The Pursuit of Happiness

My daughter, actually one of my four daughters, has just recently made me aware of an interesting and provocative commentary by her former thesis adviser, John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan School.

The piece was part of an email exchange between Professor Sterman and the NYTimes’s Andrew Revkin, in response to Revkin’s query about whether the recent consumption slowdown was, in the long run, a good thing.

Revkin posted Sterman’s comments along with those of others (including Gary Peter’s John Stuart Mill quotation — see my Blog of 10/22) on his Dot Earth Blog, all under the heading, Are You On a ‘Hedonic Treadmill.’

Sterman in his commentary regarding the consumption slowdown says it’s critically important “to separate the short-run, disequilibrium impact of consumer spending on business cycle dynamics from the long-run impact of consumption on the ability of the global ecosystem to support our economy.”

The dislocation in the short run is much less important than long run consumption patterns, for, as he would have it, the present recession is only temporary and as the imbalances are worked off the economy will recover and growth eventually resume.

The most interesting question for Sterman is how consumption patterns relate to long term growth paths and the ability of planetary ecosystems to support the economy.

“We have been consuming,” he says, “natural capital far faster than it regenerates, whether it’s fossil fuels, fish, forests, wetlands, or the capacity of the oceans and other sinks to take up greenhouse gases.”

At the same time he readily admits that global carrying capacity is a notoriously slippery notion to nail down, but then proceeds as if he had done so.

“In particular, the new ‘Planetary Boundaries’ paper,” forthcoming in Nature, as he informs us, “makes the case that humanity has overshot the global carrying capacity in a variety of key areas, including greenhouse gases, nitrogen, phosphorus, fresh water, land use, and biodiversity.”

At best his position here can be no more than a working hypothesis. Does anyone really know for sure the global carrying capacity of greenhouse gases, nitrogen, phosphorus and all the rest? I don’t think so.

Again, as he himself admits, carrying capacities are notoriously slippery concepts, and they obviously change over time as conditions change, and conditions always change.

But now Professor Sterman gets to what seems to me the real thrust of his commentary, not just another well done clarification of the present economic downturn, nor even well reasoned and definitive statements about the earth’s carrying capacities in regard to CO2, fresh water etc.

At this point in his argument the Professor begins an attack on what he sees as our dominant ethos, the drive for higher and higher per capita consumption, the ever greater accumulation of material goods, energy etc. In his opinion, this is not a good thing.

It’s not good, that “everyone wants more — a bigger home, a bigger TV, a fancier vacation, more stuff, more consumption, more than they consumed last year, more than their neighbors.” The clear implication is that we are going to surpass the earth’s capacity in order to support our “bad” consumption habits.

Furthermore Professor Sterman states definitely that, “there can be no technological solution to the problem.”  In other words technology is not going to enable us to grow indefinitely our consumption of material goods.

How does he know this? For wouldn’t history tend to support the opposite conclusion, that somehow man always seems to come up with technological fixes to whatever be the particular shortage or other problem confronting him.

It is at this point in his argument, that, rather than supporting with new evidence what does seem a reasonable position that the earth’s carrying capacity does have its limits, the Professor enters the moral realm. And ultimately his argument against the hedonic treadmill is a moral one, and in building his argument he mostly makes use of all too familiar anti-consumption clichés.

I’ve been hearing throughout my lifetime, perhaps even more so when I was a young man and probably by my young age more responsive to that sort of thing, that my happiness did not depend on material possessions. Or that happiness, or the pursuit of happiness, was not the same thing as the pursuit of property, as Thomas Jefferson himself would have had us believe by his words in the Declaration.

Professor Sterman really didn’t need to once again tell us that:

“the pursuit of more, so stunningly successful so far, has not increased our happiness”

“studies show that greater consumption per capita is only weakly associated with greater well-being or higher life-satisfaction”

“People tend to base their ‘needs’ … on the consumption of those they observe around them …feeling greater satisfaction when they have bigger houses and more expensive cars, and feeling deprived when they have relatively less.”

“we find ourselves in a no-win situation in which no level of income or consumption remains satisfying for long — [we are on] the hedonic treadmill.”

“people spend far more time working, commuting, and doing other aversive, unpleasant tasks, while the time spent in satisfying activities such as building friendships and intimate relationships, athletics, spirituality, self-improvement, etc. is small.”

“People move to distant suburbs far from their jobs so they can afford a larger house, thinking this will make them happier, but don’t adequately account for extra hours they must work to pay off the mortgage and the way their long commute erodes their happiness by stealing time they could be spending with their spouse and children, friends and community.”

“even if there were no environmental constraints to endless growth, even if the capacity of the planet to support material consumption where infinite, growth in material consumption, the never-ending quest for more stuff, is not taking us where we want to go.”

One would like to believe, along with John Sterman, (and John Stuart Mill and many others) that things were really that simple, that we needed only to abandon our excessive consumption habits, our continually wanting to have more, more than our neighbors, and that in order to be happy we needed only to spend more time with ourselves and our families.

One would like to believe that. I know I’ve left comfortable positions in my own life thinking that happiness would come by my not being so vitally interested in financial success. But I’ve since learned that to be happy one need no more go without the material advantages of modern technological society, than to have acquired all those same technological advantages. There is not yet a happiness formula.

Our happiness is not so easily boxed in. I certainly find myself happy sometimes for what I have in my possession. A Kindle? A new MacBook? At other times I find myself no less happy for not having much of anything at all, perhaps only a part in a conversation with friends around a kitchen table in a 14th floor high rise apartment in Moscow in May of 1991, after having heard, with those same friends, Boris Yeltsin addressing the crowds in Manege Square.

Regarding happiness we can’t be, as the Professor, so sure of ourselves. Most would think that a winning lottery ticket would be a ticket to happiness. Are they wrong?

I tend to agree with a comment by Judith Warner, also in the NYTimes, who says:

“I have a problem with studies that measure nebulous emotional states…. Happiness [a highly nebulous emotional state], after all, is hard to quantify; you can’t measure it in a blood test, or map it in a mathematical equation corresponding to patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. It also tends to be relative; we judge our happiness, at least in part, against our expectations of how we are supposed to feel and how good we think life is supposed to be.”

But then you have John Sterman, a well isolated, well insulated, well protected Sloan School professor, talking about happiness, a “nebulous emotional state” if there ever was one, as if it was something that could be quantified, as if he could judge its presence among us, and even on what it most depended.

And what’s most surprising is that this discussion of happiness, an unquantifiable entity if there ever was one, comes from an MIT professor, a numbers guy, one who ought to have remained occupied with those things we can measure, mass, length, time, and any number of other such quantifiable variables.

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