The Problem with Giving Tuesday

Black Friday seems to now be the first day in a series of spending-oriented days: Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and today’s Giving Tuesday.  Apparently 2013 marks the second official Giving Tuesday.  According to the official website, the day “celebrates and encourages charitable activities that support non-profit organizations. I suspect, however, Giving Tuesday works because it is paired with days of spending and consuming; giving to others can sometimes be a way to make people feel less guilty for their own high levels of consumption.  We consume with ourselves (and our family and loved ones) in mind; we give to help others we do not know.

In the United States, it seems that getting the best deal often becomes the most important goal in our consumption. Post after post on my Facebook feed reveals friends letting others know about the money they saved in the purchase of some toy or gadget. While I’m not against saving money (I use electronic coupons to lower the cost of groceries quite regularly!), paying the lowest price should not be the highest priority when it comes to our consumption. Black Friday thrives because we’ve convinced ourselves there is moral virtue to finding the lowest price.

At the same time, I think all of us are willing to admit that there are limits to what we can and should do to save money or pay lower prices.  For those who pay people to clean their homes, I suspect paying an elementary school child to do the work (when they should be in school) wouldn’t be an option, even it was legal.  For those who hire people to care for their children, paying someone $2/hr who was undocumented and in severe financial need and willing to accept that low wage is probably also not an attractive option.

Yet somehow we think that if we buy an item in the informal marketplace, we are not responsible for how the business treats their workers. If we get a low price because the business we buy it from hired a child,  paid someone under the minimum wage, or made people work under hazardous conditions, then that’s not on us.  ”Am I my brother’s keeper?” we ask, much like Cain.  That’s their problem, not ours.  I assume this because I see people championing their great deal much more often than people asking questions about why prices are so low.  Economic sociologists often talk about the ways we’ve become disconnected from the items we buy under modern capitalism.

But then, in Giving Tuesday, we give to organizations that help those in poverty–often workers who may have been involved in the goods we buy.  How can we fail to see the irony within this?  Since this day just started, and we in the US like our specially named days, what about a different way to help, that actually connected with all the buying this season entails.  Informed Sunday.  That’s what I would support. What if, as Christians, we connected the buying and the giving; our consumption with our concern for others we do not know. The idea that we are not our brother or sister’s keeper, that we are not responsible for the conditions under which our goods are produced — it’s a lie.  We are called to live in covenant with God and with others.  While the market may be depersonalized, when we buy items, we lend our support to the business practices of the seller.  We are connected to the workers involved.

Why don’t we reflect? Why aren’t we informed about our purchases?  I think for many, it’s simply too hard. I have students come to me, overwhelmed with trying to figure out how to live justly in a system they see as unjust.  How do they make ethical purchasing decisions? How do they choose a workplace that values human dignity above profit? But doing nothing… it’s always less than doing something.

This is why I plan to celebrate Informed Sunday. It’s a way for me to think more critically about the ways I spend money, and to demand of myself that I am informed about the conditions that I support.  As Christians who seek to pursue God’s justice in the world, I don’t think we have an option to not be informed.  We are called to be obedient and to love, regardless of the impact that has.  Being informed about my purchasing decisions isn’t solely or mainly about changing the economic structures that exist.  It’s primarily about learning to be faithful to God and God’s call to love others.It’s about owning my role in the economic structures I participate in. It’s about embracing a responsibility to be my sister’s keeper.

Second, as Christians, we are part of a larger community.  Again, as Christians in the US we often see the word you in the Bible and think about ourselves; others throughout the world may see the word you and think about the community that they are a part of.  Committed individuals who challenge the dominant logic of the systems they live in can promote real change.  In my research on Central American coffee farmers, I was struck by how disappointed many of them were in the Christians in the United States.  As they tried to sell their ethically-produced coffee, they found Starbucks was able to give them a higher price than the Christian organization they wanted to work through. One leader lamented that Christians in the US only wanted to give him aid; he wanted fair prices for a product. My new research endeavor will look at how non-profits on the ground have the potential to change some of the exploitive conditions workers are in, and challenge the logic of transnational corporations.

