The Weight of Happiness

Happiness matters greatly in both philosophy and economics. Aristotle said that happiness is the supreme good, the end to which everything else is a means. However, he defined happiness quite differently than economists do today. In Aristotle’s view, happiness was not a matter of pleasure but a matter of morality. The moral person was happy.

Thomas Aquinas borrowed Aristotle’s notion of happiness as moral worth. Even the Scottish Enlightenment’s more materialist philosophers had a clear sense that material wealth had a limited ability to increase happiness. So, for that matter, did Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarians, who found happiness to be a matter of balancing hedonic pleasure and displeasure in favour of the former. Bentham did not identify hedonic pleasure with hedonism, but he did allow for such intangible pleasures as personal satisfaction at achieving a goal. Although he was a long way from Aristotle, who saw the pursuit of pleasure as a kind of self-enslavement that ultimately caused unhappiness, Bentham was also a long way from the objectivist economists who now dominate the field.

Happiness and Hard Times

Up-and-comers are sadder than anyone else, including the destitute. Even when frustrated achievers move up, they view their success in comparison to others. They see their gains as insecure, because they fear reverting to their previous circumstances. In nations with rapidly accelerating economic growth, residents are more apt to feel less satisfied during growth’s early phases. Rural Chinese who move to big cities exhibit greater dissatisfaction at their new situation, despite their improved material comfort, because they compare themselves to the urbanites in their new surroundings, not to the farmers they left behind.

Statistics don’t yet reveal how the 2008-2009 recession affected happiness levels, but clearly the greatest impact will stem from the insecurity of bad times, as well as the downturns in people’s fortunes. During the crises in Russia and Argentina in the 1990s and early 2000s, average happiness scores fell 8.7% in Russia and 10.7% in Argentina (where gross domestic product, or GDP, declined 10% in 2002). Diminishing happiness levels affect people’s health, job prospects, endorsement of democracy and free markets, and future aspirations. On the positive side, studies show that contentment levels rebound once the crisis passes. Russians and Argentines are again as happy as they were before their nations’ economic slumps.

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