Is “The Pursuit of Cash” Happiness or Society’s Self-Replicating Self-Belief?

April 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

photo by bastique

I’ve struggled somewhat with Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, because his argument on what makes us happy took more than three quarters of the book as buildup to its final conclusion.

My initial frustrations can once again be attributed to expectations of this being a how to book. Not the first time!

I had to put the book down at a little before half the book, as he builds up the many legs of his argument. For Gilbert, his view of doing so seems justified, because he wants to give us an in depth understanding of how the human mind works.

Gilbert’s humor keeps afloat his explanations of why we shouldn’t trust our instincts and predictions of the future too much. To err is human. But surprisingly, we don’t seem to learn very well about our mistakes on trying to predict the future too.

Of all these human flaws that Gilbert illuminates, the one that sticks in my head like flies to flypaper is the fact that we keep painting a far too rosy picture of things we expect to bring us happiness. Because we can’t see a complete picture of the picture, we fill it in with details of the current. And we don’t learn from these follies.

Here’s one of Gilbert’s interesting illuminations:

Excerpt From Stumbling Upon Happiness

Some of our cultural wisdom about happiness looks suspiciously like a super-replicating false belief.

Consider money.

If you’ve ever tried to sell anything, then you probably tried to sell it for as much as you possibly could, and other people probably tried to buy it for as little as they possibly could. All the parties involved in the transaction assumed that they would be better off if they ended up with more money rather than less, and has far fewer scientific facts to substantiate it than you might expect.

Economists and psychologists have spent decades studying the relation between wealth and happiness, and they have when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter. Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year, but Americans who earn $5 million per year are not much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year.

People who live in poor nations are much less happy than people who live in moderately wealthy nations, but people who live in moderately wealthy nations are not much less happy than people who live in extremely wealthy nations. Economists explain that wealth has “declining marginal utility,” which is a fancy way of saying that it hurts to be hungry, cold, sick, tired, and scared, but once you’ve bought your way out of these burdens, the rest of your money is an increasingly useless pile of paper.

So once we’ve earned as much money as we can actually enjoy, we quit working and enjoy it, right? Wrong. People in wealthy countries generally work long and hard to earn more money than they can ever derive pleasure from. This fact puzzles us less than it should. After all, a rat can be motivated to run through a maze that has a cheesy reward at its end, but once the little guy is all topped up, then even the finest Stilton won’t get him off his haunches. Once we’ve eaten our fill of pancakes, more pancakes are not rewarding, hence we stop trying to procure and consume them.

But not so, it seems, with money.

As Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote in 1776:

“The desire for food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire of the conveniences and ornaments of building, dress, equipage, and household furniture, seems to have no limit or certain boundary.”

(Here, Gilbert goes on to explain this apparent contradiction for the natural desire in modern societies to go into cycles of production and consumption. He suggests that without this cycle in place, we would not have the modern life as we know it today.

The fundamental needs of an economy are not necessarily the same as the fundamental needs of an individual.)

In short, the production of wealth does not necessarily make individuals happy, but does serve the needs of an economy, which serves the needs of a stable society, which serves as a network for the propagation of delusional beliefs about happiness and wealth. Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to well being.

Although words such as delusional may seem to suggest some sort of shadowy conspiracy orchestrated by a small group of men in dark suits, the belief-transmission game teaches us that the propagation of false beliefs does not require that anyone be trying to perpetrate a magnificent fraud on an innocent populace. There is no cabal at the top, no star chamber, no master manipulator whose clever program of indoctrination and propaganda has duped us all into believing that money can buy us love. Rather, this particular false belief is a super-replicator because holding it causes us to engage in the very activities that perpetuate it.


Gilbert’s argument derives a large part from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of Wealth of Nations
Much more intriguing references and sources back his points made here. You should check his book if you’d like to explore his ideas in depth.


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