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In 2013, I’ve decided to try and think each month about one product I consume, and change my habits in a way that is more faithful.  And I hope to blog about them this coming year.  The first practice I’m changing is only buying organic, fair trade, or single origin chocolate and chocolate products. I love chocolate. But I have to admit it’s a luxury, and much of it is produced under some bad conditions. In 2001, there was a lot of attention in the media to the forced slavery occurring in cocoa production in West Africa. After a measure was passed by the House in 2001 requiring chocolate manufactures to verify their goods were “slave-free,” the Chocolate Manufactures Association successfully lobbied against it, and promised to regulate themselves through the Harkin-Engle Protocol. Groups such as Hershey and Nestle agreed to eliminate the worst forms of child and adult forced labor in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. CNN’s Freedom Project has an interactive website that provides different details about the protocol and the larger context.

A 2010 statement (one of several following up from the initial protocol) claims they (chocolate manufacturers) will reduce child labor by 70% by 2020. A report in 2010 from Anti-Slavery International, highlights the child-trafficking that still occurs in the Ivory Coast (where about 30% of the world’s cocoa is produced). The Payson Center for International Development at Tulane has lots of research available on this topic, including on-going analysis funded by the US Department of Labor. Their research also suggests that the chocolate industry’s pledge to regulate the chocolate trade has largely failed. A 2013 article in the Christian Science Monitor highlights problems in the cocoa sector, along with other agricultural and manufacturing fields. According to UNICEF, around 500,000 children labor in cocoa production.

Buying organic or fair trade or single origin chocolate ensures that retailers know the conditions under which the chocolate was produced, and insures that child-trafficking is not being used to harvest cocoa. It’s expensive, however.  And chocolate is used in all sorts of products: cookies, brownies, hot chocolate, etc.  For someone trying to balance work, family, and community commitments, it can feel like an inconvenience to go the extra mile to find chocolate; or to go without the treat my daughters want for a special event.  It’s a small inconvenience to say no to an awful scenario of accepted exploitation.  This website, hosted at UCSD, is just one example of information available that makes buying ethically produced chocolate possible.

As Christians, we should call ourselves to a higher level of accountability for our actions that legal requirements dictate. We should desire to love our neighbor, including people we do not know, better. We should resist a consumerism that says working conditions don’t matter – or that we need not be concerned with such things.   I have friends who challenge and inform me in all sorts of areas. Some buy second hand when they can to avoid buying from factories whose conditions they are uniformed about. Others buy all their gifts at Ten Thousand Villages because they know the artisans receive a fair price.  Yet others buy produce from CSAs where they know local farms produced agriculture.  Some resist buying Apple products because of worker conditions.  All have challenged me to become more informed, and to change my practices, one step at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving Tuesday?  I’m all for contributing to non-profit organizations, and I think there are a number of international NGOs who are using their resources to promote real social change.  A recent chapter I co-authored with my husband, Stephen Offutt, in The New Evangelical Social Engagement (Oxford, 2013) discusses some ways that evangelical non-profits are moving towards more structural engagement, and provides some examples of ways they are challenging different economic structures.  I financially support a number of those initiatives.  But Giving Tuesday can’t just simply exist alongside Black Friday. We have to challenge the assumptions we have about our place in the economy; consuming unjustly and giving to promote justice contradict one another. Giving Tuesday needs to exist alongside the more informed and ethical buying practices of an Informed Sunday, and not alongside the glorification of the lowest prices sought on Black Friday.

 

 

 

 

Happiness at Yale

Calhoun College shield

How can Yalies get more flow? Last night at the fourth meeting of the Calhoun Happiness Project I started at Yale, we discussed the meaning of flow—being so engrossed in an activity that time feels like it has stopped– and how busy, high-achieving students can get more flow in their daily lives. Of the 5 elements of Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of authentic well-being that we discussed last night, flow was the hardest one to grasp conceptually and figure out how to improve on. But Seligman is adamant that we can all get more elements of all 5 parts of his well-being theory he calls PERMA: Positive emotions, Engagement (flow), Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. In his book called Flow, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi gives numerous tips on how to increase flow in everyday life.

