The rise of ‘hapitalism’, and what can be done

Hapitalism (hap-i-tal-ism)
noun (portmanteau of ‘happy’ and ‘capitalism’)
An economic system based on a state measuring collective happiness in a way that encourages a level of individual competition and inequality typical of unregulated, free-market capitalism.

Yesterday, I wrote something for the Huffington Post exploring the correlation between happiness and suicide rates in US states (and nations). In it, I raise concerns over a developing ‘hapitalism’ in which average happiness levels are raised by sacrificing the happiness, and, in some cases, lives, of a minority.

A central principle behind capitalism is that free markets allow for economic growth and that this benefits all of us on condition that interventions such as taxation and public services exist. In the same way, happiness advocates argue that an increase in gross national happiness will benefit us all. The problem is that, as the happiness-suicide correlate indicates, conditionals are also needed to ensure that a rise in GNH benefits all. I’ll look more at these conditionals shortly.

The importance of conditionals in a happiness economy risks being overlooked due to happiness being seen as an intrinsic moral good. On the surface, an increase in the happiness of a group seems like a good thing, but the problem is that an increase in average happiness can be attained even if one member of the group has come to find themselves in extreme suffering. The tendency to assume that we can draw conclusions about individuals from the condition of a group is known as an ecological fallacy.

The appropriateness of equating a capitalist economy with a happiness (‘hapitalist’?) economy depends on the way in which individual ‘growth’ occurs in the two types of economy.  In my blog post, I explore the idea that the happiness of some may be directly enhanced by the suffering of others, and that those who are suffering may feel worse by comparing themselves to happy people (hence a correlation between happiness and suicide)*. If this is an accurate description, then, just as capitalist societies tend to favour the wealthy and may widen inequalities of wealth and income, a happiness economy may widen the wellbeing gap between the happy and unhappy unless interventions are in place to help encourage the reverse.

Interventions

1. Improving happiness indicators
For happiness indicators to be a measure of the wellbeing of all, they need to focus on more than just aggregating individual happiness. The economist Sagar Shah suggests that this might be done by also looking at the ‘features of a society’, or by giving higher weight to those with ‘lower well-being’. Discrediting simplistic aggregated measures of happiness may also be an important step.

2. Improving communication
Those writing, speaking and teaching about happiness ought to appreciate the degree to which suffering is unavoidable, and to be mindful of the impact of their words on those who are suffering. Proponents of positive psychology tend to use Martin Seligman’s theories of learned helplessness and learned optimism to argue that we all have influence over our wellbeing. This can be a message of hope and encouragement to some, but it may also dishearten those with poor wellbeing. Whilst our perception of suffering may influence our ability to move on from the situation, the presence of suffering is often a normal and healthy reaction to adverse stimuli. (Try being happy when you’re repeatedly being subjected to electric shocks.) If we deny this, we risk stigmatising something that we will all experience at some point in our lives.

3. Improving policymaking
All official happiness policy should factor in public health principles, and any messages or interventions designed to boost collective happiness should consider implications for mental health and suicide-prevention. Economists and policymakers should be liaising with public health professionals — and also vice versa; as the World Health Organisation reminds us, “Health is created and lived by people within the settings of their everyday life; where they learn, work, play, and love.”

 

*This may only be the case for people, communities and societies that are driven by competition and comparison. In fact, research from Japan suggests that happier people are kinder.

Think Tank Reports Minorities Have Lower Well-being. How valid is the data?

The New Economics Foundation’s Centre for Well-being, a leading think tank for well-being research and policy, expressed concern today about apparent disparities in well-being between ethnic groups. The corresponding report says the following:

“We find that Black, Arab, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian people experience significantly lower well-being than White people in the UK, even when controlling for individual characteristics”.

The research might have controlled for individual characteristics (I don’t know, I haven’t read through it yet…), but what about cultural characteristics?

The questions that the participants in the study were asked were based on self-perception (i.e. how the participants view themselves and their lives). This raises issues. We know, for instance, that according to the latest research there is good reason to believe that those from North America are more likely to show positivity biases than those from Asia, potentially causing them to inflate their own self-rating for life satisfaction (Kim, Schimmack & Oishi, 2012). Then there are the potential language issues that arise from trying to ask subjective questions of those that don’t necessarily share the same first language (the report doesn’t mention what language(s) the participants speak).

I tweeted the Centre for Wellbeing to ask if they had controlled for cultural interpretation of well-being. They responded: “We didn’t control for cultural interpretation. Could be explanatory factor, needs investigation“.

Maybe it doesn’t matter much at this stage, but due consideration of cultural differences is surely going to be crucial as well-being research becomes increasingly influential in policy-making.

References
Kim, H.,  Schimmack, U., & Oishi, S. (2012) ‘Cultural Differences in Self- and Other-Evaluations and Well-Being: A Study of European and Asian Canadians’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 102, no. 4, pp. 856–873.