Friday, January 27, 2012

Consumption can make people sad?

Here's another link, embedded in that Atlantic article below, about consumption and happiness. The writer, a psychology professor, says the discipline is increasingly providing clear conclusions on what makes people happy. 

Of course, this is  a theme we've been consistently following on this blog, but it's a nice succinct statement. He says: 

The lesson in all this research is that prioritizing what we do over what we have will lead to greater satisfaction with our lives


The crisis may provide some opportunity for a reset, he says. 

I suspect that there is little in what I’ve written that people don’t already know. This suggests either that people don’t need to be told, or that telling people is a waste of time because they just can’t help themselves when it comes to acquiring more stuff. It does seem to me, however, that the economic crisis of recent years may provide us with a unique opportunity to encourage people to recalibrate their aims and aspirations.


Can we help ourselves from acquiring more stuff?  

That is a potential downer. Even if we know what makes us happy, we often find it difficult to do it in practice.  

So maybe the virtual consumption discussed below is a significant shift, at least if it gains any traction. It flaunts choice rather than possession, and taste rather than bling.

Indeed, maybe for some people showing off on their Facebook stream burns off some of the conspicuous consumption/status competition desires.

And maybe the next billionaire in social media will figure out how to bring bitchy clique management and cool kid rivalry to the internet in a more explicit way. It won't be enough just to defriend, but to diss, to bring the virtual equivalent of being frozen out and looking in to the internet. The virtual velvet rope. Sigh. I bet people are working on it right now.   

All the same, even if we know what would make our lives better and manage to organize the economy that way, could we actually help ourselves from screwing it up? We have to deal with people as they are, and human beings can often be a tangled ball of conflicting and flawed desires. 

This goes back to the issue of incentives for good behavior and penalties for free riding or bad behavior, and the institutions and values and ethics that go along with that. Every time we touch on the economy, we keep getting drawn back to these prudential and ethical issues.  

Here's a variant on the coffee shop question, then, the original underlying theme of the blog. How can we help people to do things that bring them joy, instead of working long hours in tedious jobs to get more bland stuff?  In the long run, how do we get people out of the office and into the park?

People are suspicious of that because they think it would negatively affect others. At least if people are in their cubicles they are producing rather than consuming goods paid for by others, or so the thought goes. 

Both production and consumption are blurring together, however.  Our measurements are increasingly wrong. Wrong measurements, wrong incentives, wrong outcomes. 

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