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The Illusion of Happiness

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We, (me included) chase with great and even desperate passion more and more and more stuff. A bigger pay check, a nicer house, a cooler car, new clothes. Now we sort of know better. We know that we can’t have both a sane and sustainable world with all that stuff. What we don’t seem to know, despite all the research that clearly lays it out, is that once we’ve met our basic human needs more stuff has nothing to do with more happiness.

Community, conversation, participation, involvement, trust, passion? Yes. More stuff? No.

But even for those of us who know that happiness is more likely to come from community than capital, it’s hard to made the choises that generate new patterns!

Jonathan Porritt’s new book, Capitalism as if the World Matters, provides a wealth of research on the subject. Porritt says it best in some of my favorite sections of the book:

From page 51:
The social basis of discontent in modern society is not so much lack of income; it is loneliness, boredom, depression, alienation, self-doubt and the ill health that goes with them. Social exclusion is not so much exclusion from the structures of production and consumption; it is exclusion from social relationships and modes of self-understanding that confer acknowledgement, self-worth and meaning. Most of the problems of modern society are not the result of inadequate incomes; they are the result of social structures, ideologies and cultural forms that prevent people from realizing their potential and leading satisfying lives in their communities.

From page 53:
Looking at survey figures from around the world, there remains a strong correlation between subjective perceptions of wellbeing and per capita income. But research by Robert Lane, Ed Diener and Ruut Veenhoven clearly demonstrates that, beyond a certain point, the correlation first weakens and then disappears. People may set that threshold at different levels; but it is clear that the law of diminishing returns applies as much here is as in any other area. In The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, Robert Lane (2000) describes this as ‘the waning power of income to yield that ephemeral good utility’, and castigates both academics and politicians for being in thrall to that ‘economistic fallacy’ that, beyond poverty or basic subsistence levels, higher incomes will automatically increase levels of subjective wellbeing…

From page 56:
Much of this research is brought together in Richard Layard’s (2005) new book Happiness. He also offers his readers an elegant ten-point exposition as to why happiness matters so much (inadequately summarized here in my words rather than his):

1. Happiness is an objective dimension of all our experiences and it can be measured.
2. Human beings are programmed to seek happiness.
3. It should therefore be self-evident that the best society will be the happiest society rather than the richest society.
4. Our society is not likely to become happier unless people explicitly agree that this is what they want to happen.
5. Human beings are deeply social beings; as such, we want to be able to trust each other. Happiness is profoundly affected by levels of trust.
6. Human beings are also very status conscious and are deeply attached to the status quo—they hate loss of any kind.
7. However, extra income increases happiness less and less as people get richer.
8. Human beings are also very adaptable; just because consumption is addictive now does not mean it always will be.
9. Happiness depends upon your inner life as much as upon your outer circumstances.
10. Public policy can more easily remove misery than augment happiness itself.

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