Lacy MacAuley


a home for my pen, projects, and passions

happiness in the midst of collapse: something to smile about :)

When viewed from outer space, one might say that the main objective of the human race since the Industrial Revolution has been to develop. “Development” is a sacred word to your local town hall, the sounding floor of the UN, and micro-financiers from Ghana to Sri Lanka.

And we’ve been very good developers. We’ve built everything to make us go faster, longer, and stronger, from malls to missiles to microchips. The standard of living of the average person in the US has increased to include all the standard comforts that may have been afforded by your typical feudal lord from England or Japan. Yet, if you take a more nuanced view of humans, and actually ask one of us, “What is the goal of your life?” The answer you usually get is something that boils down to “I just want happiness.”

Do our developments lead to happiness?

In an insightful New York Times column, Daniel Gilbert says that happiness levels in the US have decreased since the before the global economic collapse that we’ve been experiencing for the past eight months. But he makes the important distinction that human happiness is not really in flux according to increased or decreased wealth. The real reason that the economic collapse has impacted happiness has more to to with uncertainty.
He writes:

But light wallets are not the cause of our heavy hearts. After all, most of us still have more inflation-adjusted dollars than our grandparents had, and they didn’t live in an unremitting funk. Middle-class Americans still enjoy more luxury than upper-class Americans enjoyed a century earlier, and the fin de siècle was not an especially gloomy time. Clearly, people can be perfectly happy with less than we had last year and less than we have now.

So if a dearth of dollars isn’t making us miserable, then what is? No one knows. I don’t mean that no one knows the answer to this question. I mean that the answer to this question is that no one knows — and not knowing is making us sick.

So it is actually financial uncertainty, not the decrease in our bank accounts that is making us unhappy. Gilbert concludes:

Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty. Americans have been perfectly happy with far less wealth than most of us have now, and we could quickly become those Americans again — if only we knew we had to.

Happiness has nothing to do with the fact that the average American is less able to engage in highly consumptive activities like going to Disneyland or stuffing their closets with unneeded fashion and accessories.

So why has our global society spent the last 150 years seeking more and more stuff, leisure, and comfort, like we’re on some crazy global joy ride? Not to make us happier, that’s for sure. We can be perfectly happy without a bull market, a trust fund, or land holdings. And for most of us, who aren’t among the rich and famous, that’s something to smile about.


Filed under: consumerism, global justice, human welfare, thoughts and philosophies

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