Nov 27, 2008
"The pursuit of happiness." It's so American that it's in our
Declaration of Independence, where it's listed alongside life and
liberty as an inalienable right.
But how successful
have we been in that pursuit? And now that the global finance system is
imploding, how likely is it that we'll be happy in the coming months
Can't Buy Love
roughly the 1970s, Americans have been buying things madly, whether we
could afford them or not. We were promised that a bigger car, a more
trendy purse, or a flat-screen television would bring us happiness, and
we've been acting accordingly. We were promised that an ever-growing
economy would make us all rich. But while our gross domestic product
increased more or less steadily from the 1970s until the onset of the
current financial crisis, most of us did not see a rise
in our standard of living or our wellbeing. Wages stagnated, while the
costs of basic needs-like homes, medical care, food, and energy-climbed
rapidly. Those in the top 20 percent increased their net worth by 80
percent over the last 25 years, while the bottom 40 percent actually
Few families today can make it on
a single wage-earner's income, and a health problem or a job loss can
send a middle-class family into poverty or even homelessness.
we continue to buy the products that are supposed to make us happy,
driving many of us deeply into debt. Families are carrying an average
credit card debt of $5,100, with interest rates that often make payoff
nearly impossible. In recent years, home equity reached record lows as
people borrowed against the value of their homes. In 2004, the most
recent year for which Federal Reserve figures are available, debt
secured by real property exceeded $290,000 per household, almost three
times what it was only 15 years before.
debt makes life more precarious. It also increases our dependence on
long work hours, which-if we can find work at all-combines with long
commutes to eat up the time we might otherwise have for things that research shows actually would make us happy.
easy to fall into the trap of believing that having more stuff will
lead to happiness, because there's an element of truth in the
advertiser's promise. We do need a certain amount of food to live,
after all. Shelter is good. We need clothes, tools-a bit beyond the
bare necessities can be nice. And having stuff has always been a way to
show that you are successful and entitled to respect. But after the
novelty of a new outfit or laptop wears off, we're left with a hole in
our wallets and an empty feeling, which-advertisers tell us-we should
fill by shopping for yet more new and improved stuff.
Following this advice may keep the corporate economy humming, but has it made us happy?
Many figures suggest the answer is: not really. Broad standards of wellbeing like the Genuine Progress Indicators
show that our health, quality of life, economic security, and
environment, taken together, stayed flat, although we worked harder. A
20-year study by the OECD found the United States has the highest rate
of inequality and poverty among the developed countries, and the income
gap has grown steadily since 2000. A recent Gallup poll found that just
half of Americans live free of worries about money or health, compared
to 83 percent of those in Denmark. When the World Health Organization
and Harvard Medical School studied rates of depression in 14 countries,
the U.S. topped the list.
How Many Planets Does it Take?
not only Americans who are taking a hit from an economic system that
puts money and growth ahead of real wellbeing. People around the world
are losing access to their own natural resources and economic
Corporations seeking to profit by
stimulating and feeding our appetite for stuff have trampled on the
livelihood and ways of life of Mexican farmers, indigenous rainforest
dwellers, African miners, and Thai factory workers. When land buyouts
or subsidized agricultural imports make traditional lifeways
impossible, many of these people arrive in crowded cities with no
choice but to work for rock-bottom wages or attempt an arduous
migration to a higher-wage country.
globalization like Thomas Friedman tell us that in a few generations
these workers will have a standard of living similar to ours in the
United States. But ecological footprint analysis
shows it would take more than six Earths to give everyone in the world
the level of consumption Americans "enjoy." Of course, we have only one
planet, and this one is overheating.
The Pursuit of Happiness Is
this what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he substituted "the pursuit
of happiness" for the phrase contained in the earlier Continental
Congress draft, "life, liberty, and property?"
ideal was an economy based on small farmers who produced for themselves
most of what they needed. Their happiness was not something they
to provide for a fee, but rather something they created themselves,
through their work and human relationships within a community. The
economy of the time was founded, in part, on a slave-owning society
built on land often stolen from native peoples, but Jefferson's ideals
had a strong influence on the young country. Freedom, independence, and
self-sufficiency were all popular values.
