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Why having more no longer makes us happy

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The formula of human well-being used to be simple: Make money, get happy. So why is the old axiom suddenly turning on us?

By Bill McKibben Posted Apr 2, 2009

Consider Americans in 1820, two generations after Adam Smith. The average citizen earned, in current dollars, less than $1,500 a year, which is somewhere near the current average for all of Africa. As the economist Deirdre McCloskey explains in a 2004 article in the magazine Christian Century, “Your great-great-great-grandmother had one dress for church and one for the week, if she were not in rags. Her children did not attend school, and probably could not read. She and her husband worked eighty hours a week for a diet of bread and milk — they were four inches shorter than you.”

Even in 1900, the average American lived in a house the size of today’s typical garage. Is it any wonder that we built up considerable velocity trying to escape the gravitational pull of that kind of poverty? An object in motion stays in motion, and our economy — with the built-up individual expectations that drive it — is a mighty object indeed.

You could call it, I think, the Laurdlgalls Wilder effect. I grew up reading her books — Little House on the Prairie, Little House in the Big Woods — and my daughter grew up listening to me read them to her, and no doubt she will read them to her children.

They are the ur-American story. And what do they tell? Of a life rich in family, rich in connection to the natural world, rich in adventure — but materially deprived. That one dress, that same bland dinner. At Christmastime, a penny — a penny! And a stick of candy, and the awful deliberation about whether to stretch it out with tiny licks or devour it in an orgy of happy greed. A rag doll was the zenith of aspiration. My daughter likes dolls too, but her bedroom boasts a density of Beanie Babies that mimics the manic biodiversity of the deep rain forest. Another one? Really, so what? Its marginal utility, as an economist might say, is low. And so it is with all of us. We just haven’t figured that out because the momentum of the past is still with us — we still imagine we’re in that little house on the big prairie.

6. This year’s model home: “Good for the dysfunctional family”

That great momentum has carried us away from something valuable, something priceless: It has allowed us to become (very nearly forced us to become) more thoroughly individualistic than we really wanted to be. We left behind hundreds of thousands of years of human community for the excitement, and the isolation, of “making something of ourselves,” an idea that would not have made sense for 99.9 percent of human history.

Adam Smith’s insight was that the interests of each of our individual selves could add up, almost in spite of themselves, to social good — to longer lives, fuller tables, warmer houses. Suddenly the community was no longer necessary to provide these things; they would happen as if by magic. And they did happen. And in many ways it was good.

But this process of liberation seems to have come close to running its course. Study after study shows Americans spending less time with friends and family, either working longer hours, or hunched over their computers at night. And each year, as our population grows by 1 percent we manage to spread ourselves out over 6 to 8 percent more land. Simple mathematics says that we’re less and less likely to bump into the other inhabitants of our neighborhood, or indeed of our own homes.

As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, “Major builders and top architects are walling people off. They’re touting one-person ‘Internet alcoves,’ locked-door ‘away rooms,’ and his-and-her offices on opposite ends of the house. The new floor plans offer so much seclusion, they’re ‘good for the dysfunctional family,’ says Gopal Ahluwahlia, director of research for the National Association of Home Builders.”

At the building industry’s annual Las Vegas trade show, the “showcase ‘Ultimate Family Home’ hardly had a family room,” noted the Journal. Instead, the boy’s personal playroom had its own 42-inch plasma TV, and the girl’s bedroom had a secret mirrored door leading to a “hideaway karaoke room.” “We call this the ultimate home for families who don’t want anything to do with one another,” said Mike McGee, chief executive of Pardee Homes of Los Angeles, builder of the model.

This transition from individualism to hyper-individualism also made its presence felt in politics. In the 1980s, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher asked, “Who is society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Talk about everything solid melting into air — Thatcher’s maxim would have spooked Adam Smith himself.

The “public realm” — things like parks and schools and Social Security, the last reminders of the communities from which we came — is under steady and increasing attack. Instead of contributing to the shared risk of health insurance, Americans are encouraged to go it alone with “health savings accounts.” Hell, even the nation’s most collectivist institution, the U.S. military, until recently recruited under the slogan an “Army of One.”

No wonder the show that changed television more than any other in the past decade was Survivor, where the goal is to end up alone on the island, to manipulate and scheme until everyone is banished and leaves you by yourself with your money.

It’s not so hard, then, to figure out why happiness has declined here even as wealth has grown. During the same decades when our lives grew busier and more isolated, we’ve gone from having three confidants on average to only two, and the number of people saying they have no one to discuss important matters with has nearly tripled.

Between 1974 and 1994, the percentage of Americans who said they visited with their neighbors at least once a month fell from almost two-thirds to less than half, a number that has continued to fall in the past decade. We simply worked too many hours earning, we commuted too far to our too-isolated homes, and there was always the blue glow of the tube shining through the curtains.

7. New friend or new coffeemaker? Pick one

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 of The 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?

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  • Kary

    Maybe you are focusing too much on the material "things" and not enough on other factors such as both parents working, children moving far from home for jobs, the loss of the nuclear family. One of your highest happiness ratings was in 74, at the end of the Vietnam crises. Fewer people were worried about husbands and sons and the draft taking their family members. You mention the most wealthy Americans are on the same happiness level with the Amish. I would argue they have both attained a satisfaction in their life by living up to their personal desire or self actualization. This article seems biased to produce a result against materialism. I think happiness comes from freedom to make choices in your own life. When outside forces inflict their will on your choices, life becomes less rewarding.

  • I don't necessarily agree that the Little House on the Prairie years were an ideal for Americans (loving that pastoral myth will bite us in the keester), but I hear you on the general point of this post. I certainly see the unhappiness of people escalating as they retreat into isolation. Can't help but see the increasing attachment and obsession with animal pets as a symptom of this social decay. And I've got to take umbarrage with Kary – I think too many choices makes people especially miserable. There is a link between multiplicity of choice and depression, and our society is showing that depression every day. Choice is great, but too much choice…disaster!

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