from being killed): the Inuit still have the walrus carcasses for their use while earning extra income, the paying hunters get the opportunity to shoot a near-inanimate object, and the quota for the number of walruses hunted remains the same. However, the moral issue that arises is whether this use of the quota is justifiable. The initial purpose of granting an exception to the ban was to preserve the Inuit culture and way of life, but the new tradable allowance arguably strays from that objective. Two things that further complicate the issue are the fact that the Inuit still keep the carcasses, which may help justify maintaining the quota, and the moral question of whether the hunters’ “desire to kill a helpless mammal at close range” is one that should be encouraged.

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So if we had to kill a third of the world’s population…

First of all, let’s hope it never comes to that. Secondly, if it did, we might as well do it randomly rather than devising a plan to minimize economic loss. Because as outlined above, economic efficiency sometimes crowds out arguably valuable social norms. I will conclude with Larry Summers, quoted in the book as saying “We all have only so much altruism in us. Economists like me think of altruism as a valuable and rare good that needs conserving. Far better to conserve it by designing a system in which people’s wants will be satisfied by individuals being selfish, and saving that altruism for our families, our friends, and the many social problems in this world that markets cannot solve.” Sandel offers a different perspective: “Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise” I am more inclined to sympathize with the latter view that certain things can be cultivated, and that some goods like compassion, kindness, love, and happiness cannot be incentivized, financially or otherwise. Now go ahead and scoff at my naïveté, you soulless economists… JUST KIDDING economists are great 🙂

Bhutan: Happiness is a place

Spanish moss and raindrops

Spanish moss and raindrops

First travel blog post! 🙂

Last month, I finally fulfilled my long-cherished dream to visit Bhutan, the land famous for its unique policy of targeting gross national happiness. Admittedly, I was a little skeptical at first. Surely, people of the outside world had idealized this place, calling it “the last Shangri-La”, their eyes glazing over at the thought of some floating Neverland in the clouds, imagination dripping with the allure of Oriental mysticism. The Bhutanese can’t be that much happier than the rest of us, I thought. But having now experienced Bhutan and its people, I must say that this beautiful country lived up to and beyond its reputation.

Bhutan is a little kingdom nestled in the Himalayas, sandwiched between China, in the north, and India, in the south and west. It’s about the size of Switzerland but has a population of only 700,000 people. The government’s main source of revenue is the exportation of hydropower, mainly to India, generated by Bhutan’s many rivers which run down from the glaciers. With this revenue, Bhutan provides its citizens with free education up through high school and free healthcare. Other than the study of their national language, Dzongkha, all other subjects are taught in English, which is why almost everyone I met in Bhutan spoke perfect English. There are reportedly no homeless people since every citizen is entitled to at least a small plot of land to sustain themselves. 90% of the population is in agriculture and 70% of the land is covered by forests (higher than the official minimum of 60%). Sound like a little slice of Utopia?

View from the roadside

View from the roadside

Since Bhutan opened itself to tourism quite late (in 1974), it learned from the mistakes of other countries like Nepal and Thailand, now flooded with backpackers and illegal trades. In order to limit the number of visitors and preserve its pristine natural endowments, Bhutan imposes a tourist tax and mandates that visitors purchase an all-inclusive package, which costs about $200 per night. However, given that this covers the tourist tax, 3 meals, 3-star accommodation, a local guide, and a car, it’s quite a good deal. The hefty fee is, however, effective in encouraging “high-income, low-impact” tourists.

The first time I had heard of Bhutan was in 2006, when then-crown prince, and present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck visited Thailand for King Bhumibol’s 60th year celebration of his accession to the throne. Prince Jigme Khesar was wildly popular in the Thai media, thanks to his good looks and down-to-earth demeanor. Through all this hype, I learned that the prince’s father, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, had four queens – sisters. Given this, I had expected Bhutan to be a patriarchal society much like many other countries, or the rest of the world, really.

So imagine my surprise when our guide explained that, though polygamy is no longer commonly practiced, in the old days it was acceptable for both men and women to marry multiple spouses – and it was often the case that the multiple spouses were siblings. The idea was that this would reduce tension and improve harmony within the family. Furthermore, women inherit the land and property, and in an agricultural society one can imagine that this gives immense power to women. Men, on the other hand, receive a cup, a sword, and a piece of fabric, before being booted out to search for a wife. So if a woman inherits a lot of land and is short on labor,  she may naturally marry several men.

Punakha Dzong: ancient fortress which now serves as government headquarters. The royal wedding was held here in 2011.

Punakha Dzong: ancient fortress which now serves as government headquarters. The royal wedding was held here in 2011.

Democracy in Bhutan is young, as it only made the transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy six years ago. King Jigme Khesar inherited the throne from his father, who abdicated in 2006. The former king now lives in a log cabin, having turned his back on palatial life, presumably to concentrate his efforts on his spirituality…which brings me to subject of religion. Bhutan is a devout Buddhist country. Everywhere I went there were prayer wheels: wooden cylinders inscribed with mantras, so that spinning the wheel was equivalent to reciting the mantras orally. Sometimes prayer wheels would be placed in the path of a stream, housed by a little shrine of white, red, and gold, so that the clear waters would continue to spin out prayers for all eternity. Prayer flags were strung up in the temples, from tree branches along the roadside, and even across deep gorges. The five colors of the flags represent the five elements. Red for fire, green for wood, yellow for earth, blue for water, and white for air.

