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The birth of responsibility
February 20th, 2014

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

The birth of responsibility

« you are this universe. And you are creating it at every moment. Because you see, it starts now.  It didn’t begin in the past. There was no past. (…) the universe is still beginning now  and it’s trailing off like the wake of a ship, from now,  and as the wake of the ship fades out, so does the past. You can look back there to explain things but the explanation disappears. You will never find it there. Things are not explained by the past. They’re explained by what happens now.  That creates the past. And it begins here.
   That’s the birth of responsibility. Because otherwise you can look over your shoulder and say, "Well, I am the way I am because my mother dropped me… And she dropped me because she was neurotic, because her mother dropped her"  and we go way way back to Adam and Eve, or to a disappearing monkey or something. We never get at it. But, in this way, you are faced with that you’re doing all this. And that’s an extraordinary shock. »
— Alan Watts (3'52'' It Starts Now - Alan Watts (strongly recommended))

In spite of the fact that the 1% captured 9 out of 10 dollars of all the wealth added to the US economy since 2000, there is a pervasive sense (among the 1%) that they  are the ones facing persecution and denigration.

It would be relatively easy to step back and laugh at their self-serving delusion if it was not for its excessive  (literally) impact on American society.

Wealthy individuals are far more likely vote and contribute to political campaigns. In 2012,
• those making over $150,000 showed up at the polls nearly twice the rate as those making less than $20,000;
• 41,000 Americans gave $2,600, or more, to presidential campaigns. But these contributions made up nearly 25% of all dollars raised that year… meaning the impact of these wealthy individuals on presidential fundraising was 2,500 times greater than their actual proportion of the population.

When the 1% gets over-represented so much (from 2× in turn-out, to 25× in political agendas…), and sees itself as persecuted, it isn't surprising policies get twisted.

Now  is the birth of responsibility though.

For politicians only get funded massively if they might get elected (so that they can change the laws in order to 'protect' their backers). If you do your best so that it is clear to everyone that stupid Republicans have no chance of getting elected whatsoever, they won't even get funded… The 1% has a decent track record of not wasting their money; they're happy to take risks, but there must exist a chance of high return to compensate for the risk!

By voting more (and thus preventing the $150,000+ from being over-presented nearly twice solely due to turn-out!), you can take back the control of your democracy.

By informing yourself autonomously (so that the 25× funding in marketing doesn't impact so much your opinion), you can take back the control of your democracy.

What it takes is to stop looking at the past (from long-term narratives to short-term disappointments), to stop playing blame games, "Well, I am the way I am because my mother dropped me… And she dropped me because she was neurotic, because her mother dropped her"…  What it takes is to educate yourself and to look at influencing now,  at creating now,  the conditions of a better world.

It's easy to fall into "they betrayed us,"  e.g. by not implementing a particular aspect of an old programme (as if the world was static and programme could remain fixed); it's easy to fall into "I'm not voting for them again"  (in relation to virtually any politician); it's easy but it doesn't work.

It's easy not  to write to politicians (campaigning or already elected), but it doesn't work: for any political system to be 'representative', the elected must be informed by the voters of what the voters think! It's easy to think "I already voted for this, it's done, why is it coming back?";  it's easy but it doesn't work. If you don't repeat your priorities, the elected start thinking of themselves as 'leaders', as the ones promoting their own opinions (instead of representing the opinions of the voters (who make the effort of educating themselves to form such opinions)).

It's easy not  to want to share now, it's easy to want to cling for a bit longer ("I know it's not forever, let me enjoy it while it lasts");  it's easy but it doesn't work.

Being responsible is harder, but it's what it takes. Any quick fix is not a fix at all! Perpetuating the status quo, by apathetic participation, doesn't help to solve the unsatisfactory status quo! Wake up! You're responsible! Now! Narratives about the past are just cop-outs: you create the past now!

One of the reasons the rich can see themselves apart is that they live in society which champions their very elevation. As long as voters are dumb enough to confuse American dream (the "pursuit of happiness") with "becoming rich", education is needed.

[deep breath]

"Educating yourself" is significantly different from "believing what is reported in one article" (in particular if it just nicely confirms the cultural biases of the readership)

Scientific American just published an article who would have you believe that "a happy life may not be a meaningful life"  (

I understand that Scientific American readers wish to read that their consumerist lifestyle makes scientific sense, but that's not science!
It takes more than one poor study, and one even poorer article reporting it, to change the results of many studies.

[ I don't have £24 to spare on buying the final article, so I looked at a pre-print from
but this should be extremely close (based on « Forthcoming in Journal of Positive Psychology ») to what Scientific American reports on. ]

« Happiness is generally defined as subjective well-being, which is to say, an experiential state that contains a globally positive affective tone. It may be narrowly or broadly focused: A person may claim to be happy to have found a lost shoe, happy that the war is over, or happy to be having a good life. »

You may note that we're thus talking about self-reported happiness, disregarding the obvious bias that people have about self-reporting (few people want to look like weirdos: people tend to report what they think the researchers anticipate).
It is also not a measure of feeling, but indeed a measure of a conceptual appropriation/interpretation of feeling.

« Researchers have conceptualized and measured happiness in at least two quite different ways. One is affect balance, indicating having more pleasant than unpleasant emotional states, and is thus essentially an aggregate of how one feels at different moments. The other, life satisfaction, goes beyond momentary feelings to invoke an integrative, evaluative assessment of one’s life as a whole. »

Indeed, cf.
However, the present study unfortunately ignores the distinction!

