Monday, September 5, 2011

A "Florentine Moment?"

I have been discussing Martin Seligman's new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.

Towards the end of the book, he discusses the "Politics and Economics of Well-Being." It is not a matter of left versus right, he says.

Left and right are the politics of means - empowering the state versus empowering the individual - but, stripped to essentials, they both advocate similar ends: more material prosperity, more wealth. Positive psychology is a politics that advocates no particular means but rather another end. That end is not wealth or conquest but well-being.

Economics, he says, reigns unchallenged in the policy arena.

At the time of the industrial revolution, economic indicators were a very good approximation of how well a nation is doing. Meeting simple human needs for food, shelter and clothing was chancy, and satisfying these needs moved in lockstep with more wealth. Basic goods and services, once scarce, became so widely available that in the twenty-first century, many economically developed nations such as the United States, Japan and Sweden experience an abundance, perhaps overabundance, of goods and services. Because simple needs are largely satisfied in modern socieities, factors other than wealth now play an enormous role in how well these societies are doing.

Seligman argues that GDP does not capture much of this - which is true, and I remember similar arguments being made twenty years ago as well. But we still await the BEA GDP numbers with huge apprehension to see if we are slipping into recession again. I will come back to issues of measurement later.

He dismisses critics like Barbara Ehrenreich, who argued a in a recent book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (which I haven't read yet) that accepting reality is more important than fostering happiness:

What Ehrenreich appears to be after is a world in which human well-being follows only from externalities such as class, war and money. Such a crumbling, Marxist worldview must ignore the enormous number of reflexive realities in which what a person thinks and feels goes on to influence the future. The science of positive psychology (and this book) is entirely about reflexive realities." (p236)

He cites George Soros' arguments about reflexivity (see The Alchemy of Finance (Wiley Investment Classics)). Financial markets do indeed depend fundamentally on perceptions and beliefs about the future, although they are the sum of many people's beliefs, not individual belief alone.

And Seligman argues that, just like the Florentine Republic around 1450, we have a choice of what to do with our wealth. Florence decided to invest in beauty, he says ( a bit simplistically. They also got Savonarola and invading French armies).

The wealthy nations of the world - North America, the European Union,Japan, and Australia - are at a Florentine moment: rich, at peace, enough food, health and harmony. How will we invest our wealth? What will our renaissance be?

That is indeed an excellent question, the one I want to help answer in this blog. Amidst all the economic gloom, there is immense possibility. But we need new thinking.

I think maximizing some measure of well-being is a more sensible course of action if there are diminishing returns to looking at GDP and exchange transactions in the economy alone. Seligman's measures, including the 24 positive psychological strengths he and his colleages identify, may not be the last word.

But I think the key thing here is he does have something as a tangible, concrete end. It is an improvement on the long-standing liberal approach of neutrality between ends and a focus on means only, or at best distribution of means. This is why I have a strand on the right looking at ethics and philosophy - for example, Amartya Sen's argument here.

Well-being is not a coercive end. It does not require belief in a particular faith or adherence to a particular ideology. But it does assume there are some things about human nature and human beings which will are common, that in the same way all human beings need food, there are some mental and moral needs in common too.

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