31 January, 2012

Nicomachean Work Ethics

The beach resort some friends and I stayed at for three nights for Christmas is an amazing collective which includes artists and musicians as part of the staff. As a World Heritage site it keeps these individuals around to teach classes and generally create an air of creativity. All-in-all it is an incredibly beautiful place where you can stay for $10 a night. We’re going back-in two weeks. After two weeks back in my village I again abandoned it for the city of Thies where the Peace Corps Senegal training center is located. There I spent a mere three days working; attending seminars put on by seasoned volunteers. Then the entire U.S.ex-patriot community of West Africa, some traveling for days, gathered in the capital city of Dakar-to play softball.

The West African Intramural Softball Tournament - appropriately acronymized WAIST- is three days of American stereotype designed by the U.S. Embassy for the enjoyment of all interested in participating. Peace Corps Senegal has several teams, divided up by the geographic location of our villages, and makes up a sizable chunk of the participants. Also in attendance were embassy workers, NGO workers, their families’, some West Africans, and others looking for a slice of the Global West in Dakar. Hot dogs, beer, baseball-Peace Corps even held a prom night. My favorite part was seeing the American teenagers at a family event. It was just the same as it would have been in America right down to the pimply faced 15 year old boy serving us hot dogs from a stand and snarky 13 year old girls giggling at the nerdy costumes we made for the Kaolack softball team. This was the first time I was around a non-Peace Corps group of people who I could understand culturally but whom, I had to keep in mind, could understand what I was saying in English. A pervasive bad habit of volunteers is to assume people around us don’t understand what we’re saying in English, and we become quite free with our vernacular.

For the duration of the event I stayed in the lovely, amenity-filled, home of an American woman living in Dakar. She had been a Peace Corps volunteer for three years 35 years ago in, what was then, Zaire. The U.S. embassy and Peace Corps collaborate to find people living in Dakar who are willing to host volunteers. Some stay in incredible homes of colonial proportions with a staff of servants, cooks, and gardeners. My home-stay wasn’t this elaborate, but amazing none-the-less. Within moments of passing through the door I was handed sangria, Thai noodles and grilled chicken. And the shower was hot-I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed that. But, even after all of this relaxation, luxury and ‘American’ fun I felt strangely listless upon returning to my village, Diouly.

A couple of days later, out for a run, I came upon a group of young Dioulites out by the forest. I abandoned my cardio and Pantera and took up their mission instead; gather kenkeliba leaves (for medicinal tea), demb, and alome fruit (for a delicious snack). We climbed the trees and whacked at them with long branches to get the fruit down, and I discovered a new hobby; nibbling twigs from a eucalyptus tree to curb my nail biting (a seriously disgusting habit to have here). The following day I biked the trail to my Master Farmer’s house to get some work done (my first time going unarmed with another volunteer). She was having a problem with aphids infesting her pepper plants so I whipped up a solution of neem leaves and garlic to deter them from spreading to unoccupied plants. The next day my host mother took me into the forest to teach me the names of and uses for the local trees and plants. I was able to observe a good deal about the movements of moisture through the landscape in Diouly’s agricultural lands, which is important knowledge when growing field crops.

Gathering Demb fruit outside Diouly

After these three days of work and integration I realized my post-Dakar funk had lifted. What had happened? Aristotle insisted that the ultimate good was happiness and the way to reach happiness was to focus on pleasures. But not all pleasures are created equally. There are higher order pleasures like enjoying a great book and lower order pleasures, like smoking, drinking, shopping, etc, which will never deliver you to the greatest Good (Nicomachean Ethics). Playwright Noel Coward said that interesting work ‘is more fun than fun’ (Wiener 2007). WAIST was three days of pre-structured fun and constant indulgence in what I am supposed to desire, but it turned out to be much less fun then my three days of frolicking in the forest and working.

A good part of my new found giddiness had to do with the fact that when humans feel useful and productive we are generally more contented, and this is amplified when we know our work has gone appreciated, as confirmed by behavioral economics experimental magic conducted at MIT (Ariely 2010). Eric Weiner points out, in The Geography of Bliss, that Americans tend to ask the question, “What do you do?” as the foremost way to get-to-know a new acquaintance. We take pride in our work, especially if we find it to be interesting work, and it becomes a deep source of our joy and perhaps, High Order pleasures. I asked this very question of a contented Englishman I met in Dakar and after giving a very indirect, but appropriate answer, he turned out to be this guy ; a designer/writer who just published a new book. He was all too excited to hear us vent bitter fumes about how appalled we are by what life is like for the people in the rural villages in Senegal, and the seeming impossibility of our goals here. He listened patiently about this discontentedness which it turns out is, supremely, the unlikely source of our greatest pleasure; our work.

Fancy MRI brain scans have shown that altruistic action stimulates pleasure centers in our brain. No one can deny that fuzzy feeling you get when you believe you’ve committed a truly Good act. In this way, Peace Corps volunteers are some strange breed of hedonist. Separate from our happy inducing ‘interesting’ and altruistic work, I often hear volunteers commenting on how luxurious even the quaintest American life will seem to us after our service. Is forcing ourselves to NOT take our lives back home for granted an effective happiness stimulant? I guess I won’t be able answer that question for myself for several years, but most returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) I’ve met are happy people (and usually have interesting work). So the idea is, it seems, is that we will make ourselves so uncomfortable, so frustrated, so confused, that nothing after this will seem as difficult, leading to some kind of hedonic wisdom. Sprinkle some altruism in there and you have an unconventional recipe for a contented life.

This basic recipe is something utilized by people fairly often. Take the marathon runner; she pushes herself to an incredible extreme in order to feel a sense of accomplishment and make challenges in other parts of her life easier to face (as an achieved marathon runner my father can attest to this). Her happiness could stem from the positive psychological effects of all the endorphins and oxygen, or the sense that she’s achieved a formidable goal and been part of something bigger then herself (a spiritual experience as well). Those who take part in extreme body modification projects, like suspensions are cooking with the Peace Corps Volunteer happiness recipe as well. By proving to themselves they can do something so incredibly scary and taxing, they can make any other challenge seem like a walk in the park. Just as with running a marathon, there is a physical aspect here; one crazy-intense adrenaline rush (which is generally experienced as a spiritual event, as well).

Even though Peace Corps Volunteers often feel like they’re banging their head up against a rock solid wall of institutionalized inequality and poverty, the daily task of hoping that our work to tear it down is effective has to be enough to keep us happy. The Science of Happiness has ascertained (scientifically, of course) that hope contributes an enormous amount to an individual’s happiness…

Ariely, Dan. The Upside of Irrationality. 2010 Harper Collins E-Books.

Weiner, Eric. The Geography of Happiness. 2008 Twelve Books, The Hachette Book Group. New York.