Saturday, October 01, 2005

The harder you run...

I've been reading a book, by Richard Layard, entitled "Happiness," which is turning out to be more interesting than I thought it would be. The cover is offputting, with the word "happiness" arranged in a typographic toothy grin on the dust jacket.

But you can't judge a book...

Layard is a British economist. Unlike your average economist he has apparently been pole-axed by the obvious: once you leave third-world poverty behind, further increases in GDP do not increase individual happiness. After he picked himself up from his realization, he wrote a book about it.

There is a lot of research that has been done, some of it ingenious, about what makes people happy and unhappy. So he sets out to relate this to economics and public policy. Strangely--for an economist, at least--his book has some of the look and feel of a new-age self-help tract, which, though not necessarily a bad thing, especially if accompanied (as in fact it is) by cleverly buried common sense and a good many provable facts, is very likely to enrage his peers.

I am just guessing about that, though--I haven't read any of the reviews by his fellow economists. Nor is this post a review of his book. For one thing, I haven't finished reading it. Maybe in another post I'll come back to it.

But it jogged my non-linear-thinking tendencies into their usual overdrive, and I started remembering the nasty racism that was buried in some rightwing commentary on New Orleans: namely that the victims were fat.

Of course, the victims were also, by and large, black. Now, if they were fat, so went the not-so-hidden reasoning, it is one more bit of evidence that "they" have no self-control or moral fiber, and, moreover, they certainly can't be starving, like people in Darfur or Somalia, so...

The conclusion at that point is left to the racism and rightwing stupidity of their audience, but one assumes that it would be: New Orleans flood victims do not deserve our sympathy or help, and they should perhaps be slimmed down somewhere and relocated and put to work at substandard wages. I guess. I actually don't know what moral conclusion one is supposed to draw from the frowns of the talking heads as they disapproving shake their wattles as they view the visuals they put up of exhausted, but overweight, black people sitting huddled on sidewalks. But the usual self-aggrandizing talking-head moralizing was clearly spinning out of control with this idiotic visual trope that kept popping up, not just on Fox, but on all the networks, seemingly as involuntary a reflexive twitch as Bush's weird jaw movements and mechanical head nodding when he makes a speech. In other words, these people can't stop themselves any more than Bush can.

But poor white people in America also tend to be obese. So is obesity among the poor, black or white, a moral flaw, or a response to degradation and misery?

In reading Layard, I'd have to say its very likely the latter.

Layard says yes, America is more prosperous than in 1950. Twice as prosperous, GDP-wise. Although the prosperity is not evenly distributed, even the poor have more money and stuff than they had in 1950. Yet, every study done shows that Americans at all social levels are not happier now than they were then. They same is true of other first world countries, but in some cases the divergence between wealth, which in America at least skyrockets, and happiness, which flatlines, is not as dramatic as in this country. But the pattern is consistent everywhere.

Once you get beyond the danger of starvation, wealth does not buy happiness. And indeed, some segments of the American population are increasingly hard-beset by the factors that research has shown to very reliably produce UN-happiness.

Many of the hard-beset are the people we call poor. No, they are not starving. In fact, eating cheap, abundant, unhealthy, usually profit-subsidized food drenched in laboratory-perfected artificial flavorings and grease, and advertised with Satanic effectiveness by an entire industry devoted to psychological manipulation, is one of the few pleasures readily available to ordinary working people.

It is not surprising that our poor are often obese. Eating to excess is one reaction to unhappiness. And, to relate this to a couple of my previous posts, turning to God is another. My feeling is that fundamentalist religion is may be a kind of instinctive ideological feeding frenzy, in a vain hope of incorporating happiness by filling up with God. Fault can be found with this theory, of course. Layard, as far as I have read in his book at least, says nothing on this subject. Don't blame him for this idea.

But how about the rest of the population, which is not gaining on happiness no matter how hard they run?

They can afford higher-end pleasures than a big bucket of fried chicken. And indeed, they buy more and more expensive toys. I have one in front of me as I type. Anyone reading this has a similar expensive toy. If any such reader was alive in 1955, a moment's reflection is likely to verify that their own personal happiness quotient is unlikely to have improved over time, and even if it has, computer-ownership is unlikely to be an important cause of such good luck.

I won't go into the factors that Layard mentions as beneficial to happiness, but they are not very surprising. After all, we all have our own built-in happiness detector, which tells us when and if someone is bullshitting us about stuff like this. Family, friends, the esteem of others, a sense of community and trust, security of livelihood and reasonably secure prospects for yourself and your children, if you have them, and an attitude of generosity and compassion towards others--all the usual suspects in promoting human happiness are mentioned, I think.

And he goes on at some length about things that can be demonstrated to serve as a detriment to happiness, which are the following: the pursuit of money and the pursuit of status, particularly if accompanied by cutthroat competition and fear and loathing of others in the same rat race.

That's basically pretty much it, though I haven't finished the book and he may have more to say on it as I read on.

Now if we reflect on the right-wing agenda for this country, we find an agenda almost guaranteed to increase the unhappiness of almost everyone in this country. Including the winners as well as the losers.

I was watching a film I rented the other night, called "Born Rich" done by a wealthy heir to the Johnson and Johnson fortune, which is a documentary about himself and his vastly wealthy young friends. They have what everyone in the Republican party is striving for, yet-- they are a bunch of lost and miserable children. It was a very good film, in an odd way. I recommend it.

Republicans, especially, should watch it.

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