Capitalism, Affluence and Happiness

‘Happiness’ is challenging to define. The United Nations, in its ‘World Happiness Report’, distinguishes between happiness and satisfaction in that happiness is based on the short-term, ‘did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?’, and satisfaction the long-term ‘how do you feel about your life as a whole?’. Responses to these surveys are then combined to give each country a score. Two other measures of happiness are suicide rates and the incidence of mental illness. The first, while influenced by factors external to life satisfaction such as the role of religion and average hours of sunlight, certainly correlates with the level of severe unhappiness. The second is perhaps even more linked, the UN found the incidence of mental health problems to have the strongest correlation with unhappiness of all the factors they measured.

However, contrary towhat one might think, higher incomes have a negative, not positive, impact on these measures. The UN found a slight negative correlation between GDP per capita and happiness – with the scores of countries in the developed world falling over the last 10 years, rather than rising as in the developing world. Similarly there are weak positive correlations between income and both suicide and mental illness. It might be possible that capitalism, the engine behind income growth since the industrial revolution, is making us unhappy. There are four, not uncontroversial or straight-forward, reasons why I think this to be the case; meritocracy, a greater number of choices, the changing nature of leisure time and individualism.

The most emotionally damaging feature of capitalism is the illusion of meritocracy. As children we are told that when we are older ‘we can become anything we want to be’ – this is a lie. There are three issues with the idea that we live in a meritocracy; merit is inherited, uncertainty and luck render the idea of a meritocracy impossible, and that our supposed ‘meritocracy’ places far too much weight on wealth and income. For a society that strives to reward people on merit, there is little discussion of where ‘merit’ comes from; either it is inherited biologically or it is learnt from experience (usually parents, friends or school). Do we still think it is a good idea? Those who are least lucky – losing the genetic, economic and parental lottery – will be looked upon as failures and losers because society insists on the glorification of ‘merit’. These attitudes are greatly damaging to the most vulnerable individuals. There is certainly a place for rewarding those who make the greatest contributions to society, however it should be seen as an incentive to contribute further – rather than a deserved reward for their skills and talents. The second issue with striving towards a meritocracy is that it is not attainable. While it is possible to correlate merit and outcome, chance will render the correlation imperfect. This mismatch between individuals who may have equal ‘merit’, but differing outcomes creates resentment and division. Many hardworking and able individuals will not succeed; their treatment by society will reflect where they ended up rather than how they got there. There is a finally issue with our supposed meritocracy is that society places great emphasis on financial success – over traits such as creativity, goodness and honesty. Of course, these traits are noticed and valued in those you are close to, but only after considerable time getting to know the individual. This focus on wealth manifests itself in outcomes. Professions such as banking are far greater rewarded, both with status and money, than nurses or school teachers who show for more of the traits that are desirable in humans.

With affluence and the free-market has come choice, more particularly, choice of what goods to purchase. This is almost universally seen as a good thing – a greater range of goods to buy allows individuals to more closely reflect their preferences, thus further maximising their utility. In reality, however, choice makes unhappy. Firstly, the value we place on an experience or object is greatly dependent on what we had given up to have it. For example, if one decides to go to the cinema on a night where the alternative was ice-skating, they may feel less satisfied with their experience than if the alternative was staying in doing chores. This is transferable, in an electronics store with hundreds of televisions, having purchased their favourite, an individual will struggle not to entertain the thought that they may have missed a better one. When there are fewer, or even no options, this feeling of regret disappears, one will feel far more satisfied even with an inferior good. Secondly, having choices makes us personally responsible for what decision we end up making. If one feels they made the wrong decision, be it due to misinformation, misjudgement or impatience, they will be pained more than had the decision been forced upon them. Having purchased our TV, if it does not seem worth the money we spent on it, it reflects on us as ‘bad shoppers’ alongside the disappointment of having wasted out hard-earned cash. Finally, there are occasions of choice induced paralysis, that is, where a great range of options renders us unable to choose anything at all. At vanguard, a US pension fund, for every ten extra schemes and employee was offered, take-up dropped 2%. This means that, when given 50 options, 10% more people passed up around $5000 a year from their employers to go towards their retirement. The greater range of choices associated with modern capitalism can, in some instances, lead to worse outcomes.

