Experiments in Living: Ethics, Habits and Happiness (Part I)

Image of Harriet Taylor Mill. Image source.

I am writing this entry in light of my previous post (“A Simple Path: Needs, Nonconformity and Non-Distraction”) and the new name of my blog (“Experiments in Living”). Moreover, I am myself engaged in experiments in living. I am changing my habits and, in the process, reexamining the way in which the various parts of my life fit (or fail to fit) together to promote my own flourishing and the flourishing of those around me, both human and nonhuman.

I am amazed at how a simple thing like free time enables one to see oneself and one’s world better. To experiment in living. To change. To grow. In the developed world distraction and purposeless busyness are the primary barriers to people (including myself) becoming better. But most people, if given the time to care for themselves and undo the damage done to their bodies, souls and relationships, will emerge much better and better off.

As an extreme endurance athlete, I am deeply familiar with the natural healing and regenerative capacities of the human body. Why suppose that the human mind or spirit is any different? Why suppose that it cannot heal itself, if given the time? In endurance sports we are fond of saying that recovery is half of training. The athlete who ceaselessly trains and neglects recovery becomes unfit. So too in life.

Experiments in Living

Though I do not personally accept consequentialist ethical theories like utilitarianism, I do find a lot of value in the writings of utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, who co-thought and co-wrote with his companion and (later) wife, Harriet Taylor.

One feature of Mill’s liberalism was his defense of ‘Experiments of Living’ — that is to say, people “experimenting” with different forms of life, so as to discover better human habits. The concept is not unlike the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ (also defended by Mill): create a political and cultural environment in which different ideas proliferate and compete, and the Truth (or a better approximation thereof) will emerge. Similarly, encourage human beings to “experiment” in their daily habits and lifestyles, and the Good Life (or a better approximation thereof) will emerge.

Ethics

It is not “easy” to become an ethical person; in a lot of cases, being ethical and happy demands non-conformity. Unfortunately, a personal ethics based on rational principles or “going to church on Sundays” is insufficient. On the other hand, an ethics based on developing strong habits of heart, mind and attention is hard but also genuine. Indeed, I have come to believe that the only authentic ethics is an ethics grounded in, and responsive to, individual human nature — an ethics that works on, and for, people.

My Habits

These habits are not my goals. They are my habits. They are practices I regularly pursue. And they give structure to my days.

Some of my habits include the following:

  1. Frequenting local libraries, where I check out books and read the news
  2. Shopping at the neighborhood grocery store, which offers affordable local produce
  3. Cooking vegan from scratch and eschewing plastic packaging
  4. Buying most things used (e.g., clothing, cookware, furniture, electronics, etc.)
  5. Taking short, cold showers, so as to (a) save precious water and (b) not use the gas water heater. (In the desert the water runs hot!)
  6. Line drying laundry. (In the desert the air runs dry!)
  7. Taking cash out of my bank account each week to pay for everything, except my bills, which I pay electronically
  8. Avoiding all forms of debt, including environmental debt
  9. Joining community classes (e.g., meditation, philosophy, bike maintenance, creative writing, nature appreciation, etc.)
  10. Visiting a new place or event every week in my city
  11. Frequently seeing, talking to or writing friends and family
  12. Giving my time, compassion and attention to new people, wherever I meet them
  13. Reading several new books a month
  14. Using the Internet purposefully and infrequently; avoiding social media
  15. Watching films at my local independent movie theater instead of online
  16. Using a flip phone. Leaving it at home (sometimes).
  17. Bicycle commuting
  18. Relying on maps and my own memory to navigate places
  19. Meditating at least once a day
  20. Whenever I can, relying on savings instead of insurance

Plus a few commitments:

  1. Energy: Purchasing solar blocks through a community solar program; using gas power sparingly (if at all)
  2. Housing: Living in a housing cooperative, where I own my condo but not the land
  3. Finances: Keeping my savings in a local credit union and investing in Socially Responsible Index Funds (while I research green investing)

In Part II of this entry, I will explore the effects of these practices. These habits require time and energy to learn. And they require letting go of old ways of doing things, which can be scary. But as my maternal grandfather always said, “you can always make a U-Turn!” The old way of doing things will still be there, if you choose to return.

I can say I feel much more connected to, well, life! The world feels more real, as I am embedded in my environment and more responsive to the way the world actually is. I regularly come into contact with people who do not share my level of education, youth/health or economic security. Plus, environmental and social realities remain in the forefront of my consciousness, exactly where they should be.

An important aspect of these practices is that they encourage day-to-day, ethical awareness, which is essential for fostering a real connection to nature and our fellow humans. How we navigate through each day has an enormous impact on our awareness.

So far, my enjoyment of these practices far outweighs the “convenience” of driving and maintaining my own vehicle, incessant and largely meaningless technology use, frozen pre-made meals, superficial relationships or buying whatever I wish (and likely do not need!) with the thoughtless click of a button.

Having every shallow desire immediately met is really not the stuff of happiness, after all. I think we all know this, deep down.

Please feel free to comment with your own experiments in living!

Thanks for listening,

Sarah