Sunday, June 17, 2012

Top 10 Happiest Jobs and The American Dream

Was Bob Ross really that happy? Despite finding a family of raccoons evidently nesting in his afro, he certainly seems to have maintained a positive outlook.
"The powerful motivator in our lives isn't money;
it's the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities,
contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements." 

 Frederick Herzberg

I made a big headline out of Herzberg's quote not because I'm convinced he's right, but because I'm not entirely convinced. There's some truth to the notion that we are fanatically dedicated to our beliefs precisely because they are in doubt. Nobody's 100% dedicated to something they have complete confidence in. You don't see anyone standing on a soapbox shouting that the sun is going to come up tomorrow.

Having spent the last two days in a cramped closet painting over-sized faux malachite in oil, I'm not sure I'm in the right frame of mind. I can barely blink my eyes at the same time. I'm more likely to wake up in my car somewhere near Newark airport with a cop shining a torch at me, followed by high-speed chase and death by fireball.

So I was interested in a recent study that claims these results in Job Satisfaction:
Top Occupations in Job Satisfaction
1. Clergy [87.2%]
2. Firefighters [80.1%]
3. Physical Therapists [78.1%]
4. Authors [74.2%]
5. Special Education Teachers [70.1%]
6. Teachers [69.2%]
7. Education Administrators [68.4%]
8. Painter, Sculptors, Related [67.3%]
9. Psychologists [66.9%]
10. Security and Financial Services Salespersons [65.4%]
Number 8 was interesting, of course. If you combine this study with the one that says 'Business Owner' is the Number 1, then I should be playing the pan pipes, skipping to work and reciting poetry about unicorns. Business Owner and Painter? The Perfect Storm of double happiness. Wahoo.

On the other hand, as a decorative painter I'm equal parts 'painter' and 'construction laborer', of which the study says:

"Other workers who said they are generally unhappy were construction laborers, welfare service aides, amusement and recreation attendants, 
 hotel maids, pressing machine operators, electronic repairers, 
kitchen workers, and machine operators." 

Oh well. Back to the front.

Aristotle spent a lot of time thinking about stuff [you heard it here first]. His guiding question was always 'what is the best thing for a human being?' His answer: happiness. "Happiness," he wrote, "is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world." James Skeen writes that "when Aristotle talks about happiness he is not talking about the mere psychological satisfaction that comes when we get what we want.  He is talking about human flourishing, a thriving that is based on moral and intellectual excellence." 

What is it about a happy face that makes me want to punch things?

But what exactly is the greater issue here? You might be tempted to draw a common thread through the list above, but it'd be a tenuous one. Priests, Firefighters and Teachers could be said to be working for some greater good. Authors and Painters? Maybe it's down to freedom of expression leading to contentment, or just the ability to hang out in your underwear all day long.

“This congruence of belief, values, and actions in one’s daily work can be immensely satisfying," says Rev. Cynthia Linder. “The most satisfying jobs are mostly professions, especially those involving caring for, teaching, and protecting others and creative pursuits,” said Tom W. Smith, Director of the General Social Survey (GSS) at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The survey is the most comprehensive of its kind to explore satisfaction and happiness among American workers.

The American Dream?

Or perhaps it's simpler than all that. Perhaps money does buy you happiness: While one poll of 'happy' countries shows a correlation between the wealth of it's populace and their general level of well-being, it shouldn't be surprising that another poll "finds countries with the highest well-being tend to be the most peaceful countries in the world and those with the lowest well-being are the least likely to be peaceful." [A Worldwide study of well-being by Gallup shows a high of 72% in Denmark to a low of 1% in Chad].

Renowned British economist Richard Layard published a book last year called (not surprisingly) "Happiness" in which he discussed one of the surprising results of a bunch of tests he ran: money doesn't make people happier. The only time people's subjective well-being rises as a result of cash is when the money takes them out of poverty. Middle-class people who become upper-class, however, don't report feeling any happier.