U.S. has moved a long way from the Jeffersonian ideal. Today, we
produce little of what we use. We exchange our work for money, and buy
food, clothing, and other necessities from big box stores and purchase
child care and elder care from corporate chains.
we no longer have the time, skills, extended families, and access to
land that were commonplace just decades ago, we have become completely
dependent on money. That dependency leaves us at the mercy of those who
control the economy and the money supply. And those who accumulate the
money have inordinate influence over our government. It is the precise
opposite of the Jeffersonian ideal. It's also a departure from the way
humans have lived for most of history.
Life After the Crash
maybe it's just as well that the crisis is finally upon us. Maybe this
time of creative destruction offers us the chance for a fresh start, a
chance to build a society that puts ordinary people first and provides
the conditions for their happiness.
shock of the crisis wears off, maybe we'll look around like characters
in a Fellini movie who come outside at dawn after a debauched night of
excess. We'll turn off the television, log off the internet, notice the
bright colors of sunrise, and speak to the neighbors who we've never
found time to meet.
We may spend less of our lives working as the cash economy shrinks and companies close their doors.
maybe we'll learn to share the work and reclaim time for the aspects of
our lives that research tells us contributes to real happiness-time
with families and friends, civic involvement, exercise, creativity. It
wouldn't be the first time. During the Great Depression, for instance,
the Kellogg Company cut employee shifts from eight hours to six to
extend the number who had jobs. Productivity went up so much that the
company could afford to pay the same for the shorter shift. Meanwhile,
civic organizations, adult education, and family life in Kalamazoo
Maybe we'll find ways to trade among friends and neighbors-some
winter squash or homemade pie for some child care or home repair. Maybe
we'll reclaim the skills we used to have, and teach each other how to
grow food, fix things ourselves, sew and knit, and pass skills along to
our children and grandchildren.
the exuberance of the economic bubbles of the '80s, '90s, and '00s, we
lost track of something. Money exists to serve us as a tool, not the
other way around. Our lives and society do not have to be turned over
to the rulers of high finance and their hired representatives in
Washington, D.C. We the people can reject the economic orthodoxy that
has served us so poorly, and rebuild our economy on a different
sort of society do we want to rebuild? What will expand our life,
liberty, and pursuit of happiness without diminishing the chances for
other people, now and in the future, to have the same?
Here are some of the things we'll need to do:
- Economic policies
for the future must assure that everyone is included, and that we lift
up those at the bottom. When we allow inequality to burgeon in our
society, we create crime and violence and hate, which damage everyone's
ability to find happiness. We can no longer afford nine-figure
paychecks for CEOs and double-digit returns on speculative investments.
To paraphrase Gandhi, we have enough for everyone's needs, but not for
- The environmental
overshoot game is up. The next economy must function within the present
production of our environment. We can no longer afford to live off the
bounty of the past, like the millions of years of fossil deposits that
make up today's diminishing oil reserves. Instead we must turn to solar
energy, wind, and other renewables, and grow food and fiber by building
the soil, not by dumping petroleum products on it. We can't continue to
use our atmosphere, oceans, aquifers, and soils as dumps. No amount of
"Runs for the Cure" will solve the cancer problem if we continue to
poison our food, water, and air. And the climate is reaching a
dangerous tipping point.
- We can no
longer allow the money economy to grow like a cancer on our society,
until it takes over all facets of life. The economy needs to serve
people, communities, and the health of natural systems, not the other
way around. Instead of relying on footloose unaccountable global
corporations, we can turn to local and regional production to serve our
needs and provide sustainable employment, including small and
medium-sized businesses, co-ops, farmer's markets, and so on.
we do that, we'll get much clearer on real sources of happiness.
Research tells us that the sources of the good life are in loving
relationships, mutual respect, meaningful work, and gratitude, and as
we discover the power of these qualities, the lure of advertising and
materialism will no longer fool us. Overconsumption will take its place
alongside other passing fads.
begin to relearn the skills and rebuild the relationships we lost in
the pursuit of money and things, we will begin to find a happiness that
we are in charge of; one that is not dependent on the fluctuations of
the stock market or the amount of stuff we own.
as it may be in the short term, we can emerge from this crisis
healthier and wealthier, with the sort of wealth that really matters:
strong communities and relationships with loved ones, healthy
ecosystems, and the skills to make a living and enjoy life.
This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
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