Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Humans Synthesize Happiness

What would make you happier, winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic?

Even though we all "know" the answer to that question, the results of people measured for happiness one year into their respective experiences showed very little difference between the two, with paraplegics actually showing marginally higher happiness levels than the lottery winners. Without going into too much detail, the reason for these surprising results (though I imagine I am not alone in thinking, after seeing the data, "you know, that kinda makes sense"), is that humans can synthesize their happiness, somewhat along the lines of "Love the one you're with."

I recommend Dan Gilbert's talk (all of it) for those interested in learning more about this than I divulge in this brief blog entry. What interests me most of all here is the extent to which such revelations should fracture, even shatter, economics’ core beliefs, were it ready to listen and learn. We too, at a cultural level, need to pay close attention to such information, since the energy we spend chasing illusive “success” is indeed, as wise men through the ages have said, wasted, because most often it’s right in front of us, and not “somewhere over the rainbow.” But of course, this wisdom is one the current system does not want us to learn. Dan Gilbert puts it very well:

"What kind of economic engine would keep churning, if we believed that not getting what we want could make us just as happy as getting it!?"

Of course, we cannot realistically expect to be happy with every life circumstance. Our ability to synthesize happiness is constrained to some degree. Interestingly, there appears to be a degree of material comfort we all “need,” which once achieved serves as a good bedrock for progress along other lines (perhaps artistic or intellectual). It looks almost certain that we won't get more and more of what we chase (happiness) if we expend our limited energies climbing the greasy monetary pole in pursuit of it:

"Below $60,000 a year people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get. Above that we get an absolutely flat line, I mean I've rarely seen a line so flat." Daniel Kahneman (www.ted.com)

Such findings are, taken together and in terms of their combined gravity and relevance, fatal to orthodox economics. Any socioeconomic model predicated upon the untested assumption that the pursuit of happiness, and indeed even freedom itself, is somehow about the accumulation of money and material goods, about earning more than your neighbor, with totally insatiable yet calmly rational market participants everywhere you look, is not remotely in line with what science shows us, nor can its narrow prescriptions ever make proper use of humanity’s great subtleties and wonders. If we are to set our civilization on a course which has a half-way decent chance of approaching our creative potential, it will be by listening closely to what science tells us, and in being fearless when it comes to reassessing all the things we think we know.

My personal reading of this is that we’re here, the train’s arrived, we’ve solved the material problems of shelter, food, water, warmth and transport. More and more of each per rich person yields nothing extra, in fact does serious harm as income inequality grows and our priorities remain sick and unwise. Now that we have a very good idea of what makes us healthy and happy, we owe it to ourselves to deconstruct the system that got us here, and prepare a new one to take us forward. As I’ve said before, we have the know-how and the resources to do this. For the moment, however, a tool we made earlier, money, is in our way.


papyon34 said...

I get less than 10 000 Euro a year, I feel happy! The main reason I "move" is to emancipate people of money slavery...

Toby said...

That's right. Money is not the only motivator there is, far from it, and actually motivates people towards greed and hoarding, neither of which are good for society. If we damage society we damage the house we live in. Money is like a train that got us where we are, helped some and hurt some, but cannot take us any further. We're at the end of the money-line. It's time to change.

Thanks for commenting!