The visible hand in economics

Does sustainability make us happier?

Posted on: December 4, 2008

So we are going to have to cut our consumption and it’s not going to make us better off. How come NewScientist’s authors seem to agree that we won’t necessarily be unhappier? Where evidence is given it tends to be in terms of happiness measures. Kate Soper (London Metropolitan University) points out that wealth doesn’t correlate with happiness over USD15,000 of income, while Andrew Simms (New Economics Foundation) makes much of the fact that people with vastly different living standards report the same level of happiness. The difficulty is that happiness isn’t the kind of measure that works for cross-country comparisons.

If one were to ask a third-world resident if they would prefer a first world standard of living they would likely say yes. Conversely, the first worlder would probably not be indifferent between their and the third worlder’s standard of living. However, they may still report the same level of happiness. Adaptation to new conditions in humans is remarkably rapid, but we should not mistake adaptation for indifference. People report being happier 2-4 years after widowhood than before the death. Of course, it would be a mistake to believe that they wanted their spouse dead and were better off for the death. Using happiness statistics gives us insight into the rapidity of adaptation, but it is an exceedingly crude measure of human preferences.

As Simms points out, we won’t like losing our ‘regular steaks, hot tubs, luxury cosmetics and easy foreign travel’, but we will adapt to it. We will be happy in the sense that those, far poorer than anyone with the means to read this blog, can still be happy. That doesn’t mean that we won’t have to make sacrifices compared to the way we now live our lives. It doesn’t mean that we won’t still long for the things that we can no longer afford.

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1 Response to "Does sustainability make us happier?"

It simply all depends on your baseline and expectations….i was very happy when I made 30k just out of varsity…still just as happy when I made 100k a few years after starting work…and really just as happy making a multiple of that now (OK, maybe a little bit happier than I recall at 30k)…but I would be extremely unhappy now if I had to go back to 30k…the baseline and expectation has changed. I’d imagine the adaption period would be very very long indeed!

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