One obstacle to flow is just how busy students are. Who has time to stop and really get engrossed in one thing when all day is spent rushing to and from classes and extra-curricular activities? When I asked students to name when they experience flow, some said that like me, they experience it while engrossed in their studies. Another student practices meditation. A third student said she gets into flow when she works for nine hours straight at a restaurant students run once a week in Davenport College at Yale. She likes being so busy cooking and serving that she can’t think about her upcoming midterm.

My makeshift standing desk

Before our meeting yesterday, I definitely experienced flow as I wrote about my new project on young adults and resilience. On the advice of a friend who says that doing work while standing up increases energy throughout the day, I put together a makeshift standing desk at home, using a plastic box on top of my dining room table. In just 2 days of writing from that standing position, I wrote 14 single-spaced pages about my new project. Yesterday alone I stood in the same spot for three and half hours writing. That’s flow for sure.

Then I went on with the rest of my busy day, hustling back and forth from meetings and re-reading Martin Seligman’s book Flourish over lunch. I also listened to a video lecture on productivity “hot spots” which prompted me to reflect on my goals and whether how I use my time actually lines up with those goals. Then I rushed off to eat dinner in Calhoun College, carrying Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project with me.

In preparation for the evening meeting of the Calhoun Happiness Project, I re-read Chapters 5-8 of The Happiness Project while eating. I laughed out loud several times…Rubin is just hilarious. When I stood up after finishing dinner, I rushed out of the dining hall and was planning on running back up to my suite to prepare some more for the Calhoun Happiness Project meeting.

Suddenly I was aware of beautiful piano music in the Calhoun Common Room. I stopped dead in my tracks. Didn’t I just read Rubin’s advice in Chapter 5 to “Be Serious about Play”? Didn’t she also say in Chapter 8 to take time to “contemplate the heavens’? Hadn’t I been frantically trying to fit into my busy schedule time to go to all the amazing music and theater Yale offers? Was I really about to rush past this heavenly piano music? Isn’t the first step in contemplating simply slowing down, something Yalies (including me) have a hard time doing?

I plopped onto a big leather chair in the Calhoun Common Room, said hello to another Calhoun Happiness Project group member sitting there, and closed my eyes. I relaxed and breathed deeply for the first time all day, marveling at the beautiful sounds I was hearing. When the student stopped playing, I remembered Rubin’s advice in Chapter 6, “Make time for friends.” Show gratitude to people, I recalled, is one piece of advice to make and keep friends.

So as the student walked away from the piano, I stopped him and said, “I really enjoyed listening to you play the piano.” His face lit up and he said, “Thank you!” Then he explained that he had started learning piano when he was 4, and used to play very seriously. Now he just plays because it makes him happy. Hello, I thought, is that flow or what?

“Do you think I could l learn piano even though I’m not starting at age 4?” I asked. “You see, I’m reading this book called The Happiness Project, and she recommends taking play seriously. And I know that to increase my happiness, I have to find more ways to flow than just working. I worked so hard today and my mind was racing to and fro. So when I heard your beautiful music, I realized I need to slow down and enjoy something beautiful today.”

The student, named Kevin, was fascinated by all my talk about happiness and flow, and totally encouraged me to learn the piano. “It’s the master instrument,” he said. “It’s like a spiritual experience when I play.” Kevin also was fascinated to hear about my research, especially the idea that there are certain parts of happiness we can’t get without suffering. “Oh…I had never thought of that. Can you say more?” he said. I briefly told him how I’ve been interviewing young adults who have had stressful life events, and how some of them have developed incredible compassion and generosity as a result of their hardships. Kevin and I only talked for about 7 minutes, but I felt like I had made a new friend, in part because we talked about things we are passionate about: happiness and music.

Friendship, I told the students later on that evening, is not only about spending time together, it’s also about sharing passions, and pursuing excellence in some activity. No, it’s not about being perfect in everything or winning everything. But friendships are based on shared activities that are conducive to flow. Try it out. This weekend, instead of going to a night club with your friends, go to a live classical music concert. Try to learn about the artists and the music before you go.

