Thursday, December 4, 2008

Optimizing Happiness

Practically, increasing happiness involves creating a range of environments (sets of circumstances) that meets the desires of the most people in a population. One way this can be done is to increase the number and variety of environments; another is to create a single environment that is as close as possible to meeting the desires of an average member of the population. Mathematical modeling based on international statistics suggests that the first option is best for maximizing happiness for a fraction of the population; while the second option is best for maximizing the happiness of the most people. As a third option, we can compromise by providing a range of environments that serves as many as possible of the bulk of people near the average.

The more useful an environment is to a person, the more of it the person will use and the happier the person will be. As one example, good health is one of the primary needs of people and they tend to be more satisfied when they are healthy; life expectancy will increase with better health, and better health care requires more resources – especially for the older populations that it enables. This self-evident relationship between happiness and consumption is reflected in world data that additionally shows a logarithmic relationship between happiness and per-capita consumption: each incremental increase in happiness costs more in resources than the increment before it.

In a world of infinite resources (and potential ability to acquire and use those resources), ingenuity, social organization, technology, and time would enable us to create an ideal society where everyone was as satisfied with life as they could be. For most of history (and prehistory), this was a reasonable approximation of reality; as a result, the last two millennia have seen a doubling of average happiness and growth in per-capita consumption and population by a factor of 23, largely enabled by the discovery of cheap and abundant energy in the form of fossil fuels. Our success has rendered the approximation we depend on tragically inaccurate, as exponential growth uses up a substantial and increasing fraction of total resources and drastically reduces the time available to find, procure, and learn to use new ones.

It is natural to pick our leaders based on how much they can enable an increase in our overall satisfaction with life. The United States recently elected a president who understands that the key to greater overall happiness is to create a social and economic environment where the middle class – effectively, the statistical bell curve centered on the average person – can thrive. If he is successful, consumption will be maximized as well. On the world’s bell curve, the U.S. population is at the upper end of happiness and resource use (though not the highest), which depends enormously on the transfer of wealth from other nations; to achieve a similar level of success, other nations must either work toward either spreading the curve even more or moving its center higher, with either option resulting in greater global consumption.

Many world economic and political leaders, including the incoming U.S. president, are not blind to the evolving resource crisis and its hazardous side effects (such as catastrophic climate change), though they may underestimate its severity. While supporting the discovery and development of alternative energy sources whose use does not degrade the existing resource base or harm people, they are also encouraging the only way to get the benefits of higher consumption without its cost in resources: increasing efficiency.

The gains from these approaches could easily be overwhelmed, however, by increases in consumption caused by our pursuit of more life satisfaction by broadening the range of environments or making their average more useful to the typical person. If instead, we decreased the range of environments around their present average, we could potentially reduce consumption (perhaps by as much as one-fourth) without a loss in average happiness, with fewer people suffering poverty or enjoying rich lifestyles. This change alone could buy us another 20 years to find and develop new resources and efficient technologies that would fuel future growth. The alternative, without a lot of luck, is a catastrophic loss of happiness; and most importantly, people.

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