Despite our becoming generally wealthier as a country, Americans are known to be a lot less satisfied with their jobs than they were 30 years ago. It seems that it's not enough to simply still have a job in a recession, we all want more.

 "As it turns out, when a nation’s GDP rises above $10,000.00 per capita there is no relationship between GDP and happiness." [source]

I remember reading about a study done on a bunch of kids. Before the study started, they were asked to rate their 'happiness' on a 1-10 scale. They voted about a 6. They were then told that they were each to be given a free gift. Yay! They had to reach into a bag and blindly pick out a surprise. There was one gift for each child. Once they'd each taken a turn at the grab-bag and claimed their gift, they were polled once again for happiness. This time, Their happiness came in at about a 4.

What had happened? Despite the fact that they were now materially richer than they were a couple of minutes ago, they were less happy. If they'd been left completely alone, they'd have been happier. Perhaps they were now in a position of having made a personal choice, and confronted with the realization that they had chosen poorly and were now jealous of the people around them. If the choice had been made for them (or if they were never part of the study to begin with), it'd have been smoother sailing.

The kind of happiness referred to in the study above is a crass, low-minded want/satisfaction duality where saint and criminal can be equally satisfied, but it still made me wonder whether the spoiled modern dissatisfaction with our lot has something to do with this way of thinking. 

We all want to be captains of our own destiny, but there's a certain existential price that comes with that: What if we've taken the wrong path? Unfortunately, we aren't given a window on our lives like Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life, so it's impossible to discern whether or not we've made the 'right' choice.

source: H. Arnold Barton, A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish Americans, 1840—1940

European governments, worried that their best young people would leave for America, distributed posters like this to frighten them. This 1869 Swedish anti-emigration poster contrasts Per Svensson's dream of the American idyll (left) and the reality of his life in the wilderness (above right), where he is menaced by a mountain lion, a big snake, and wild Indians who are scalping and disemboweling someone.

Richard Wilkinson, a British professor of social epidemiology, recently stated on PBS NewsHour, "if you want to live the American dream, you should move to Finland or Denmark, which have much higher social mobility."

"Americans may be deeply divided about what ails our country, but there's no denying we're a nation of unhappy campers." Kerry Trueman writes. "Danes, on the other hand, consistently rank as some of the happiest people in the world, a fact attributed at least in part to Denmark's legendary income equality and strong social safety net."

But I can't help feeling like this chatter is all getting a bit vague and obtuse. What if I just run off and join the clergy? They're at the top of the list. Would that make me happy? Maybe. 

That and huge bag of cash.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Zaporozhian Cossacks, by Ilya Repin

Ilya Repin famously portrayed the Cossacks as lusty brigands with sharp wits and even fouler tongues in his masterpiece, Zaporozhian Cossacks writing a letter to the Turkish Sultan.  The subject of the painting is the Cossacks refusal of the demand by the Turkish Sultan for their submission to his authority, and is a masterfully realized study in character.

It's easy to get lost in the theatricality of Repin's characters and forget that this painting was based on historical events and very real tensions between Russia and Turkey (which accounted for some of the popularity of the painting too). At the end of this post I reproduced the hilariously vulgar text of the actual letter. It reads like the whole "your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries" sketch from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Ilya Repin (Best Of), was published to great reviews by Parkstone Press in 2011 and was initially offered for less than $20 but has since shot up to well over $200 on Amazon. I did some digging and found that Deepdiscount still has a few copies for the initial price ($15.97 with free shipping) so go grab yourself one, now!

Image source

Image source

"In the drawing above, Study for ‘Zaporozhian Cossacks Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan’, the bald headed Zaporozhian warrior sits to the left, in a similar pose to that in the final work. It is interesting to note that in the present pencil study, and other oil studies of the final painting¹, he is fully clothed. Repin’s decision to depict him bare-backed in the final painting was no doubt a way of accentuating his boorishness, and also a way of adding a further dimension to his character, by presenting him as a gambler - without his shirt on he could not hide any cards up his sleeves. This character was modelled on a schoolteacher, Konstantin Belonovskaya, who was a friend of both Repin and Professor Yavornytsky.

