Challenging the Happiness Argument

By Scott Gast

It’s likely that most folks reading this blog — and certainly the folks who post here regularly — are pretty sure that the costs of further economic growth, in a global sense, have begun to outweigh the benefits. And, ecological limits aside, a good portion of those costs have to do with how we — the readers and writers of this blog — experience happiness and satisfaction in our own lives. Whether it’s the shallow rush of consumption, the seductions of advertising, or working overtime beneath the fluorescent glare of office lights, we’re mostly in agreement that chasing material rewards at all costs is a dead end.

But it’s a big world out there. We are not everyone. Many of my good friends and family members truly enjoy shopping, dream of big bank accounts, and genuinely love the fact that they can choose between 500 sports channels on their new hi-def TV screens. Or so they tell me.

So, Post Growthers: What’s our response?

For me, a crystallization of this other worldview — that I think we’ll have to find a way to convincingly and positively address — showed up in my mailbox in a recent issue of The New Yorker. A letter to the editor in the April 5, 2010 issue of the magazine, addressing this earlier piece, reads:

“In American society, at least, which from its inception has placed a fundamental value on the ‘unalienable rights’ of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ any attempt by government to meddle with that pursuit through supposed superior wisdom infringes upon individual freedom. A person can be mistaken about what will make him or her happy, and the findings of happiness research can provide helpful information for personal reflection. Nevertheless, in a free society the right to pursue one’s own notions of happiness is a sine qua non [emphasis added]. Laws are necessary to insure that this pursuit does not impinge upon another’s similar right, but, beyond this caveat, no political system should be in the business of trying to correct or redirect an individual’s ideas of personal happiness.”

Now swap “government” for “post growth advocates.”

As people actively concerned with ushering in a world that works, elegantly, within the rapidly approaching limits of Earth, I think we have a responsibility to address this other perspective. After all, the guy who penned this letter has a good point: Who is anyone to tell him what makes him happy? And as a neoclassical economist would probably add, “What does a person want? Whatever they pay for, obviously!”

These, to me, are all tough points to argue with. They make a clean logic. And I certainly don’t believe that I, or anyone else, should be telling other people what makes them happy.

But! What comes first: personal freedom or the Earth? Physics and chemistry win the day on that one, I’m afraid. But do we have to choose between the two? The question really is: how can we all get on board — in some expression or another — with a way of life that fits within ecological limits?

Let me be more specific: How can we reconcile a healthy respect for personal freedoms with the intuitively valid argument that further economic growth (in the West, at least) isn’t making us any happier?

A couple suggestions. One: A good place to start is with getting our accounting straight. That seems a clear way forward and doesn’t impinge on anyone’s ability to decide for themselves what amounts to happiness. Money spent on hospital visits and new prisons aren’t positives on anyone’s balance sheet. Two: Provide full information and real prices. If buying that new LCD screen means a girl in China is working a 16 hour day and coming home with heavy metals in her system, that (at the very least) needs to be both clear and — this bit is controversial — priced into the product somehow. Three: Lead by example. If trading consumerism for organizing a neighborhood block party really makes you happier, then do it. And spread the joy — you’ll be a part of cultural change.

The floor is open for debate. What say you, Internet?

Originally published in April 2010. Find out more about the Post Growth Institute on our website.

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Writing by team-members, guest contributors, and Fellows of the Post Growth Institute (PGI).

Post Growth

Guiding the way to a full circle, #postgrowth economy beyond capitalism.