Buddhism, karma, and reincarnation, are incorporated into the every-day lives and mentality of the Bhutanese. On the day that we were to climb up to Taktsang monastery, or “Tiger’s nest”, a temple built on the edge of a tall cliff, I asked our guide if he intended to walk or ride one of the horses provided for the tourists. He replied, “We don’t believe in riding. This time we may ride the horse, but next time around the horse may ride us.” Hearty laughter. (Thankfully I chose to walk, so at least that’s one thing less to worry about…)
The hike was well worth it. The air was moist and cool from the thick fog that had settled early that morning. Strands of Spanish moss hung from tall branches and caught the dew droplets, so that they looked like tiny crystal bulbs on a string of Christmas lights. Wildflowers bloomed on either side of the path in the most perfect, unintentional manner. As I approached the last stretch of the hike – down into the deep gorge and up again – the fog lifted, and Taktsang loomed gloriously above.

Taktsang ("Tiger's Nest")

Taktsang (“Tiger’s Nest”)

On our final day in Bhutan, we passed a high school where the students were gathered outside the gate. Our guide explained, “One of the school’s dogs got run over by a car, so they are going to the temple to pray.”

So, if I had to take a wild guess, I’d say the Bhutanese are probably the happiest people I’ve ever seen. Life is slow; locals can be seen strolling leisurely, in no rush to get anywhere. There are no traffic lights, only a traffic man standing in a sentry post directing the flow. Dogs and cows sleep wherever they please, including the middle of the road. I also imagine that being surrounded by such richness and beauty of nature is humbling, perhaps even a reminder to make the most of our small and short existences. And finally, the greatest and most obvious indicator of happiness: the abundance of smiles – expressions of guileless, unadulterated joy.

If happiness is a place, this is it.

🙂

Lessons on Humanity from a Holocaust Survivor

We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses. We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers, From Prague, Paris, and Amsterdam, And because we are only made of fabric and leather And not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire. - Moses Schulstein

We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers,
From Prague, Paris, and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire.
– Moses Schulstein

Last month, I had the rare opportunity of listening to the horrific experiences of a Holocaust survivor, Marty Weiss, who is now a volunteer at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Marty, a slight but very healthy-looking gentleman in his eighties, was a young teenager when he and his family were rounded up from then-Czechoslovakia, and sent off to Auschwitz in 1944. Upon arrival, the men and women were separated. Marty, his father, brother, sister, and two uncles were selected for labor, while the rest of his family was sent directly to the gas chambers.

According to Marty, the greatest source of suffering during his stay in the camp was hunger. The prisoners were so weak that they stumbled around as if blind. He recounts one incident when a man fell face-first into a shallow puddle and, being so weak, was unable to lift his head above the water. “No one would have thought to help him,” Marty says, “not because we were heartless, but because in that moment we envied him, that he was not going to have to suffer anymore.”

Marty and his father were soon transferred to a different labor camp, a sub-camp of the Mauthausen concentration camp. Towards the end of his time there, prisoners were being fed one meal a day, consisting of a pint of plant broth and a piece of “bread” made mostly from sawdust. The bread crumbled into a fine powder when cut, and had to be received with cupped hands. Marty said that at that time, he just wished he could eat a loaf of bread—not devouring it like a pig, but instead eating it like a human being, even leaving a small piece leftover, to preserve his dignity. “And then they could take me out and shoot me, and I wouldn’t care.” His voice already shaky, Marty paused to wipe his eyes.

When the Allies finally liberated them, Marty, his cousin, and a few other prisoners wandered from the camp in search of food (Marty’s father had by then already died of exhaustion and starvation). They found an abandoned truck loaded with cow hides and lard. At a nearby house, they knocked on the door, asked for some flour, milk, and eggs, and made dumplings on an outdoor stove. After their meal, the men returned to the house with the cow hides as tokens of their thanks for the German woman who had given them food.

Now that they were no longer captives and the Germans had lost the war, perhaps one may wonder why Marty and his comrades did not simply barge into the house and loot for food. This is what he said: “If I ever felt hate, it was then. To me, all Nazis were German and all Germans were Nazis. Yet, even after what they had done, it never occurred to us that we should have acted in an uncivilized manner. We were barely human then, but we managed to somehow hold onto our decency. And to this day it bothers me. It must have been a certain way that we were brought up.”

Marty saw the German woman, not as the perpetrator, but as a human being, and by doing so, preserved his own humanity. This lesson is important, and especially timely amidst the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and heavy fighting in Eastern Ukraine. History has shown us that patriotism and the categorization of people into political/religious/ethnic groups is dangerous. When we aren’t thinking in units of people, humanity is quickly lost and the destruction of a uniform, foreign, non-human population becomes alarmingly easy.

