What if Everything Makes us Unhappy?
January 8, 2013 Standards of Living

Since the 1950s, it is clear that American incomes have skyrocketed, and in fact I have argued in classes for years that our income understates this by a good deal. Yet, there is a not insignificant number of laymen and experts alike that believe Americans are no more happy today than they were in the past. I’ve sat through countless talks that have suggested that “GDP cannot increase at 2x to 3x forever especially if it doesn’t make us happy.”

But remember that GDP is not the only thing to have changed since the 1950s, and I remain flummoxed as to why so much attention is given to this metric. Environmental quality has increased, the size of government has increased, women’s freedom and the rights of minorities have increased, discrimination has decreased, space travel has increased, etc. since the 1950s too. So it is just as plausible to argue that NONE of those things makes us happy too, isn’t it?

What is the theory that tells us why more income is not making us happier, yet that the other things that come along with it, and in fact are enabled by it, can be making us happier? Is the thesis that these all make us happy but income itself makes us miserable so on net it is a wash? Does everything make us miserable except going back to self-sufficient farming? Should we ban income generating activities to make us all happier today? Or, since all of the other good things that are happening do not make us happier, let’s roll those back too. Let’s roll back the women’s rights movement! Let’s reinstitute Jim Crow! Let’s foul up a few more rivers!

These are, of course, asinine, and it is absurd to move from the happiness claim to those proscriptions – so not only is the claim about happiness absurd to me, so is the logical leap that we ought to redistribute income. In addition to a massive increase in the material amounts of stuff we have command over, our life expectancy has increased by 30 years since 1900 and still increases by 1/3 of a year per year; we are less sick than we used to be; we are better fed than we used to be; and especially we have more leisure time than we used to have too. These have all happened at the same time as material living standards have increased. It would be just as correct to lament, “we cannot continue to expect more leisure time in the future, especially since existing leisure time does not make us better off!” What gives? What is the story? Does nothing make us happy? Is it possible to just ignore the happiness Mathusians? Or is the force of public policy going to come raining down on us to force us to be happier than we are right now?

"4" Comments
  1. From time to time we hear that technological innovation and increasing wealth makes people in general happier. That would imply that happiness as we understand it proceeds on a continuum. Ergo, people say five hundred years ago were not as happy as we are now. They just moped around, hoping for the invention of cell phones, television, jet planes and time shares in Cabo San Lucas. And that the people of the future will be happier than we are because they’ll have android sex slaves. That’s preposterous, the increased happiness that is. Android sex slaves will create all kinds of problems.

    • sure, happiness is relative. behavioral economists like to say that someone making $500 who receives $50 receives just as much happiness as someone who has $5000 receiving $500. While I think this is more or less a silly proposition that cannot be quantified, proven, or disproven, (as well as any measurement of “happiness”) I understand and agree with the idea that happiness is realtive to personal standards.

      Unhappiness can also be a virtue. Unhappiness drives us to do more, while happiness breeds content stagnation. If 2 students both write a paper for WC, the one who is “happy” with a C will not work as hard to improve his writing as a student with higher self expectations. Unhappiness is, in a sense, a virtue.

      We can debate whether men in a state of nature, living in peace and harmony in the garden of eden (ha), were happier than people today, on average. What we cannot debate is that people today are happier in abolute terms. People today live more days, and therefore live more days happy than our ancestors. Even if people in the state of nature lived 10 of evey 10 years happy, for 30 years, they would still not enjoy as many happy years as someone who lives 100 years and spends 4 out of every 10 years happy.

      When consdiering happiness in a cumulative senese, the question is not about lifestyle, but simply about life. So, do you prefer life, or death?

      • Happiness in a cumulative sense? That’s a novel concept. Would a ninety-year old, asked if he was happy, say, “Not really all that happy today but over the last seventy years I’ve been very happy the majority of the time.”? Not that I go around asking people if they’re happy but that sort of response would be quite surprising. Usually happiness is an ephemeral mood. When the clerk at the supermarket says, “Have a nice day”, they’re giving up on yesterday, their talking about the future. They don’t say, “I hope you’ve had a nice month”, although I might start doing that in response. Or maybe I’ll say, “I hope your behavior leads to some kind of enjoyable eternal life.” Walmart cashiers should express that sentiment.

        There’s no doubt that people’s attitudes about life, death and happiness have changed, probably pretty dramatically over the last few years, at least in the US and maybe western civilization as a whole. Since Nietzsche noticed that God had died westerners are reluctant to accept things as they are in exchange for an unlikely eternal life, although why should a connection between eternal life and a superior being be mandatory?

        Doubts about the possibility of eternal life because of scientific advances have advanced the cause of what Paul Gottfried calls the “managerial/therapeutic state”. Frankly, I prefer God’s management to that of Ben Bernanke.

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