Happiness Again

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I can’t tell if it’s my mental filters or something out there, but I am seeing a lot of stories about happiness these days. Most question the connections between the way human beings express their reflections about how life is going and about some objective measure that is supposed to correlate with these feelings. Yesterday I wrote about the growth model of human well-being. Before that I was pointing to David Brooks’s op-ed piece on the failure of economics to account for the existential or emotional side of [well-]being.

Today here’s yet another article I came across—this one while I was reading the New Yorker in bed last night. Elizabeth Kolbert reviewed three books all about happiness. The theme in all is that happiness is not everything in life, or, more accurately, pursuing happiness only with the economic machine doesn’t work well once one has reached a plateau where the basic [Maslovian] needs of life are being satisfied.

Two of the three books she reviewed—Derek Bok’s The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Well-being, and Carol Graham’s Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires—argue for changes in domestic and international economic policy. One main theme is that the indicators used to design and track these dominant policy domains are deeply flawed, based on much empirical data. Bok raises a very serious challenge to any policy intervention arguing that people don’t always know what will make them happy. Cass Sunstein, now responsible for shaping relevant policies in the Obama administration has argued in his book (reviewed here) with Richard Thaler, Nudge, along these lines that policy should nudge people toward choices that are good for them. Given the studies on which the Bok and Graham books are based and on much other research, any policy designed to produce happiness needs to be approached with great caution and humility.

At the end, Kolbert makes the tie that always get my attention, connecting the planet’s ailing state to the search for happiness through consumption.

Consider again the finding that a half century of escalating consumption has not brought Americans increased satisfaction. This is a disturbing fact, and certainly one that seems pertinent to discussions of economic policy… But let’s imagine, for a moment, that we had enjoyed ourselves for the past fifty years. Surely, trashing the planet is just as wrong if people take pleasure in the process as it is if they don’t. The same holds true for leaving future generations in hock and for exploiting the poor and for shrugging off inequality. Happiness is a good thing; it’s just not the only thing.
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1 Comments

David M Carter said:

John,

I've really enjoyed your last three posts!

In my mind, capitalism is at the core of any analysis of our impending cultural transformation. The question is, is it salvageable? Thinkers on the ecosocialism front trash capitalism as a rapacious scourge in need of scrapping. They argue that the air which capitalism breathes is growth. Admittedly, I have never witnessed capitalism successfully shrinking (opposite of growth) the consumption of any community in which it operates. If capitalism can be proven to be an economic mechanism that can be used to minimize the consumption of natural resources, it has a chance. I am doubtful that it can work this way.

Regardless, it's likely the toxic combination of human nature and the free market has been the primary CAUSE of our current environmental ruin. Whether or not the free market can work in reverse is unknown. As a scholar of positive psychology (and psychology in general), I am pessimistic that humans can effectively envision, adopt, and carry-out the kind of sustainable vision that you prescribe under a capitalistic system. Human irrationality is too vulnerable to the whims of capitalist messages - we like to think that we have complete control of our choices, but in fact we do not.

It seems that the only way real sustainability can be achieved within a capitalist, free-market system is to construct draconian mechanisms (e.g. laws, social norms, taboos) that properly constrain the powerful elements of the "invisible hand" that cause the social and environmental abuse brought on by consumerism, materialism, and other deviant addictive behaviors.

I am by no means a political scientist, yet it seems to me that our best hope of reaching sustainability is through some sort of global ecosocialism, through which the environmental and social equity concerns take precedence over economic ones. I am a skeptic about the effectiveness of some sort of localized communitarian system, because, as you point out, sustainability must include the important element of indefiniteness. Ultimately, localized "tribal" communities would result in warfare. Similarly, the ways in which capitalism drive our irrationality under the guise of reason and rationality make it an unlikely long-term candidate as well.

Finally, I second the importance of Tom Jackson's "Prosperity Without Growth". The work being done through the RESOLVE project, which he leads, is immensely important.

Keep up the wonderful work. Our world needs what you are doing.