« Operationally, we let participants in our studies define happiness (…) in whatever way they chose, rather than imposing specific definitions on them. »

If that's not saying « we know we should be more specific, but that didn't confirm what we wanted to report, so we botched the method instead » I don't know what does.

There seems to be a huge confusion between 'happiness' and 'well-being', cf. the debate on survival needs being met. Few people would naturally call "survival needs being met" 'happiness'; they would call it 'survival'. Thus it seems pretty obvious that the word 'happiness' is put in the mouth of the participants!

« interpersonal involvement, among other things, is surely vital for both meaning and happiness. We do not intend to dwell on such things as interpersonal belongingness, because our focus is on the differences between meaningfulness and happiness, but we acknowledge their importance. »

Acknowledge but discard? Scientific rigour in action?

« Although both happiness and meaningfulness may involve interpersonal connection, they may differ in how one relates to others. Insofar as happiness is about having one’s needs satisfied (bias), interpersonal involvements that benefit the self should ('should'?) improve happiness. In contrast, meaningfulness may come instead from making positive contributions to other people. »

Basically, the assumption is a dichotomy: I cannot be happy from contributing to other people. I have to see this as a zero-sum game: others are happy or I am happy. The win-win scenario is 'acknowledged' but, in practice, discarded!
Make a caricatural binary model of the world, and you'll get caricatural binary conclusions!

« A national sample of 397 adults (68% female; ages 18-78; M = 35.5 years old; 48.1% were parents) »

Now, you have to be kidding! How is this representative of the population? 68% female? Only one country, which happens to be a superpower and one of the richest countries in the world (i.e. where survival is —at the end of the day— 'easy'… in a study confusing 'survival' and 'happiness')? Only one country, the one where respondents are the most likely in the world —culturally speaking— to take for granted  that  money means consumerism means happiness?

« Happiness and meaningfulness were substantially and positively intercorrelated. As Table 1 shows, the correlations in the two surveys were .63 and .70. »

Now, please contrast this with the Scientific American title: « A Happy Life May not be a Meaningful Life ». Well, the study strongly indicates the opposite! Of course, "there might be exceptions" (correlation is not 1.) but that's hardly what the SA article is debating.

« One first sign of whether one’s needs are being satisfied is whether people consider their lives to be easy or difficult. Finding one’s life to be relatively easy was linked to more happiness. Finding life difficult (a separate item) was linked to lower happiness. Neither variable correlated significantly with meaning »

There is no discussion about the fact that 'needs' are conceptualised in our psyche. For example, several people I know definitely consider having a TV a 'need'. It's an absolute disaster —to be fixed ASAP— if their TV breaks down. But I've lived without TV all my adult life… Or some people are obese but think they 'need' to eat as much as they do. Clearly 'need' is a concept unless you make the study on facts rather than self-reported happiness.
In any case, there's no discussion that one might indeed cultivate the cessation of craving in order to find one's life "relatively easy"; in buddhist terms, the study is limited to the ordinary ignorant mind and its delusions (which it doesn't question in the least).

« Considering life a struggle was negatively correlated with happiness but approached a significant positive relationship with meaningfulness (…). Thus, finding one’s life easy or difficult is a matter of happiness and not of meaning. »

The latter sentence is contradictory with the former, thus confirming the bias that the researchers report what they want to see, not what there is to see.

I could go on with the rest of the paper, but I think I've already shown enough bias (both in the original article and the rephrasing by Scientific American) to seriously doubt the results.

But let's just have a final look at the data.

Visibly, the whole thing is to try to justify that "money makes happy", and contradict the many previous studies which debunked this as a myth once there's enough money for survival to be handled. We've seen how the new study confuses happiness with survival. As the previous studies never pretended that being ultra poor is irrelevant to happiness (when survival is not handled, there is indeed a positive correlation between money and happiness), the previous studies did take precautions that this one blurs only to make a headline! However, as I criticised above, the study is not representative in terms of population and survival is not a major issue here! So let's look at some raw data reported table 5: correlation between happiness and "shopping reflects me"? 0. "Balancing finances"? 0. "Buying gifts for self"? 0.  These are the items in which money exchange is quite explicitly involved (contrarily to e.g. texting or watching TV, even if this requires money) and the correlation is basically null! But the article concludes that money makes happiness? How biased can one get?
["Buying gifts for others" might seem interesting, but I strongly suspect —in particular given the gender bias on population sample and the associated cultural roles— that one needs to discern gifts out of duty and social obligation (gifts for which one often feel 'used', i.e. often 'frustrating' gifts), vs. gifts out of generosity…]

In spite of all its biases, the study —if anything— actually confirms the previous studies instead of invalidating them. But this obviously would not have been 'news'-worthy, so the reported results are twisted. Pathetic.

[deep breath]

Practice generosity, it is the first pāramitā  for a reason!

It's easy not  to want to share now, it's easy to want to cling for a bit longer ("I know it's not forever, let me enjoy it while it lasts");  it's easy but it doesn't work. How much longer do you need before you try another course of action, for your own sake as well as others'?

One of the reasons the rich can see themselves apart is that they live in society which champions their very elevation. As long as voters are dumb enough to confuse the "pursuit of happiness" with "becoming rich", education is needed. 

The birth of responsibility is in each moment, moment after moment… not in the past, not tomorrow! It is in the confused 'dreams' we cultivate now… It is in the 'small' acts we do now…

Unattributed photo