In the March/April issue of Mother Jones, Bill McKibben has a fascinating and far-reaching article, “Reversal of Fortune“. The subtitle reads “The formula for human well-being used to be simple: Make money, get happy. So why is the old axiom suddenly turning on us?”
Apparently, economists have begun taking ‘happiness’ seriously. Apparently, one’s state of happiness can be measured fairly accurately, and a group of economists have founded a new field called ‘hedonics’ to study it, led by Nobel Prize-winning Daniel Kahneman, author of Well-Being and professor at Princeton.
McKibben reflects, “the idea that there is a state called happiness, and that we can dependably figure out what it feels like and how to measure it, is extremely subversive. It allows economists to start thinking about life in richer (indeed) terms, to stop asking ‘What did you buy?’ and to start asking ‘Is your life good?’ And if you can ask someone ‘Is your life good?’ and count on the answer to mean something, then you’ll be able to move to the real heart of the matter, the question haunting our moment on earth: Is more better?”
Well, contradicting many idealists’ dreams and wishes, more is in fact better for many people. Studies have shown that people who are struggling to get by, who lack nutritionally rich diets, who have no financial security when they get sick and who suffer cold during the winter: having money solves real problems, and brings more happiness. But only up to about $10,000 a year per capita (that’s for every man, woman, and child, so a family of four=$40,000 annual income). After that, money doesn’t seem to have much to do with happiness, at all.
McKibben calls it the ‘Laura Ingalls Wilder effect’ (of Little House on the Prairie fame). Laura’s story was of “a life rich in family, rich in connection to the natural world, rich in adventure–but materially deprived. That one dress, that same bland dinner. At Christmastime, a penny–a penny! And a stick of candy, and the awful deliberation about whether to stretch it out with tiny licks, or devour it in an orgy of happy greed. A rag doll was the zenith of aspiration. [McKibben's] daughter likes dolls, too, but her bedroom boasts a density of Beanie Babies that mimics the manic biodiversity of the deep rainforest. Another one? Really, so what? Its marginal utility, as an economist might say, is low. And so it is with all of us. We just haven’t figured that out because the momentum of the past is still with us–we still imagine we’re in that little house on the big prairie.”
Our current pursuit of material well-being is not only failing to make us any happier, but it is trashing the planet and is literally making us crazy. Across the world, from the U.S. to other developed nations like the UK and Japan, the “happiness index” has been going down for decades. “In one place after another, rates of alcoholism, suicide, and depression have gone up dramatically, even as we keep accumulating more stuff. Indeed, one report in 2000 found that the average American child reported higher levels of anxiety than the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s–our new normal is the old disturbed.”
McKibben’s thesis is that old habits die hard. In the very recent past (i.e., well into the 1800’s) much of humanity, including the Western world, was struggling to survive. The deep-seated habit of acquiring more, eating more, living in better houses, was actually very helpful in survival. But this survival instinct has now become a monster that is not only destroying our planet, but ruining our health and happiness.
Meanwhile, in our pursuit of material happiness, we have lost touch with our social roots, which in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s day made up for material deprivation. In recent decades, “when our lives grew busier and more isolated, we’ve gone from having three confidants on average to only two, and the number of people saying they have no one to discuss important matters with has nearly tripled. Between 1974 and 1994, the percentage of Americans who said they visited with their neighbors at least once a month fell from almost two-thirds to less than half, a number that has continued to fall in the past decade. We simply worked too many hours earning, we commuted too far to our too-isolated homes, and there was always the blue glow of the tube shining through the curtains.”
I will share that this is exactly what has happened in my own life. When I was younger, I worked less and lived in much poorer circumstances, but I was surrounded by friends, hosted or attended (humble) dinner parties at least once a month, and spent lots of time chatting with neighbors. None of us had any money to spare, really, but there was food on the table, clothes on our backs, and electricity and heat when we needed it. Now, working longer hours, I can honestly say I’ve lost touch with a number of old friends, and I haven’t really replaced them with new ones, either.
The last and probably most important discovery of this new field of hedonics is that companionship matters. “Economists lay it out almost as a mathematical equation: Overall, ‘evidence shows that companionship … contributes more to well-being than does income,’ writes Robert E. Lane, a Yale political science professor who is the author of The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. But there is a notable difference between poor and wealthy countries: When people have lots of companionship but not much money, income ‘makes more of a contribution to subjective well-being.’ By contrast, ‘where money is relatively plentiful and companionship relatively scarce, companionship will add more to subjective well being’.”
So if you really want to be happy, make enough money to meet your basic necessities, and then have a lot of friends and family, and spend a lot of time with them.
Wait, did we really need a new science to figure this out?