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Understanding happiness (1)

An in-depth look at the relationship between material wealth and happiness came in a recently-published book entitled, "The Challenge of Affluence" (Oxford University Press). Written by Avner Offer, professor of economic history at Oxford University, the book examines the experience of Britain and the United States since 1950.

In this period, Offer observes, Americans and Britons have come to enjoy unprecedented material abundance. Since the 1970s, however, self-reported levels of happiness have languished or even declined, so the rise in incomes since then has done little or nothing to improve the sense of well-being. Along with this, there are numerous social and personal problems: family breakdown; addictions; crime; economic insecurity; and declining trust.

Liberal societies hold out the promise that every person can choose their own way to self-fulfillment. The free society and the free market give the individual conditions for pursuing wealth and making choices. But choice is also fallible, not always consistent and, moreover, achieving more remote objectives requires a high level of commitment.

Therefore, exercising choice requires self-control and prudence, qualities increasingly uncommon in affluent societies. In fact, competitive market societies favor novelty and innovation, and this undermines conventions, habits and institutions.

Offer argues that a market system also tends to promote short-term rewards, individualism and hedonism. This undermines the commitment needed to achieve more satisfying longer-term rewards that are more difficult to obtain, but more fulfilling.

Offer believes that another factor undermining our happiness is relative income inequality. In both Britain and the United States inequality has worsened in recent years and this is a major factor in explaining people's lack of satisfaction with their situation. People who enjoy rising incomes, but see themselves falling behind others who are enjoying even greater progress, do not derive happiness from their improved situation.

Love, marriage and the family is another area where failures have damaged our happiness. A combination of contraception, no-fault divorce, more cohabitation and higher levels of childbirth out of wedlock have weakened marriage. A rise in explicit sexuality and in sexual relationships outside of marriage has also weakened the capacity for love and commitment within the marriage bond.

Marriage, Offer notes, confers important benefits: physical and mental health; longer life; happiness; along with numerous benefits for children. The proportion of married people has declined, meaning that about one adult in seven does not enjoy the protection and benefits of marriage. So while proponents of changes in marriage and the family argue its benefits of more freedom and space for "self-fulfillment," the costs for many have been high.

Offer does, however, stipulate that economic growth is not something bad. It should not, however, be the number one priority and we need to treat the claims of supposed benefits resulting from growth with skepticism.

In societies that are already wealthy, further efforts to raise economic growth need to be evaluated along with the costs this will impose. A rediscovery of the virtues of moderation and self-restraint could well benefit society. This led Offer to conclude that well-being depends on how well we understand ourselves and not just having more.
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