Why you will never find your other half

I read an interesting quote recently: “You are the universe, expressing itself as a human for a little while.” – Eckhart Tolle
This serves as a good reminder, not only that we come and go, but also that when we do go, we don’t really go anywhere; we simply re-enter and continue along the ecological cycle. I think a useful analogy for this is the water inside a vessel, which takes the shape of its container. When the vessel breaks, the water may flow into the ground or evaporate, but it won’t disappear; it just assumes a different form. We are all vessels of different shapes, sizes, and colours, who contain the same water as that inside other vessels, in the river, ground, or air. We are of the same matter as everyone and everything else. Like Omar Khayyam wrote in Rubaiyat: “All this of Pot and Potter – Tell me then, Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”

Given my family’s history of Alzheimer’s, I’ve seen first hand the fragility of the self – the mind, awareness of one’s existence – or whatever you should call it. It is contingent on the physiological, such that any physical or chemical change in the brain can profoundly alter one’s sense of identity or erase it completely. I have watched my aunt pace restlessly, unable to speak, neither recognizing her husband nor daughter. Many would say that that isn’t her anymore, that the body walking around doesn’t contain the person that her family once knew and loved. But that just goes to show that the self is not an entity but rather a synthesis facilitated by the physical complexity we call intelligence. The vessel may have cracked and is leaking slowly, altering the body of water which remains inside. But that original body of water was never an entity to begin with: when you pour water out of a cylindrical jar onto the ground, it doesn’t cling to its cylindrical-ness because that physical quality is gone. Who’s to say that the cylindrical shape – and not the shapeless puddle on the ground – is the true quality of that body of water?

This idea of non-self and the notion that we are created from the same substance as everything else in the universe can be used as a metaphor for the way we view ourselves in relation to others. We need not seek fulfillment from other people or things, because they cannot provide us with anything we can’t already find within us. This isn’t to say… become a recluse and have no friends. Of course, companionship is a wonderful thing, but we shouldn’t depend on others to compensate for something we feel is missing. That is why you will never find your “other half,” because no one can complete what you lack. If you seek fulfillment, look within, and perhaps you will see that we all have the potential to be whole without the need to search for a missing half.

Peacefulness vs. Happiness

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I once again find myself amidst a personal turmoil, frustrated over my unsuccessful attempts to corral my emotions, detach myself from my sources of pain and grief, and build happiness that is both resilient and as independent of external factors as possible. Happiness in recent years has become an industry and is increasingly being recognized as a science; psychologists want to analyze it, economists want to quantify it, some governments are even trying to create it, and everyone of course wants to achieve it.  The first World Happiness Report was commissioned in 2012 for a UN conference on happiness and well-being. The report for 2013 was released in September. The objective is to investigate indicators of happiness and well-being, assess countries’ progress towards happiness, and ultimately design policies that are more aligned with the indicators, should those indicators be deemed effective in predicting happiness.

Setting aside the question of whether or not happiness can be quantified and predicted, I wonder if the relentless pursuit of happiness is necessarily a worthwhile endeavor for everyone. We’ve all seen self-help books on positive thinking and heard the kind of mantra that says life should be lived to the fullest by putting yourself out there, loving fearlessly and failing beautifully, embracing the peaks and troughs of life. Reflecting on my relatively short duration of existence, I recall a handful of moments when I experienced absolute, irrefutable joy equally vividly as I do periods of unadulterated misery, which would be the case for any individual who has lived a moderately eventful life. For me, the relevant question is how to effectively manage my portfolio of happiness versus misery to prevent excessive losses while maintaining attractive returns.

In recent months I have turned my efforts towards practicing meditation as a potential method of hedging my suffering, and I did indeed feel my burdens alleviated, albeit temporarily. It was a sensation that was definitely not on par with the elation of pure joy but pleasing nonetheless, that I can only describe as peacefulness, for lack of a better word. It was neither exciting nor invigorating, but comfortable. Given my inexperience with meditation it was difficult to maintain the feeling for any extended period of time, but while I had it, it was with the understanding that suffering is inseparable from joy – and by this I don’t mean simply acknowledging the concept, which sounds equally uninspiring as unoriginal – but actually believing and practicing it: not allowing myself to get carried away with happiness or sadness because with one, the other is sure to follow. Peacefulness may be the treasury security of emotional states which, for a risk-averse individual as myself, seems like a reasonably good investment.

At the end of the day, I am still struggling to define my risk preferences and adjust my portfolio accordingly. Peacefulness may mute the volatility but deprive me of those experiences of pure bliss, since I would constantly be reminding myself of the transiency of happy and unhappy states. But perhaps some people have perfected their practice of peacefulness to allow them the same level of satisfaction as my happy experiences have granted me – I can only speculate. In that case, would peacefulness still be distinct from happiness? Is one more sustainable than the other? Which is it that the World Happiness Report is capturing when it measures the self-reported sense of well-being?

Peacefulness or happiness, sustainable or not, I’ll take whatever I can get right now.