The figure with the fringed hairstyle in the present study is turned around to face us in the final painting, and becomes the scribe. The model for this particular Cossack was the aforementioned Professor Yavornytsky himself, the hairstyle giving him a suitably studious air. It is reputed that Professor Yavornytsky was in a very glum mood when he arrived at Repin’s studio to pose. In order to coax a wry smile out of him, as seen in the final painting, Repin gave him a magazine with cartoons in it to read during the sitting." [source]

"Repin began the painting in the late 1870s but did not finish it until 1891. When completed, it was bought by Tsar Alexander III (1845-1894) for a record price of 35,000 roubles. The painting depicts the Zaporozhian Cossacks composing their legendary reply of 1675 to Sultan Mohammed IV’s (1642-1693) request that they surrender.

The final work was painted at a time when Turkey was still implacably opposed to Russia, and thus tapped into contemporary public sentiment. Repin sought to recreate the scene with great historical accuracy, and meticulously researched this moment in history with numerous historians, including the renowned expert, Professor Dmytro Yavornytsky (1855-1940). 

"In the final painting, each of the Cossacks jostles around the central table desperate to contribute their own soubriquet for the Sultan, responding to and mocking his boasts. From the present study one already has a clear sense of how the final painting would shape up, with Repin experimenting with the positioning of a few of the key characters in order to achieve the maximum impact. The viewer can revel in the vigorous, animated interaction of the group, as one of the Cossacks, his head shaven and back bare, adds his own comments, gesticulating with his hand.

The group’s leader, Ivan Sirko (c.1610-1680), listens in intently, whilst puffing from his pipe, as the scribe jots down his every word, a wry smile escaping from his lips. The raucous laughter ripples through the group and is so tangible that it is little surprise to know that Repin had reputedly begun the painting as a study of laughter."

If you can't see the video below, then you can check out Andrew Graham Dixon's fascinating documentary on Russian Art, (including Repin and the Wanderers in this episode) here.

Sultan's requirements:
"As The Sultan, son of Muhammad, brother of the Sun and Moon, grandson and viceroy of God, ruler of the king sentencing of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated ; stead permanent guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee Chosen by God himself, the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians-I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks."
—Turkish Sultan Mehmed IV
Cossack's written reply:
" Thou art a turkish imp, the damned devil's brother and friend, and a secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight art thou that cannot slay a hedgehog with your naked ass? The devil shits, and your army eats. Thou son of a bitch wilt not ever make subjects of Christian sons; we have no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, fuck thy mother. 
Thou art the Babylonian Scullion, Macedonian wheel wright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, Armenian pig, Podolian villain, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, a fool before our God, a grandson of the Serpent, and the cricket in our dick. Pig's snout, mare's arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw thine own mother! 
So the Zaporozhians declare, you Lowlife. Thou wilt not even be herding Christian pigs.  Now we Shall conclude, for we do not know the date and do not have a calendar, the moon's in the sky, the Year in the book, the day's the same over here as it is over there; for this kiss our ass !"

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Andrea Pozzo in Super High Definition

Image source Halta Definizione

See that little SpongeBob Squarepants in the fresco? No? Look again, bottom right. To give you an idea of just how close you can zoom into this image from Halta Definizione , here he is again in all his glory...

Image source Halta Definizione
Digital photography is taken to extraordinary levels of detail on this Italian site, with paintings from Da Vinci, Bronzino and Botticelli among others.

Here are a couple more details from one of my favorites, Andrea Pozzo's illusionistic masterpiece of perspective in fresco painting; the ceiling of the church at San Ignazio.

Image source Halta Definizione

Image source Halta Definizione

Image source Halta Definizione