Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Sustainability and Well-Being"
Christopher Barrington-Leigh’s essay engages the growing literature on measuring progress by accounting for metrics of well-being in addition to or in lieu of metrics that account for economic throughput. The core arguments of the paper are, first, that just studying happiness alone is “revolutionizing” our ability to measure social progress and, second, that this research “counters the conventional focus on economic growth and fosters the pro-social attitudes and behaviors necessary to live in better balance with nature.” This is both an empirical and a normative research project: seeking to more validly measure “progress” and seeking to change cultural values in the process.
I am inherently sympathetic toward appeals to do away with (or reduce the centrality of) GDP to measure progress and replace it with more holistic measures. That said, I tried to read this paper through the eyes of a skeptic. In addition to laying out a number of minor questions, I would like to suggest that there are two significant limitations to the arguments made in this paper.
(1) First, I noted a great many assumptions. I don’t necessarily think this undermines the project of, as Mark Anielski, calls it, “the Economics of Happiness”; rather, I think these assumptions point to the great many empirical studies that are needed to more compellingly argue for a new way of thinking about progress.1
(2) Second, and more problematic, as I read this, I often felt that the happiness project is founded on very upper-middle-class tastes, to the exclusion of the views of the working class. One of the implicit critiques of using GDP to measure progress is that it did not emerge democratically. That is, hordes of people were not lobbying their elected representatives to demand a standardized measure of progress based on economic throughput. This decision was made as a “backroom deal” at Breton Woods, by powerful white men at a time when the perspectives of women, ethnic minorities, and lower-middle classes were not deemed essential for inclusion. My fear with the happiness project is that we are making the same error, albeit not so egregiously.
These two critiques merged for me as I imagined trying to convince a non-believer that we should start measuring progress by asking people how happy they are. I think the paper gives some support if I were trying to convince an upper-middle-class person. But if that person was in a position to support policy changes, I don’t think there is enough empirical evidence here to do so.
If I were trying to convince a lower-class person of the strategies outlined here, I would feel considerable discomfort. This past summer, two graduate students and I interviewed people from a range of social classes about their views on the environment, work-life balance, and sustainable consumption. Jake Hammond, one of the students, was interested in how people perceive and experience downshifting. To make my point, I’ll draw on two cases: Jim and Charles.
Jim is in his 30s and works in the food service industry. He earns $25,000/year. When Jake asked him what he thought about the prospect of working less or being paid less for more meaningful work, Jim scoffed. He had calculated that while he only worked 50 hours a week, he could feasibly work 80 hours and be able to afford to live alone and eat better. If I were Jim, reading the following comments from Barrington-Leigh’s paper would terrify me:
To ensure sustainability, numerous constraints must be imposed on human activities in order to limit material impacts on natural systems. Such constraints may make us less affluent than we might otherwise become, limit our consumption choices, and possibly (but not likely) even make us have to work harder. However, as life satisfaction data show, a reduction in potential income will not necessarily reduce well-being (particularly for those in upper-income brackets), and fewer choices in some areas may not make much difference to happiness.
And, “In a further lucky twist, the jobs least subject to automation would be those based on personal and pro-social interaction, because such skills cannot be replicated by machines.”
As someone whose work is not based on personal and pro-social interaction, what would happen to Jim in the happiness era?
Charles is in his 60s. He lost his job as a manual laborer because of injuries sustained over time. He does not have enough money to retire, so he works at night cleaning restaurants. Charles is not likely to be able to profit from the new digital economy described in this paper. For him, to, “[i]magine a world in which such developments become increasingly prominent or even dominant” would not ease his significant worries about being able to afford to live until the end of his life since Charles does not own, cannot afford, and does not know how to use, a computer.
The more minor points I have to make concern some of the assumptions inherent to the arguments made here. I believe these assumptions point the way to fruitful future research projects and I’ll outline a few of these below.
(1) The study of happiness “informs a value shift away from individualism and consumerism by showing that life is better when we prioritize and achieve more Aristotelian ideals, including a sense of individual and collective purpose, and connection with others.”
Empirical research is needed to support this claim. I could imagine two opposing scenarios: one in which individualism and consumerism grow within the happiness project and another where collectivity and connection are pursued within the “progress as GDP” approach. Under what conditions do collectivist and non-materialist values grow? Under what conditions are they crowded out by individualism and consumerism?
(2) Economic justice and environmental protection groups have been in conflict. A useful area of research would be to determine why this is the case. Environmental groups are generally white and upper-middle class (with exceptions of course), and economic justice groups typically people of color, from lower-middle and working classes. We could learn a lot by understanding the sources of that conflict rather than trying to push through more policies that appeal to upper-middle-class tastes.
(3) Studying happiness “is only one part of the solution: actively counteracting self-perpetuating stigmas is also necessary for a more universal sense of dignity, inclusion, and compassion.”
Here there are two possible empirical studies. One would examine the extent to which the happiness project is a taste of the upper-middle classes. In research on the local foods movement, Guthman notes that people who promote eating locally assume that everyone would prefer that to their current eating habits. She notes that this assumption presumes that everyone has the same tastes when, in fact, the food movement is very white and privileged.2 A second area would need to confront evidence from sociological research on class and status that shows we ascribe a higher social standing to those who conform to our ideas of high social standing (men, white people, wealthy people). How, and under what conditions, could measuring happiness disrupt this? What are the mechanisms that could challenge such deeply held stigmas?
Overall, I found this to be a thought-provoking essay that made me challenge my own assumptions and think about the complexity of adequately measuring progress. I thank Chris Barrington-Leigh and other contributors for the chance to reflect on these important and timely themes!
1. Mark Anielski, The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2013).
2. Julie Guthman, “Neoliberalism and the Making of Food Politics in California,” Geoforum 39, no. 3 (May 2008): 1171–1183.