Saturday, January 12, 2008

Can Capitalism Make Us Happy?

Maybe it's the time of year, but there do seem to be a lot of interesting studies and reports coming out about economics and happiness. Gallup have published a useful two part summary of the state of our knowledge which they summarise as 'The Gallup Path': a kind of macroeconomic version of Maslow's Hierarchy it seems to me.

I've written before about the 'pseudo-science' of happiness research, and I do tend to approach statistical studies on happiness with a degree of scepticism. Still, sometimes you come across a study and you think 'that rings true', and one such study recently looked at personality differences between men and women, with some interesting insights into mental wellbeing. Called Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? Sex Differences in Big Five
Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures
, it finds that:
On responses to the Big Five Inventory, women reported higher levels of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness than did men across most nations. These findings converge with previous studies in which different Big Five measures and more limited samples of nations were used. Overall, higher levels of human development—including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth—were the main nation-level predictors of larger sex differences in personality. Changes in men’s personality traits appeared to be the primary cause of sex difference variation across cultures.
In other words, the more affluent societies becomes, the more, er, neurotic women are relative to men. Oops - perhaps our feminist sisters were right after all, capitalism really is a Patriarchal Conspiracy! Certainly psycho babblers like Oliver James seem to think that capitalism is driving us mad: maybe he really meant the women folk?

However, a more benign interpretation of the personality traits study across 55 countries (not including Ireland unfortunately) is that the freedom provided by affluence simply allows more of our innate differences to come to the surface - with all the potential for conflict AND creativity that this brings with it. In a delightful essay on Why Capitalism Is Good For The Soul Peter Saunders (in response to Australian critics of consumerism) points out that for all its detractors, capitalism provides more scope for people to pursue whatever makes them happy than any other economic system yet devised:
By perpetually raising productivity, capitalism has not only driven down poverty rates and raised life expectancy, it has also released much of humanity from the crushing burden of physical labour, freeing us to pursue ‘higher’ objectives instead. What Clive Hamilton airily dismisses as a ‘growth fetish’ has resulted in one hour of work today delivering twenty-five times more value than it did in 1850. This has freed huge chunks of our time for leisure, art, sport, learning, and other ‘soul-enriching’ pursuits. Despite all the exaggerated talk of an ‘imbalance’ between work and family life, the average Australian today spends a much greater proportion of his or her lifetime free of work than they would had they belonged to any previous generation in history.
I urge you to read the full text of Saunders essay.

What he has to say about Australia can also be said about Ireland. Though hardly a week goes by without some doleful dirge in one of our national newspapers about how crass and materialistic we Irish have become, the fact is: none of us wants to go back to the allegedly simpler, happier times that were the 1980s (or 1960s or whichever historical sweet spot you fancy). Think about it, places like Romania and Bulgaria have the same standard of living today that we had twenty years ago - but which way do you think the migration traffic is flowing?

At the end of the day, capitalism allows the mass of us to pursue happiness, but it does not guarantee it. Securing happiness is, for each of us individually, more a matter of philosophy and mindfulness I suspect, but only once we've move further up Maslow's Hierarchy.

And capitalism is the best ladder we've got.

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