Going to Hell” Is a Relative Matter

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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Darrin McMahon, Ben Weider Associate Professor of History at Florida State University and author of Happiness: A History, puts the contemporary obsession with happiness in historical and philosophical perspective. Tracing our current notion of happiness back to “a dramatic revolution in human expectations” in the seventeenth century, McMahon argues that we have come to see happiness as not only something that is possible in this life, but which ought to be the aim of life. Noting that the recent spate of worried meditations on happiness is a luxury of the already wealthy and secure, McMahon argues against the single-minded focus on happiness as both an individual and social goal. Casting a critical eye on the aspirations of the new “happiness research,” McMahon argues that there may be natural limits to happiness, agrees with John Stuart Mill that “The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life,” and asks us to heed Aldous Huxley’s warning of a society in which everyone is happy “and yet the world is a nightmare.”

Response Essays

  • Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, argues that Darrin McMahon’s cautionary tale is based on the confusion of happiness with pleasure. For Schwartz happiness “rightly understood” is “authentic happiness” centered on the development of virtue and excellence. We should not be afraid to apply such a conception of happiness to policy, for “figuring out what does and does not bring happiness, or utility, might vastly improve the ability of national policies to increase welfare.” Schwartz suggests we will find that not only does happiness not rise in lockstep with wealth, but that happiness in fact begins to decrease at a certain level of affluence. Free-market capitalism, Schwartz argues, tends to turns us into “infantilized pleasure-seekers” not oriented toward authentic happiness. “No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence,” Schwartz says.

  • Ruut Veenhoven, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies and director of the World Database of Happiness, argues that happiness levels are not stagnant, as McMahon maintained in his lead essay. Citing the most recent data, Veenhoven observes that levels of average happiness have increased over the past 30 years in the United States and the European Union, while the increase in the expected number of “Happy Life Years” is even more dramatic. “This increase in overall quality of life is unprecedented in human history,” Veenhoven writes. McMahon’s concerns about an overemphasis on happiness are misguided, Veenhoven argues. Far from making us complacent, happiness improves health, creativity, and citizenship. Though Denmark is the happiest country on record, Veenhoven notes that “this does not seem to have damaged the Danes.”

  • In his reply to McMahon, Cato Unbound managing editor Will Wilkinson lays out three “enormous problems” for the “quest for a scientific politics of happiness.” First, happiness is just one value among many. Second, no one knows for sure what happiness is. Third, Wilkinson sets up a dilemma. On the one hand, if a scientific politics of happiness is understood as the active management of social welfare by political elites, then it pseudoscience. On the other hand, if it is understood as a science of social coordination, then the specific aim of happiness becomes secondary to the requirements of effective coordination. This “institutionalist” conception of a scientific politics of happiness can overcome the problems of pluralism and definition, Wilkinson argues, but at the price of losing focus on the preeminent value of happiness.