April 03, 2006


El Cabrero ranted a good bit last week about the connection or lack thereof between the economy and human happiness, but, like a cat with a stubborn hairball, he didn’t quite get it all out yet. So here goes…

It is a basic fact of our world that economic forces rule over people rather than vice versa. This is neither good nor necessary. No matter how much we worship it, the market god will not reward us with happiness. The most it can offer is the “hedonic treadmill” of endless desires and satisfactions that retreat with the horizon—and it isn’t even delivering this to millions of people.

The cult of the market god has led us farther away from an ancient but modern idea of happiness as the fulfillment of our potentialities over the course of a lifetime. This view, first articulated by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), is inherently political since the good life can only be achieved in a just political system and the main goal of a just political system is to promote the good life. Economic well being, as in being secure in the ability to meet basic material and social needs, is a necessary element of a good life but is only a small part of it.

Recent scholarship and research support this ancient theory of happiness as development. Philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002), whose book A Theory of Justice has had enormous influence, talks extensively about what he calls “the Aristotelian Principle,” which states that:

“other things being equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and that this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity. A person takes pleasure in doing something as he becomes more proficient at it, and of two activities which he performs equally well, he prefers the one that calls upon the greater number of more subtle and intricate discriminations.”

For example, a child may enjoy drawing stick figures but will not be content with these as skills and creative abilities increase. Playing guitar becomes more enjoyable as one gets better at playing chords. Athletic endeavors such as martial arts are awkward and painful at first but become more enjoyable with practice.

In all of these, as skill increases, one enjoys most performing techniques that require more refinement, even if you never become an expert. The important thing is the process and the challenge of a task that isn't either too easy or too difficult. This a source of much of the progress in the arts and sciences as well as of simple enjoyment.

This theme has been further developed by the empirical research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (and owner of a cool last name) and others who study positive aspects of human psychology and performance.

This is a kind of happiness that people can experience in any number of areas of human endeavor throughout a lifetime—provided that they have the opportunity to find and develop their talents. And as people develop their potential, the lives of others are inspired and enriched.

Tragically, because of poverty and economic injustice, millions of people never get the chance to develop their capacities.

That’s what the fight is about.

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