Monday, April 18, 2011

Relative History

In 2001, for the first time in history, total life satisfaction became possible for at least part of the world's population. That part of the population had characteristics that enabled it to most effectively alter its physical and social environment to meet its wants, mostly by creating an artificial world out of the natural world. Until the limit was reached, each of these people's part of that conversion (consumption) had been increasing by an average 3.3% per year, corresponding to an increase of 0.004 in happiness (on a scale from 0 to 1), which they knew qualitatively if not quantitatively.

People with different characteristics don't experience life the same way, as if they inhabit different, yet similar environments. The others have tried to modify their environments, but they have fewer options, physically or by choice, and therefore compromise in meeting their own wants. Those closest to Nature, unable or unwilling to live above basic subsistence as humans had until the advent of civilization, saw almost no change at all in their environments; until, that is, they got a lot of help.

Acquisition of money has long been associated with consumption. Expecting their happiness to continue rising, those at its peak continued accumulating money and gambling it on the prospect of future growth. The money was gained by finding lower costs of labor (the poorest people) and lower costs of resources (the resources that had sustained them). Physical consumption among the poor began growing at the rate that the richest had previously enjoyed; but the total was still relatively much smaller, by a factor of about 600. This mismatch led to a decrease in the world's overall consumption rate beginning in 2004, which was soon followed by a global recession as it became clear that the anticipated growth wasn't going to materialize.

That's my current version of recent history, anyway, based on recent research into the range of possible “environments” that people can experience and how observable variables such as happiness are changing over time. I remain uncertain about the nature of the happiness maximum, whether it's a biological failsafe (as I speculated in “Two-Thirds Happiness”), or a mathematical oddity (see “Prime Happiness”), but its existence does continue to have explanatory value, as this narrative illustrates.


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