As I’m learning through my students, happiness resources and happiness groups are growing in number at Yale. I expect to learn more this weekend after a meeting hosted by the Yale College Council to discuss mental health at Yale. How can the happiness resources at Yale unite? What more can be done?

My sense is that the Calhoun Happiness Project is unique because it is integrated with one of Yale’s strengths: the residential college system. Students in the Calhoun Happiness Project see each other in the courtyard and dining hall, and continue talking about the book and their own happiness resolutions. I provide the intellectual content through monthly meetings, and since I live in Calhoun College, I’m available to talk with students one-on-one. The informal mentoring, coupled with a light responsibility to read about happiness and make resolutions, seems to be the right dose students need to make changes. It’s a light commitment with fellowship, mentoring, learning, and a quick payoff.

The first lesson to learn about happiness is that is starts right now, right where you are. So think about your own living situation, your own work situation. Flow is not only about playing or listening to beautiful music, if we practice flow, we can have it all day long even doing menial tasks. Try listening to what is going on around you, showing charity to everyone you meet. That’s step one to getting more flow: fighting the hustle and bustle and living inner contemplation even in the midst of outward activity.

Thanks to you Yalies who keep me in the flow, encouraging me to re-read my favorite books from positive psychology and make new resolutions. Yesterday I flowed first in my intense solitary writing, and then in my deep interactions with Yale students. I went off to bed tired but contemplating the heavens and giving thanks for my friends, and woke up this morning to find my flow writing this blog from my standing desk.

Goodbye, Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah once wrote: “Because good social science is always morally serious, we can transpose Weber’s saying that only a mature man can have the calling for politics into the statement that only a mature person can have the calling for sociology. Moral vacuity creates cognitively trivial work.” (The Robert Bellah Reader, p. 400)

One of the greatest American sociologists, Robert Bellah has passed away in these finals days of July. I got the email from my graduate school mentor Robert Wuthnow of Princeton while I sat in a coffee shop at Yale with Phil Gorski preparing for this morning’s philosophy of social science seminar. We were both shocked. The email only said his death was caused by  complications following surgery. 

I wrote about my conversations with Bellah previously on Black, White and Gray, and I’m immensely glad I got to meet a living legend just months before he passed away. At that meeting, Bellah spent as much time talking about how much he loved his recently deceased wife of more than 60 years as he did telling me about his latest book, Religion in Human Evolution, and we chatted about his new interest Catholic social teaching. Aristotle said that often we can’t tell if a person’s life has been flourishing until after they have died. May Bellah’s flourishing intellectual legacy and his example passion for people, ideas and the truth live on long after his death.

 

I Just Wanted to Thank You for Teaching me about Well-Being


Laying on her bathroom floor sobbing, my former student cried out, “I have low-well being…My PERMA is shot to hell!” She then dragged herself up and wrote me an email entitled “I just wanted to thank you” and thanked me me for being the only professor who ever taught her what her well-being is. Sara’s email [I changed her name for confidentiality] astounded me for how it expresses how much many young adults–even high-achieving ones –struggle to build strong relationships, find meaning in their lives, and do work that is engaging. Sara’s determination to make positive changes in her life also amazed me–in fact, writing a gratitude note was a tip we learned from Martin Seligman’s Flourish. When we read Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, I asked students to blog about their own gratitude journal and see what difference it made in their happiness, and Sara has kept up this practice.

Here’s the email:

“Dear Professor Mooney,

First, let me thank you for an amazing class last semester. I’m really sad that you’ll be leaving UNC. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any other class at UNC as much as I enjoyed yours. Anyways, I wanted to let you know how much of an impact you had on me last semester, and not just my well-being but my life. I’ve never met someone as passionate as you are and you’ve inspired me to find something I am passionate about and that I love doing. I hope to also make a career out of it, but we will have to see about that when the times comes.

