Personal Happiness and the Economy: A Sustainability Link
Originally posted on Sustainablog on April 17, 2009.
In my previous post, I brought up the sustainability prism and the link between personal happiness or peace and the other three, traditional components of sustainability theory — economy, equity, and ecology. In this article, I explore the link between personal happiness and the economy in greater depth. Of course, this is just a taste of the full connection between the two since there are enough layers here to write a book on it all, but here is a start and there is plenty of comment space below!
Economy is at the forefront of society’s consciousness these days. It is always a, if not the, major societal issue for most people. With the current economic crisis, it has stepped up even another level of importance. We all have to wonder, these days, if we will be able to return to the affluence of just one or two decades ago, or, if, on the other hand, the whole economic system of America, and the world that depends on it, will collapse as a house of sand built on a thin board of wood on the ocean’s waves.
We can look to the specific failures of banks and immoral business practices to explain all of this. But these failures, and much more, were built on much more widespread and much less questioned norms than these.
Who were these banks catering to, and who are they continuing to cater to?
It is the desires of the individual for their own spacious house, their own vehicle, and an affluent lifestyle. Even as I am writing this, I can hear the righteous cries of progressive, open-minded, good people saying, “Hey, these are basic goods, basic components of a normal life, and everyone should have a right to these!” But if you step outside of this society just to a place in the world where the average human being lives, or a couple of centuries back, you will see the grand difference between this “normal” life and other more “normal” lives.
Maybe we earned this life, but if we earned it, we would not be on the near brink of ecological collapse and economic collapse that we are on today. Rather than earning it, we bought this life on credit, and have yet to truly earn it. We have yet to earn this life in a sustainable way, but, we are unhappy that the debt has gotten so extremely high and the debt collector is on his way.
So, this unsustainable idea of a normal life built up our debt, as we acquired more and more of what we could not afford, but what built up this idea? Stepping out from the inside first, here are a few major factors:
1) Contentment (or, the lack thereof)
We can be content with our external lives only as we become content with our internal lives. Nevertheless, 99 out of 100 times, we look outside to fix our internal problems, our internal discontentment. As psychologists (”experts in human reasoning and thought”) have identified, those who are most insecure, most unsure, least self-confident, are the ones who feel the greatest need for rich, respect-gathering, outer coverings. From time immemorial, man has been covering himself with outer things to mask his own forgotten self-confidence and sense of worth — whether it be bird feathers and paint or shoes and clothes or a Benz and gold necklace. This is a problem or “phenomenon” immemorial that cannot be expected to change but that, nonetheless, is the greatest source of the economic problems of today.
The problem cannot be changed on a macro-level, perhaps, but on a personal level, everything is possible. If you want to do your part, lose your own need for outer surroundings and things, and find your own deeper confidence and contentment. (This is a statement not so easy to do as to write, but is a great human possibility as well.)
Whether your view on Hollywood and films is positive or not (and I have to say mine is positive), the effect they have had on the goals of the world are nearly incomparable. If you go to India, every adolescent boy seems to ask you the same two or three questions: “Where are you from?… Oh, America! From California?..(Yes/No).. Who is your favorite actor?” before confessing to you without hardly asking that his favorite is Arnold Schwartzeneger. It may seem like a harmless, entertainment issue, but go nearly anywhere in the world and you will find in the dreams and minds of people: owning their own big home, big car, and American things (as seen on so many American films and tv shows).
Of course, where is this dream more real, bigger, more attainable than in the land of dreams, America, itself? Who should have the right to these things, and realizing these dreams, more than the approximately 300 million people of the United States? Thus, the initial “basic” needs of shelter, good clothes, and food grow into a Hollywood or tv dream.
3) Financing the dream
So, approximately 300 million people want to live this normal life. Or, even, much of the population of the world. Any simple economist can tell you right now, “If there is demand, a clever business person can find a way to meet the demand.” So, credit card companies and banks and realtors found a way to supply people with what they wanted but could not afford while still making a profit on it.
There is not much sustainable sense in people making money on people not having money and buying a Hollywood or television dream on the money they don’t have. It is like building a house of sand on a board on the surface of the ocean — the first big wave or wind that comes will knock it all down. Hence, the situation we are in today, and, looking at it in this way, will probably be even more engulfed in tomorrow, since much of the current economic world and many of the dreams of the current generation are still built on the same air and water that we are calling money today.
Thus, the complicated and intricate (yet truly simple) link between personal happiness/contentment/ peace and the economy is made, and the importance of this factor to a sustainable economy is clear.
The important link is that as long as we are discontent inside, we will look outside to sooth our discontentment, and as long as we are looking outside in discontentment, we will always find and produce more discontentment.
Therefore, if we are naturally discontent, as human beings, and no matter what external coverings we put on to cover our internal calling, we cannot find that peace we are missing, then there is another purpose/reason to this life. Search for that peace where that calling is coming from. Perhaps it is saying, “Look at me, look in the right direction.”
image credit: zachary shahan