Introduction: Happiness and Economics
If Aristotle was right that the good for humans—our best kind of life—consists in the pursuit and realization of happiness (a virtuous, a flourishing life), we are left to determine what that means. Each person somehow arrives at their version of an answer and lives it day-by-day, but if the living falls away from a first commitment to happiness and, equally important, to the discernment of what best composes happiness for him or her, then to that extent their life has failed. To forget why you live or to misperceive the reason and meaning that your life could have are what make failure.
Since we live as individuals within societies it seems that this fundamental dimension of living good human lives should be central here as well, that societies would ask what they should aim for and how they could facilitate, individually and collectively, their members’ realization of happiness just as individuals would ask this of themselves. (In the broadest sense, isn’t this what a “society,” an assemblage of people with shared interests and commitments, exists to serve?) But within the U.S., at least, the farther out we go from me to we, the greater the silence about happiness, and even at “me” it is scarcely addressed with conscious and critical intention. It isn’t just that the question is not enunciated but, overwhelmingly, its answer is assumed without question. Economic factors, predominantly economic growth and personal prosperity are treated prima facie as the obvious answer, nothing more to say, no justification needed even though the claim flies without wings, kept aloft purely on faith and hot air. As a recent report from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network puts it, “…income per person [in the U.S.] has increased roughly three times since 1960, but measured happiness has not risen. The situation has gotten worse in recent years: per capita GDP is still rising, but happiness is now actually falling.” (Interestingly, between 1990 and 2015 China had the same experience: rising income, falling happiness.) The Report continues: “The USA is a story of reduced happiness. In 2007 the USA ranked 3rd among the OECD countries; in 2016 it came 19th [out of 34]. The reasons are declining social supports and increased corruption…”
No one can believe any longer that objective reason is the prime mover of human judgment but even so…: Decade after decade chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of economic increase and to what end? Was Aristotle wrong? Is national wealth more important than individual and societal happiness? Should we live for the economy instead, despite America’s plummeting ranking on the happiness scale?
The disconnect is puzzling and raises an even larger set of questions. Has the present world, which America presumes to lead, made itself or most parts of it into societies unsuited for good human lives? Unsuited in that they do not promote and to some extent actually subvert the discovery and living of such lives. Are we not only slowly and mortally disrupting natural Earth processes through climate change, and risking precipitous destruction through continued reliance on nuclear weapons in military planning, but are we simultaneously crushing human meaning and the human spirit that it nurtures through commercial practices and materialist values that are anathema to the Aristotelian insight, which was in fact correct?
I will assume, based on the figures cited earlier along with everyday observation and experience, that American society today is not a propitious place for the pursuit of happiness by the great majority of citizens. Unceasing war, militarism, and annual expenditures in the $1 trillion range for so-called national security operations; a dysfunctional political system that is polarized and polarizing as well as ineffective at promoting or even envisioning the common good; economic inequality that grossly surpasses rational justification or defense; whistling past the climate change graveyard; levels of gun ownership, imprisonment, drug usage, and neighborly violence that exceed those of any other country; precedence of corporate goals over all others; a populace the majority of whom will believe anything, including obvious lies and flimflammery, that suits its fears or fancy; bigotry in all its forms; etc. A long list of symptoms and it could be longer if made exhaustive. If our society were a person, it would be rushed into ICU.
“Why do they hate us?”, asked many after 9/11. Could it be that the U.S. drive to spread its self-centered (hyper-individualistic, socially fragmented) and commodity-centered values over all Earth, to set the rules for others on how to arrange their societies, and our readiness to impose our will and our values with force have something to do with it? I think so, but terrorism only represents an external response to Americanism; sometimes we turn on ourselves as at Oklahoma City in 1995. I am concerned here with attending to the signs of lost happiness within the U.S. and to its co-optive and distorted pursuits, despite its promise as an unalienable right in our Declaration of Independence. What are its sources? What’s missing and what’s been put in its place? Is our trajectory irremediably downward toward lower and lower levels of happiness combined with higher and higher levels of symptomatic responses?
As a footnote, I offer two speculations about capitalist dominated economic and political systems: first, without significant regulatory restraints capitalism will seriously damage society and the natural world, for it contains no internal ethical checks and attitudinally it prioritizes unlimited expansion over other values; and second, whenever it is solely engaged in bottom-line thinking, which seems its normal cognitive mode, capitalism will trend toward lowest common denominator conditions as long as they serve profitability. So worker security and satisfaction are no more than old fashioned luxuries and therefore dispensable, and obligations toward the community in which a corporation makes its products will not exceed platitudes, for communities are both dispensable and fungible. The obeisance which so many offer capitalistic economy can only be based on its economic dynamism, its capacity for generating more-and- more, while the costs and casualties of more-and-more are society’s and Nature’s price to pay. They have no place on a balance sheet or P & L.