Happiness: Always more vs. always enough

It has been a while since my last article on this blog. I guess I have been rather busy. I intend to write more regularly in the future. The main reason is that happiness is an important topic, although too often neglected, just like health. Yet, both are interdependent.

I will resume by looking at whether happiness is the result of always wanting and having more or whether it is just about having always enough. The current economic model is really all about pushing people to always want more. Enough seems just not enough. It is true if the main parameter of economic performance is the GDP, but is the GDP the right indicator?

Happiness is a theme that comes and goes. During periods of economic growth, it seems to be overlooked as shopping seems to be the panacea for continuous bliss. But when the economy is not doing so well, then happiness reappears as an important theme. It was quite noticeable during the Great Recession of 2008. Since money was a bit short and the outlook uncertain, happiness suddenly emerged as being something of value. Even political leaders and the UN were engaging in attempts to use happiness as an indicator of prosperity and considered as something to assess how countries are doing. The example that they all referred to was Bhutan, which has happiness as one of its parameters. The media were adamant about it. It sounded promising and we were perhaps headed toward a different ranking of what is truly important and what makes people happy but then something terrible happened: the economy started to boom again. Since then, who talks about Bhutan and its happiness indicator for global improvement of societies anymore?

With the economy doing well and people having more disposable income, the main concern became the old one again: how to give your hard-earned work money to corporations as quickly and as much as possible and dig yourself into debt? I guess that I am old school but I am not really keen on giving the money that I earn to the richest 1%. For some reason, I believe that they already have more than enough to sustain themselves. Of course, this is a bit of sarcasm but the true reason, as far as I am concerned, is that I do not need always more to be happy. I have reached a point in my life where I have about all I need and I do not feel that I should waste my time and my money in the consumerism rat race.

So let’s have a look at the always more vs. always enough question. The economic model, based on GDP, wants the economy to be about always more transactions (i.e. buying stuff). The GDP is an indicator of growth but it has no particular focus on whether the growth is quantitative or qualitative. In other words, the economy is about buying –and producing- always more, regardless of whether it creates wealth or chaos. One of the reasons is what economists call externalities, which simply put are the long-term economic costs (negative externalities) or benefits (positive externalities). For instance, if mass production means damaging the environment in such a way that health costs increase for the society, these health care costs are not factored in the cost of production and the price of the consumption goods. An interesting illustration could be the health cost of bad nutrition. Society pays for the health care costs of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers, but producers and sellers of foods that contribute to the diseases are not charged for the health care costs and thus the health cost of bad foods is not included in the price of foods. Profits are individualized and costs are socialized.

In a system that is focused on quantitative growth (always more), the externalities are something that will have to be looked at later. If we deplete resources or damage our living environment, that is not the problem of today’s GDP, and that is the core of all the difficulties to address climate change for instance. The engine behind quantitative growth is marketing, which has become the art of making you buy a whole bunch of things that you do not really need with money that you do not even need to have right now, either. These consequences will have to be addressed later. They are externalities. To push you to want always more, marketing will trigger all your insecurities and hidden fears. You might not be “cool” or not sexy or not modern or not trendy or not special enough, etc etc… you name it. Well, you cannot live like that, can you? Fortunately, somebody somewhere has exactly what you need to hide all your “flaws” and fool the rest of the world. All you need to do is to spend your money and it will be all fine… for the corporations and the stock markets.

Opposite of that never-ending race, there is the always enough strategy. Just like with always more, you must earn money to sustain such an approach. It is not free, either. The difference is that you will not need as much money as with the always more concept. You also will have to develop a thick skin against all the mind games tricks from the marketers and not mind whatever you neighbours, friends or colleagues may think of you. The thick skin has a name: happiness, and it makes you almost indestructible. Actually, the always enough philosophy rests on qualitative growth. It is about growth that does not have externalities and long-term consequences that cannot be managed. It is much healthier for your finances and it is much gentler on the planet as well. Qualitative growth is the only truly sustainable economic growth model. On the opposite, quantitative growth is not sustainable. In a closed system with finite resources, “always more” leads inevitably to “no more”. The only thing we do not know is when that day will come. That is what wondering about what world we will leave to future generations really comes down to.

Back to the thick skin I mentioned earlier. How can one grow it? Well, while always more is all about having more stuff, always enough is about covering your needs and just that. The focus is about defining yourself by what you are and what you have inside. It is about your own quality, hence the relation to qualitative growth. The model about quantitative growth wants you to define yourself by what you have, by what you buy, it comes from outside (the retailers and the producers), not from inside. If you look at it from a happiness point of view, there are simple questions with simple answers.

  • If you want always more, what is it that you are truly missing?
  • If you are happy, why do you need more?
  • If marketers and corporations decide how you should lead your life, then are you really in charge and in control of your life or are you just being played with? And can you be happy about that?

Another set of questions, looked at from the other end of the scope is

  • Is always enough about meeting your true needs and always more just about wanting instead of needing?
  • When you are truly happy, could it be that you have enough of all you need?
  • If you are happy with yourself, what does it matter what others think?

Of course, different people have different priorities and values. That is why the life plan that I present on this website is based on personal values. Regardless of these values and priorities, long-term consequences are real. Beyond individual values, collective values that shape our societies and our economic models will impact future generations. If the system needs to change, the name of the game is: planned transition. Unfortunately, when we look at economy, people and environment, the rhetoric is too often about changing the system abruptly, which creates resistance and rightly so. Everything needs time to be done well and changing our economic model is no exception to that rule. The irony is that by no giving ourselves the time for a smooth transition, we will end up with an abrupt crisis that we will not be able to postpone anymore and there will not be many happy people when that happens.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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