AlterNet: EnviroHealth: Why Having More No Longer Makes Us Happy

Ξ March 22nd, 2007 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Politics and Society |


    Excerpt: "Because traditional economists think of human beings primarily as individuals and not as members of a community, they miss out on a major part of the satisfaction index. Economists lay it out almost as a mathematical equation: Overall, "evidence shows that companionship ... contributes more to well-being than does income," writes Robert E. Lane, a Yale political science professor who is the author ofThe Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies.

    But there is a notable difference between poor and wealthy countries: When people have lots of companionship but not much money, income "makes more of a contribution to subjective well-being." By contrast, "where money is relatively plentiful and companionship relatively scarce, companionship will add more to subjective well-being."

    If you are a poor person in China, you have plenty of friends and family around all the time -- perhaps there are four other people living in your room. Adding a sixth doesn't make you happier. But adding enough money so that all five of you can eat some meat from time to time pleases you greatly.

    By contrast, if you live in a suburban American home, buying another coffeemaker adds very little to your quantity of happiness -- trying to figure out where to store it, or wondering if you picked the perfect model, may in fact decrease your total pleasure. But a new friend, a new connection, is a big deal. We have a surplus of individualism and a deficit of companionship, and so the second becomes more valuable.

    Indeed, we seem to be genetically wired for community. As biologist Edward O. Wilson found, most primates live in groups and get sad when they're separated -- "an isolated individual will repeatedly pull a lever with no reward other than the glimpse of another monkey." Why do people so often look back on their college days as the best years of their lives? Because their classes were so fascinating? Or because in college, we live more closely and intensely with a community than most of us ever do before or after?

    Every measure of psychological health points to the same conclusion: People who "are married, who have good friends, and who are close to their families are happier than those who do not," says Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz. "People who participate in religious communities are happier than those who are not." Which is striking, Schwartz adds, because social ties "actually decrease freedom of choice" -- being a good friend involves sacrifice.

    Do we just think we're happier in communities? Is it merely some sentimental good-night-John-Boy affectation? No -- our bodies react in measurable ways. According to research cited by Harvard professor Robert Putnam in his classic book Bowling Alone, if you do not belong to any group at present, joining a club or a society of some kind cuts in half the risk that you will die in the next year.

    Check this out: When researchers at Carnegie Mellon (somewhat disgustingly) dropped samples of cold virus directly into subjects' nostrils, those with rich social networks were four times less likely to get sick. An economy that produces only individualism undermines us in the most basic ways.

    Here's another statistic worth keeping in mind: Consumers have 10 times as many conversations at farmers' markets as they do at supermarkets -- an order of magnitude difference. By itself, that's hardly life-changing, but it points at something that could be: living in an economy where you are participant as well as consumer, where you have a sense of who's in your universe and how it fits together.

 

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