Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Last week I experienced an epiphany while taking a much-needed break at a local park. It involved one of the key insights from my research into world population and consumption, namely the equivalence of life satisfaction, "happiness," with how much of Nature we inhabit (what I've called "environments").

There is a theoretical maximum to happiness, reached when the average person consumes all of the renewable products and services ("resources") produced by Earth's biosphere, and we are now at a value below that number, apparently unable to move it any higher. I have struggled with the question of "why" many times since I first discovered it, and on that day I felt like I was beginning to see the answer.

I have yet to find a precise mechanism that explains my insight into happiness and environments; it is presently a compelling hypothesis that seems to have a lot of explanatory power. If such a mechanism exists, it is likely biological, and has an effect on the way we think and experience the world. I have already speculated that it may behind the observed psychopathic behavior of the rich, whose happiness (based on my research into the economic implications) is near or beyond the maximum. My new insight came from asking the following question: What if there are thresholds below that value that also trigger marked changes in behavior?

It is perhaps not coincidental that our present average happiness is pegged at a value equal to the square of the maximum. That value may be the "trigger" signaling that we are consuming all of the resources available on this planet without having fatal degradation of its habitability. I recalled that ecologists have determined that the other species which provide most of those resources need about 20% of the total to survive, a number close to the difference between maximum allowable happiness and total happiness (100% minus 82%), and we are now consuming about twice as much as we are allowed by that standard of safety. A reasonable consequence of such a trigger would be restraint on our consumption, and we seem to have been responding that way since 2011.

What about other potential triggers? A century ago, the world's average happiness was the cube of the maximum. Like now, it was a period of huge economic inequality, and of course it was followed by the Great Depression and was marked by immense global conflict. The fourth power of maximum happiness was experienced sometime near the middle of the first millennium A.D., which corresponds to the peak and fall of the Roman Empire. These associations may be coincidental, but they are also intriguing and suggest that further investigation may be fruitful.