On Monday night, I returned to Chapel Hill from a vacation to Boston and New York. I actually got back on Saturday but took an extra day off my internship to do some things that I had been putting off during the entire month of May. Anyways, when I got back to Chapel Hill I felt so bad…almost miserable. It was a feeling I felt like I couldn’t shake. The next thing I know, I’m on my bathroom floor in tears… This is weird for me because I’m not one to cry. I don’t see the point in it and once I cry about one thing I could cry for hours…so I just avoid it. But this time, I couldn’t avoid it or stop it or pep myself up. I sat there trying to figure out why I was so unhappy…probably the most unhappy I’ve been in a really long time. I realized I was unhappy because of where I am and what I’m doing. I feel forced to do a lot of the things I am doing right now, I have a lot of financial stress, and at a time when I need family and friends the most I am isolated from them because of my responsibilities here. In the middle of this fit, I screamed out “well-being, I have low well-being.” And that’s the truth. My PERMA is shot to hell, among other things and I could go into further detail about why I’m unhappy, but I think you’ll take my word for it.

The point I’m really trying to make is that I wouldn’t know what PERMA was if it wasn’t for you. And that is what I wrote in my gratitude journal last night. I’m not any happier today than I was Monday, but I can identify why. I can also take myself back to your class and bring small bouts of joy and inspiration. So I just wanted to thank you again for teaching about things that you care about and making it easy for your students to care too. Yale is so lucky to have you. I hope your summer is going well and wish you the best of luck at Yale.”

What is the well-being Sara is missing?  Martin Seligman uses the acronym of PERMA to describe his theory of well-being, identifying 5 things necessary (in some measure) for a fulfilling life: Positive emotions, strong Relationships, Engagement (flow), Meaning and Achievement. As a recent college graduate from a top public university and with an internship upon graduation, she is high on achievement. But her problems are ones I heard many students express. Sara’s work is not meaningful, and does not provide for flow. To make it worse, she’s far away from her social support network. She’s financially strapped. And although she doesn’t mention it in the email, a close friend of hers died over spring break.

As part of my current research project, I will be interviewing young adults all across the United States who, like Sara, have high levels of stress but nonetheless have a positive outlook on life (such as being grateful and having a sense of purpose,  and are altruistic (such as volunteering time or donating money). We will be using data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, which has followed nearly 3,000 youth from all over the US for the last 10 years. We know about their relationship with parents as teenagers, their religious lives, their friendships, and numerous elements of PERMA.

So much of sociology is about inequality but I’m interested in resilience–people who are high on PERMA despite having had difficulties in life. Sociology often presumes that high-achievers in school are doing all right, but achievement is only one dimension of well-being. One can be successful in the eyes of the world but miserable inside. Finally, sociology rarely studies downward mobility–people who have lots of opportunities but don’t take advantage of them. We have already analyzed survey data to find people who fit into these different groups, and we plan to interview some from each group. What distinguishes resilient people from those whose lives are on a downward trajectory–either because of financial stress, illness, a death of a loved one, or for no discernible reason? We think that strong relationships with family, friends and God can not only help people cope with stress, but make life’s purpose clearer. So one could be going through hard times but have a sense of determination.

Could it be that well-being is knowing where you want to go, even if you aren’t there yet? Sara’s first paper for my class was on Christian Smith’s forthcoming book on flourishing, in which he describes flourishing as having a life-project. Sara was particularly intrigued by the element of time in Smith’s theory: flourishing is a life-time pursuit made up of baby steps, like sending a gratitude email and making a resolution to pursue a dream. Sara’s email reminded me that perhaps as professors, mentors and friends we need to not only tell youth to finish school, but teach them more about what a fulfilling life is, and yes, even show them how to get there through our own passion for our work and our own willingness to forge meaningful relationships with people around us.

Thank you, Sara, for helping me understand the young people I teach and write about, and for your positive example of determination. You’ll get your PERMA soon. For those of you who want to increase your PERMA, you can start by taking the character strengths test on the website of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. I scored lowest on appreciation of beauty, so I visited Yale’s art museum 3 times my first week of work here. And I went out of the way to visit friends and family nearby, and I kept up a regular writing routine, which helps both my achievement and my flow. One can’t have too much PERMA, right?