Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The happiness pollution

From an email to Ramesh after a long discussion of the amount of money people are willing to blow up to keep them 'happy'.

Babs,
Why does Venky believe blowing up 20K per night on a hotel room is ok and Raju is dissatisfied with a 1 lac pm job ?

Most people are hellbent on increasing their prosperity. As all these people try to upgrade their standards of living, the invisible hand of the market obliges by enmeshing them in an ever larger, ever denser web of investment and production. You have bigger, costlier hotels, rasams at 200 rupees a bowl and jam packed Mariott hotels.

What drives the world ?

Human nature itself, the deep desire to amass resources, to keep up with the neighbours, and if possible, to leave them in the dust, drives the huge economic engine that is transforming the world.

Are you satisfied with what you've become in life ? That depends on how your neighbour/relative/friend/colleague is faring. And this oneupmanship is what is driving the world economy. Scary ain't it ?

There are two ways you can increase your happiness - one way diminishes the happiness of others and the other boosts the happiness of others.


The happiness that pollutes....
When you score one up over your neighbour/colleague/friend, your increased happiness is at his cost. He feels miserable. This has been proven in quite a few surveys. This is an expensive way to be happy as you need to posses the biggest/curviest/costliest stuff to heep you high. Even Raju's 2 lac pm pay won't keep him happy as soon as he learns his friend earns double that. Venky would feel miserable about a relative who vacations at London.

Social status = Breeding rights

Evolution has hardwired our minds are hardwired to equal social status with reproductive success. In Darwinian terms, if you are not higher up on the totem pole than your peer group, you don't get to breed. There is only one top spot on the totem pole. Social status is a finite resource, and anyone’s gain must come at someone else’s expense.

That is why even when millions of americans become temporarily happy after having bought their yacht's/SUV's the net happiness of the country has actually decreased over the past 40 years. Pursuing happiness through monetary gain is essentially a zero-sum game. Your temporary gain is someone else's temporary loss.

Do Gold taps and Whale penises make you happy ?

The Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, insisted that the taps on his yacht be made of solid gold and that the yacht’s bar stools be covered with the ultrasoft foreskin of a whale’s penis. Let us assume that Onassis impressed people enough to raise his social status, and his sense of well-being. To the extent that he succeeded, he lowered the relative social standing of rival shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos. In Greek society as a whole, there was no net utilitarian gain. Humanity is famous for pursuing things, such as power and riches, that don’t bring lasting happiness.

Are the rich crazy ?

This is why the rich work so hard at getting richer even if it isn’t making them any happier and actually is making a few of them crazier. In a sense, their behaviour is not as irrational as it sounds.

Much of what gratifies people about higher income is that it boosts their relative standing in society. To the extent that this is true -- that our happiness comes from comparing our station in life with that of other people -- then within a society, one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

The finite happiness pie
Raju/Venky , in scrapping for income and status, in working overtime to afford that Ford Explorer, may be jostling for pieces of a more-or-less finite happiness pie. They might actually be better off by taking time off to spend with their friends/family. Those who pursue happiness via money and status are playing a zero-sum game. And they cannot afford to cut back. If you cut back on your work hours, your income and status might slip; you could lose an increment of happiness to a rival. That is the paradox: If everyone in an affluent society cut back on their work so their relative incomes didn’t change, they could all spend more time with friends -- and the society's overall happiness would grow.

Yet it may not be in the best interest of any one person to take the initiative. What we need is a way to halt the individually rational but collectively futile status-seeking arms race and use the time to pursue happiness more wisely.

Minimizing the happiness pollution
The alternative is simple. When you decide to focus on things which do not need comparision to make you feel good ( reading/writing/spending time with friends(not bragging), giving stuff away to make you happy rather than accumulating more to make yoyu happy etc) you do not cause happiness pollution. And this way to attain happiness is almost free.

Less and less bang for your buck.

Money does indeed bring happiness, till a certain point. As with all things, the bang you receive for your buck steadily decreases. The first handful of roasted cashew would taste like heaven - the 50th won't. The utility value of almost anything steadily decreases as you accumulate more and more of the stuff. Money is no exception. Once you attains a fairly comfortable standard of living, more income brings little, if any, additional happiness.

So babs .. that's all there to it. It is good you are off the treadmill. Stay that way and don't get caught in the arms race even if you get a couple of lacs at Planet Asia. And it is not me speaking - it is Martin Seligman .

More on it here...

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