Friday, October 16, 2009

Defining Happiness Downward: Is Less More?

I have never been on a camping trip, so I will have to rely on Jim Jubak's account.

When you are sitting around the campfire with your dear friend Pamela, watching the sun set behind the mountains, your minds starts to drift, eventually landing on some reflections about Gross National Happiness. Link here.

Jubak is an eminent financial journalist so he used his camping trip to ask whether economists are going to start measuring national happiness as they measure Gross Domestic Product.

Are we too obsessed with economic growth and prosperity, at the expense of our overall happiness? That is his question. And it is a good question, indeed.

Sitting around the campfire Jubak also started asking himself whether consumption is the basis for happiness. He is not the only one to have reflected on the fairly obvious point that we all possess more than we need or could ever use. We accumulate stuff, often without rhyme or reason, for the sole purpose of accumulating stuff.

Since we like to think big ideas, we tell ourselves that excessive consumption is excessively wasteful. Yet, if we stopped or seriously slowed down our consumption, the economy would enter a severe retraction and we might find ourselves rubbing sticks together trying to start a fire.

Or, as Jubak says, after a few days in the woods the mind is likely to start imagining the joys of a hot shower... to say nothing of hygiene, sanitation, and those advanced creature comforts that often spell the difference between comfort and misery, even between life and death.

To be blunt about it, camping is not a way of life; it is a vacation. Some people do want to return to a lifestyle that is more natural; they want to shed all the do-dads and come closer to the natural misery our ancestors suffered before the Industrial Revolution.

Such thoughts, of course, are reactionary, in the truest sense of the word. I am sure that you have no truck with reactionary thinking so I will not discuss them further.

Meantime, Jubak informs us that the King of Bhutan invented the concept of Gross National Happiness a few decades ago. According to its standards, his country does reasonably well, though not nearly as well as Iceland and other Nordic countries. For my thoughts on Icelandic happiness, see here.

Of course, Nordic countries have extensive social welfare programs and, often enough, high taxes. They are not very competitive economically, and, from the military perspective, they are American protectorates. When those who measure levels of gross happiness choose Nordic countries they are probably expressing a political and cultural preference.

If consumption does not make us happy, then perhaps something else does. Theodore Roosevelt famously asserted that competitive striving makes people happy. Being in the arena, competing and winning, learning to excel... those are the qualities that Theodore Roosevelt considered essential to human happiness.

If that is true, social welfare and extra vacation time would not do very much for your gross happiness.

I also suspect that we are misunderstanding the nature of human consumption. If someone wants to buy a nicer car, one that is no better at transporting him than the car he currently owns, then there might be another reason beyond the blind will to consume.

Perhaps the reason lies in a simple fact. The car you drive, the house you live in, the clothes you wear ... all of them define your place in your community. They show who you are and determine, in many cases, how much respect you will command.

You might consider this to be vulgar; you might consider that you would be happier throwing pots... but the fact remains: having a defined place in a human community is a vital need for a social being.

And when we consume we also activate another form of virtuous activity: we participate in the nation's economic life and, more importantly, we exercise freedom.

You might look down on the kind of freedom that is involved in choosing between Tide and All, but when you choose you are acting freely.

In the end you will be happier choosing between Tide and All than facing a supermarket shelf that contains only one brand of detergent: People's Suds.

In a true Communist country, if you did not want to buy People's Suds then you were out of luck.

How much you consume, how well you consume, when and where you consume can also signify your successes in the world of everyday economic competition.

It makes sense that more and more people are trying to figure out how to get by on less, how to cut expenses, and how to consume less. Yearning for the simple life does not, however, seem to be a free choice; it is being dictated by economic realities. We Americans are broke; we do not have the money to keep spending indiscriminately.

How should we react to it? The campfire solution feels like... giving up. In a time of financial contraction the last thing we need is yet another way to give up.

If we all spend less the economy will contract, prices will deflate... and, as most people know by now, deflation in a time of extreme debt is very bad news indeed.

Would it not be better to take a page from Teddy Roosevelt and work harder, striving for a renewed success, and for earned optimism?

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