Visit to discover Indian blogs

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Can having a little less make us happier?

Incentives are the biggest motivation behind individual actions. How people perceive incentives has evolved according to the structure of society. In every society a person is assessed based on certain criteria which are an indicator of the socioeconomic conditions that prevail. Tribal societies deemed an individual worthy based on his ability to hunt and protect the family. The tattoos and engravings on the body were a symbol of his fearlessness and ability to handle adversity. These evaluation criteria have faced a gradual, albeit incomplete transition over time.

Today, in an era of Neo-Capitalism, the perception of an individual's value is determined to a large extent by the income he or she makes. And as an individual gets shaped by the mould he is living in, he ultimately starts perceiving himself according to the benchmarks set by the society. Here, the aim of having a large income does not remain confined to consuming that income or having security in the future but it associates itself to the intrinsic value of having the income along with a better perception of him within himself and in the eyes of his society. Value of money surpasses the value of time along with the other subtleties of life. With commercialization of every aspect of life, the real value of amenities declines when the basis of evaluation is monetary rather than abstract. When this happens, the focus moves away from enjoying whatever luxury life provides an individual, to extracting the maximum out of the money we paid for. When we start believing in the fact that more is preferred to less, the concept of a bliss point immediately vanishes away. Despite the fulfillment of needs and desires, the construct related to non-satiation keeps our mind restless. This presents a dilemma where either our mind isn’t satisfied by the level of consumption or we have over-consumed a commodity, which again results in us moving away from the true bliss point. At this point we also need to consciously distinguish between how much we really need for ourselves and how much we buy just to impress others.

To get you in the context, degrowth or decroissance is the idea that the richest economies and individuals should consciously cut down on their consumption in order to take care of our already burdened environment and tackle growing social inequalities by allowing the poor economies to grow. The happiness will be achieved by non-consumptive means such as indulging in art, activities and sharing based economy. When we talk about Gandhian economics, concepts such as frugal abundance immediately come to mind. Diminishing marginal utility theory of consumption suggests that it is precisely this frugal abundance that protects us from the marginal utility of consumption reaching so low that we ultimately end up being jaded –we gain no more happiness from consuming more, but we still end up consuming more.

When we see that the happiest economies are not necessarily the ones that are richest as reflected in various happiness indices (for example, The Happy Planet Index), it gives some hope that developed nations and individuals truly have incentives to push for degrowth and by the positive consequences of degrowth on the environment have an incentive to bestow positive externalities upon others. I believe we have enough incentive to help out others given the cooperation problem among individuals is solved which will give life more meaning and lead to happiness which is a win-win situation for all. Considering the long term view of history, the possibility of a utopian society where the measure of an individual's net worth will be his contribution to the community does not seem unreal.