Explaining the causes of happiness – Part III

The first part of this post looked at the amazing human ability to synthesize happiness while the second part explored how we can make the most of this amazing ability by ensuring that we live in an environment where happiness comes naturally. Briefly summarized, this environment consists of vibrant health, nourishing personal relationships and free creative expression.

This post will explore why excessive consumption does not bring happiness. This is important because the entire global paradigm of perpetual exponential economic growth at almost any cost is based on the premise that consistent GDP growth will grant long and happy lives to more and more people. As we have seen before, however, this is true only up to a point – a point long since crossed by most developed world citizens.

Happiness vs wealth II

Clear material lack is obviously not very conducive to happiness. Under conditions of malnourishment and constant exposure to the elements even the most positive mind will struggle to synthesize much happiness. Surprisingly, however, this is possible to a certain extent. A country like El Salvador, for example, registers greater happiness than Qatar with per capita consumption close to 20 times smaller.

happy-poor-kidsIndeed, as discussed before, relative consumption has a greater influence on happiness than absolute consumption. A person living in poverty will therefore be much more content if his entire town is just as poor as him than if he lives in a squatter camp just outside a shimmering city filled with fancy homes and luxury cars.

This is the same reason why quadriplegics are just as happy as lotto winners. Quadriplegics know that they cannot regain the use of their arms and legs and this allows their brains to adjust to this new reality and synthesize happiness even in their objectively terrible circumstances. Someone who lives in relative poverty (but at least is not malnourished or homeless) will therefore be quite content if he lives in a poor country and accepts this as his reality.

The same applies in rich countries. Even people who are richer than 90% of the global population can experience substantial unhappiness due to their perceived lack of material possessions relative to their peers. And yes, this is exactly the problem with chasing happiness through consumption: more consumption does not bring any lasting happiness, but a perceived lack of consumption relative to your peers can bring lasting unhappiness.

This is why one of the well-established relationships between money and happiness listed in a previous post is that people who are very concerned about money are unhappier than those who are not. It is therefore quite clear that any mind that spends a good deal of time comparing status symbols is capable of synthesizing substantial quantities of unhappiness. 

Filed under: Mental control – Happiness

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