The Economics of Happiness


Olivia Wagner- Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means that it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.[1] Studies suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, within the next 50 years, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us.[2] And of course, we only have one. This is a major issue we can all agree must be fixed, but at a large cost. Environmental growth is natural to society and has greatly changed our way of life, however, until societal happiness outweighs individual happiness, future economic growth will only maximize our problems.

India and China are developing economies and it would make sense to say that they are hoping to gain the same level of success that we enjoy in the USA. Together they represent 36.4 % of the population.[3] But what happens if they reach a comparable level of consumption as the USA, which only represents 4.38% of the world’s population?[4] One earth would not being to produce what is desired by humanity. Obviously this is unsustainable yet it would be arrogant of us to put limits on their prosperity. What is more important is changing the mind set of individuals on what we value most, and look towards the future happiness of society as whole, rather than ourselves and the happiness we enjoy from consumption.

We have been reading Aristotle and discussing happiness being the end goal that most humans strive for. I think he could agree that a person can’t be happy all the time, so constant happiness is unrealistic. The way we currently live is centralized on making us happy, and you would expect the most developed economies with the access to most resources would therefore be the happiest. However, its interesting that in 2012, an Ipsos poll measuring the degree of happiness in 24 countries found that self-reported levels of happiness were higher in poor and middle-income countries than in rich ones.[5] Scientific studies have shown that once our basic needs ar covered (food, shelter, security) and we have a bit to spend on the side, no more material wealth will make us happy over the long term. Buying new things is like a drug, you get a kick for a short time, but it soon wears off, and you feel like you need to use again to get the rush. This makes sense in an evolutionary perspective, in that the desire to get new things is much stronger than the reward we receive for getting them. If we did not possess this, we would have no drive. However, we no longer live in societies where survival would depend on our drive an competition. Now that all our basic needs are covered and then some, we can be happy with what we have got, and should strive to satisfy the needs of those humans who do not. Unfortunately, the “more stuff will make me happy” delusion still rules our collective mindset. It’s what fuels growth.

Economic growth therefore will only hurt us in the future by maximizing our problems. Continued increasing material wealth past a certain point won’t make the human race happier overall. So, why do we still define our prosperity as material wealth? What are we hoping to attain from our individual lives? If it is happiness, then we are failing. Unfortunately, we have developed a level of intelligence that allows us to abuse the world’s natural resources in many incredible ways, but we have also developed the intelligence and perspective to fix, or at least make big strides towards helping our errors before it’s too late. But will we?

[1] “World Footprint.” World Footprint. Accessed June 22, 2016.

[2] Burke, Jason, and Mark Townsend. “Earth ‘will Expire by 2050′” The Guardian. 2002. Accessed June 22, 2016.

[3] StatisticsTimes. “Comparing China and India by Population.” 2016. Accessed June 22, 2016.

[4] Worldometers. “U.S. Population (2016).” Accessed June 22, 2016.

[5] Tom Bundervoet, “Poor but Happy?,” March 28, 2013,



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