Will’s most recent post suggests several thoughts. I think it is absolutely true that affluent westerners whine because we can. The objective improvements in our lives give us the time to examine life in microscopic detail and complain about everything that isn’t perfect. Pity the poor little rich folks. So we have little or no reason to complain, yet complain we do.
But because we have little reason to complain doesn’t mean that people interested in understanding well-being shouldn’t take the complaints seriously. Why all the whining (forget “if it bleeds, it leads;” that might explain why dissatisfaction gets reported, but why does it get experienced)? I think there are several reasons.
First, we adapt to virtually all material improvements in our lives. The new car (HDTV, stereo, hot tub, backyard barbecue, etc.) gives us a thrill, but not for as long as we expect it to. This is well known. Second, we also adapt to certain levels of satisfaction. So if we’ve been cruising along at +5 on a life satisfaction scale for a while, +5 stops being good enough. The first of these adaptations has been called the “hedonic treadmill.” The second, Daniel Kahneman calls the “satisfaction treadmill.” What these two processes together point out is that our assessment of well-being is always done relative to expectations. If expectations are unreasonably high, then good decisions, good experiences, and even good lives will feel as though they fall short. Unrealistic expectations are the enemy of life satisfaction.
Now you can’t have a national policy designed to control expectations. We’re just stuck with this psychology, which no doubt served us well in our evolutionary past, when most of our experiences were likely to be bad. However, what this psychology points out is that there will be diminishing marginal returns in subjective well-being to increased wealth. Ruut focused on the half-full part of the glass in reporting that happiness has been going up in most developed societies. But it’s striking to me how little it’s gone up in the face of massive increases in real wealth. We should be focusing our energies and resources on other things.
What other things? A century ago, in surveying the adaptations he observed across a wide range of animal species, the distinguished biologist Jacob von Uexkull wisely concluded that biologically speaking, “security is more important than wealth.” What he meant was that in one species after another, evolution seems to have sacrificed potential richness of sensory experience to ensure that organisms would notice what they had to notice: sources of food and danger. I think this is true of human beings as well, but as a society, we have traded security for wealth. We’ve given up job security to enhance the dynamism of market competition (see Jacob Hacker’s writings on this). We’ve given up health security to allow private insurers to compete for our premiums. In competitive situations, there are winners and losers. Some people make clever decisions and some make foolish ones. And sometimes, even the clever decisions don’t work out as they should. A principal justification for requiring us to live by our wits is that competition and the “creative destruction” it brings will make us all better off. But I don’t think this is true. Trading a little wealth of experience for more security would make us much better off than we are now.
And I think we should take Dan Haybron’s point (cited by Will) seriously too. Even if well-being is trending up in the U.S., so too is clinical depression (including suicide). And Suniya Luthar has shown that depression, anxiety disorder, and substance abuse are more prevalent in upper middle class communities than in the inner city. I take this to be the “canary in a coal mine.” If the folks who are “succeeding” are suffering, something important has gone wrong.
But, let me agree with Will unequivocally that if a little bit of whining among the rich is the price we have to pay for economic development among the poor, it’s a price worth paying. My question is, what justifies the assumption that you can’t have economic development without massive inequality? It strikes me as possible, at least, that we could promote economic development by shifting resources from rich countries to poor ones (on a large scale not our current trivial one) instead of relying on the economic gains of the rich to trickle down to the poor. Will’s is the “received” view, but respected economists like Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz think otherwise. If we were willing to let go of our own tenacious pursuit of increased GDP, we might be able to make a fair evaluation of the best way to improve the lives of the poor. Currently, I think we’re handcuffed into asking questions like “what can we do for the poor given that we want to make ourselves richer?” We can ask better questions than this.