Wednesday, January 02, 2008

What Makes People Happy?

It's a really big question to consider as we start the new year, since when you come to think about it. Supposedly our actions are our actions because it'll make us happy. However numerous studies reveal that despite the variance in average living standards, people are generally happy across countries of high and low living standards? If so, does this make our consumption meaningful? Could we live with less? These questions are explored by two academics. The first is Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman who is response to the Edge World Question: "WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT?" explores Easterlin Paradox which says good or bad we tend to adjust to a natural set point. If so should we expend the resources we do to improve our lives materially?

From the New York Time, Professor Jared Diamond asks What's Your Consumption Factor? that explores the impact of the disparity in consumption between the developed world and the developing world. The difference in resource consumption is a whopping 32 times, let me emphasize THIRTY-TWO TIMES. The consequences of us not changing are frightening, but not necessarily so. To quote Diamond:

Americans might object: there is no way we would sacrifice our living standards for the benefit of people in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.

Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.

Given this knowledge, progress is not a matter of radical change but being willing ask ourselves "WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT?" And one candidate is that stuff equals happiness. Or alternatively, that real change requires real sacrifice. Change is possible, we just need to be open to the possibility that some ideas we hold are wrong.


At 9:09 PM , Blogger Green Bean said...

I love the point that Americans really don't need to sacrifice to reduce their consumptions levels. All we need to do is reduce waste - be more efficient. Thanks for sharing the quote. Very interesting.


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