Capitalism has also reduced the quality of our leisure time. The early 20th century sociologist Theodor Adorno believed that the primary focus of progressive philosophers should be how people spend their free time – and that capitalism was making this free time ‘toxic’. Leisure time should be used for self-development; reading philosophy or history books to gain a fresh insight into politics, reading the news to widen our perspective of the world or seeing films that help us to understand our relationships with new clarity. Capitalism, through the creation of an ‘entertainment machine’, has destroyed this. In search of profit, firms aim to produce what the majority of the population ‘want’, not what will bring individuals the most satisfaction in the long run. The billion dollar gaming industry is largely and increasingly profiting from gaming addicts purchasing in game features, points or currency to advance themselves in the virtual world. At the time of playing perhaps the individual is rationally maximising their utility, however, it is likely that in the long run the money and time invested in gaming will set them back in other, far more important areas in life, such as nurturing healthy relationships, friendships and physical or mental health. The same distortion of an individual’s wants and needs can be found in the news industry. In a manner similar to the video game addicts described above; when purchasing a newspaper, or, to keep with the times, clicking on an article to read, most individuals will select the most sensational, or ‘sexy’, option – rather than the most reflective or informative. These choices lead to a shift in focus, spurred by the search of economic profit, towards ‘hype’ rather than information; Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich saga or David Cameron’s likely fictional ‘adventure’ with a dead pig. There may also be a degradation in the accuracy of romance presented in movies. Consumer choices, and thus, producer’s efforts, are increasingly directed towards ‘feel-good’ films, where the rolling of the credits is usually preceded by the happy couple walking off into the sunset. This changes people’s perceptions of what love in the real world is about, rendering them less adept at carrying-out their own relationships. Were it not the profit motive that inspired the creation of games, news and movies, leisure time would educate and inform us; creating better humans.

Capitalism also reduces the amount of ‘free’ time we have; not only in that we work overtime, weekends and mornings to earn cash, respect or promotion – without regarding the impact extra work may have on our mental or physical wellbeing. We are also trapped by the constant possibility of work; one may find it difficult to enjoy a dinner or movie if they are conscious of a work email waiting on their phone – they are forced into choosing whether or not to check, and respond, to the email almost constantly. Together, the pressure to work and the ‘entertainment machine’ Adorno described, are shrinking and reducing the quality of, our leisure time.

With capitalism has come the promotion of the individual over the community. Economic freedom allows people to choose their own path, rather than one prescribed to them by family or background. Not only may choice be bad, but also the reduction in cohesion. In earlier times a large number of professions were allocated on family (hence the popularity of surnames like ‘Smith’, given to families specialising as blacksmiths) or social standing (the caste system still seen in India today resembles this). Freer choice of employment and greater social mobility have weakened family ties, decreasing the likelihood that an individual will remain with, or even in contact with, their relatives. This possibility of divisions in a family changes behaviour – a father may not spend time teaching his son his trade, working class parents might try to prevent a child from going to university. Capitalism has also weakened family ties by encouraging both parents to work longer hours, potentially hiring a babysitter or carer to look after the child; reducing parents contact time with children which may damage their relationship in the long run. Caring and supportive familial relationships are essential in emotional development. Social mobility and the disappearance of jobs prescribed by background have greatly increased choice of future career paths – this itself may be a negative – forcing people to create their own purpose in society. This is challenging for some – they have few long-term interests or talents that are transferrable to jobs, spending their life changing between jobs or unemployed, rather than developing skills and learning.

These arguments do not lead me to suggest the overthrow of capitalism for three reasons, one, they are nothing more than speculation. Two, proposing that people ‘shouldn’t’ want what they do want, will struggle to gain ground – the idea that people should be denied access to their desires and wants contradicts the principle of liberalism that we hold so dear in our designing of institutions and societal arrangements. And three, perhaps capitalism should be seen as a temporary arrangement? The economic growth and incentive for innovation it provides will push us towards post-scarcity, at which point the fulfilment of our basic needs and desires will no longer be a primary concern, allowing us all to live in affluence while free from the anxiety of the profit motive. What I do suggest, however, is a fundamental rethink of how individuals perceive their circumstances. People should be aware that one’s financial position does not define one’s value as a human, they should not ignore the media, but take what it offers with a pinch of salt, and they should know that we all make mistakes and misjudgements – these errors do not define us as people.

Contributed by Michael Tallent, Editor-in-Chief


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