Burlington, Vermont—On Day Two of the Quest for Happiness, we delved into alternative to “affluenza”—ways to become less enslaved to the workplace.
It turns out we have much to learn from rules in other countries.
After a yummy lunch at City Market with journalist Andy Bromage (pictured), formerly of New Haven and now a happy Burlington resident, I dropped in on the Time Use workshop. It was facilitated by John deGraaf and Vicki Robin. He’s founder of Take Back Your Time and has produced several documentaries on the subject, including Affluenza (how the pursuit of affluence – all our stuff – hurts us) and Escape from Affluenza, in which a friend of mine appeared prominently. Robin is co-author of Your Money or Your Life (with the late Joe Dominguez), a primer of the voluntary simplicity movement – figuring out how to live well with less, so you can spend less time money-grubbing and more time doing the things you love with the people you care about. Banjo-pickin’, anyone? How about growing your own organic greens for cheap?
Theirs was a complementary presentation: he focused on the policy changes needed in society to support individuals and families in achieving work-life balance; she talked about the personal changes people can make right now.
So, deGraaf (pictured) described four bills in the U.S. Congress that could pave the way to a better life for Americans – a life that is already enjoyed by citizens of most developed nations, he pointed out. If passed, he opined, “they [the laws] would allow the U.S. to join the 21st century.”
The first is paid family leave, to transform the Family and Medical Leave Act (much touted by President Bill Clinton when he signed it in 1993), from 12 weeks of unpaid leave to paid time off for working parents when they have a child or need to care for a family member. DeGraaf said only 30 percent of workers can even take advantage of the original law, either because they work for companies too small to be covered by it, or because they just can’t afford to take unpaid time off.
The Healthy Families Act would give Americans seven paid sick days a year. “This was Ted Kennedy’s last piece of legislation,” deGraaf said. “We’re the only industrial country where people don’t get paid time off when they are sick.” He said 46 percent of workers in the U.S. get no paid sick days – and up to 86 percent of restaurant workers. Think about that the next time you go out for a nice dinner.
The third proposal involves paid vacation time. Again, the U.S. is the only industrialized country that doesn’t give paid vacation time by law. The proposal would give one to two weeks of paid vacation time for American workers. “Very modest,” deGraaf said, “but a step in the right direction.”
The fourth proposal is the Shared Work Act, introduced by Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed and New Haven’s own U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro. “It would allow federal unemployment funds to be used to top up salaries when employers cut work hours, rather than laying people off,” deGraaf explained. For example, an employer could cut everyone to four days a week, federal funds could ease the pain of a salary cut, and layoffs could be prevented.
DeGraaf gave the Healthy Families Act the best chance of passing. But Connecticut couldn’t pass a similar bill allowing just five paid sick days a year for those who work in companies with 50 or more employees. It died after the business community alleged that it would promote an “anti-business” climate. The same fate befell a similar bill in Vermont this year.
In case this all sounded pie-in-the-sky, Danish college student Line Kikkenborg Christensen (pictured) was in the workshop to tell us poor clueless Americans that this is how life is now for her and most other Europeans.
“I get paid to go to college,” she said. (She gets a stipend.) That makes her happy. Everyone gets good, government-sponsored health care. That makes her happy, too, “knowing that no one is dying on the streets of Denmark” for lack of basic necessities.
DeGraaf pointed out that Denmark consistently ranks at the top of international happiness surveys. While it’s true Danes pay more taxes than Americans, another participant pointed out that a much higher proportion of those taxes fund programs that directly benefit Danes, whereas in America a huge percentage of federal taxes feeds the war machine (even when we’re not at war).
Robin took the “personal empowerment view.” She said individuals and families can do lots of things right now to enhance their happiness quotient. “Sharing resources is a decent way to liberate some of your time,” she said. That includes sharing living space in all kinds of creative ways, from the urban and rural communes of the 1960s and ‘70s, to the co-housing of today, to elders who open their homes to a younger person who does chores in exchange for a rent-free room and access to common rooms. Food can be shared by planting backyard (or front yard) gardens, organizing potluck dinners, or dividing up the eggs produced by backyard hens. People have “liberated” some of the time formerly required to make money to live a traditional (i.e., high consumption) American lifestyle and in the process deepened their personal relationships.
This is in line with SHARE Haven, the year-old effort in greater New Haven to build community while sharing skills and earning “time dollars” that are of equal value for all members. Click here for a previous story. (As a member of SHARE Haven, I have done some sewing and yard work in exchange for furniture moving help and massages.)
I’ve never been a big consumer myself; I’ve always appreciated the bumper sticker slogan, “The best things in life aren’t things.” I asked deGraaf later why this idea that acquiring ever more stuff (“affluenza”) makes us happy is so virulent in America.
“I think we’ve had it hammered into us for a little longer and in more sophisticated ways, to manipulate us into these imaginary ‘needs’ that we have,” he responded. “I think it’s also been very effective in connecting these material things to emotional needs. For some people their sense of worth and status is dependent on that. I do tend to think, though, that the majority of Americans work as much as they do out of a sense of fear more than hedonism. It’s the sense that ‘I’ll lose my health insurance if I lose my job, if I’m not number one I could lose my job, if I take my vacation I’ll be seen as a slacker and could lose my job.’”
I asked him what he thinks of the term, “gross national happiness,” which is admittedly a little weird. He said he likes the term “because it’s funny and makes people think.”