The myth of immaterial growth and ‘infinite happiness’

Republished from Andre Reichel:

“When discussing the growth issue, especially from the perspective of #degrowth, one argument comes up regularly. This argument can be termed “infinite happiness” and it goes something like this: economic growth might be restrained or needs to be restrained for various reasons but surely no one wants to put an end to growth in creativity, quality of life, and happiness. This is then usually followed by the demand to provide a new indicator for societal well-being, going beyond #GDP and including all sorts of hard-to-be-tangibles. And that new indicator obviously can grow without harming the environment, diminishing social cohesions and making lots of people unhappy.

I used to follow this argument but not anymore. First of all, it is a distraction. It distracts and diverts the discussion from the issue of growth as a cultural and historic phenomenon, as a psychic prison of people’s minds and a constraint to our imaginative capacities to create a world (and an economy) without it. If we can have infinite happiness and know how to measure it, everything can remain pretty much the same. The economy can grow happiness, people can grow their creativity and love, and our new GDP can also increase all the time. This is the #decoupling narrative with a smiley. And as we know from the real world, decoupling does not work on a global level, on an absolute scale. There is not the slightes empirical evidence for it. Measuring happiness and letting it grow infinitely just as we used to do with GDP does not absolve economic activity from its ecological and societal impacts. If happiness is connected to material things, which it will be to a certain extend regardless how you define it, it will leave a mark on the planet. That an economy of happiness will, by definition or some kind of magic, lead to a smaller ecological footprint is just that: magic. No one has made a sufficient case that by measuring happiness and all the other things, growth will cease to pose a problem.

But there is more to it. The assumption of infinite happiness is deeply flawed. If we accept that GDP cannot grow indefinitely due to ecological, economic and social constraints, how can we think that happiness can? In fact, has anyone really thought through the idea of growing happiness? What does it actually mean to say “I am 5% happier than last year”? What does it say about my relationship when I state “I love my wife 300% more than at the time we got married”? And even more so: what would it really mean for the concept of happiness if we can become happier all the time? When I have a 3% increase of happiness per annum, I will double my happiness every 24th year. By the time I turn 72 I would then be eight times happier than in my first year as a toddler. It may well be that I can enjoy life differently and most probably I have a more rich and fuller experience than when I was a baby. But to say it increased eightfold, what am I actually saying with that? Well, nothing. It is completely meaningless because happiness does not work that way. There might be a narrow band of happiness where it works in an analogous way. Where an increase in whatsoever will really increase my happiness gradually. But for most of it, happiness is digital: I am happy, or I am not. The same it is with love. To be happy, to be in love is a special quality. Its very nature is about its difference from the state of unhappiness or feeling of not being loved. If it could be increased by percentages it would cease to be what it is.

There is no infinite happiness, it is a distraction from the issue of growth and it is deeply flawed when you think about its implications for more than a second.”

1 Comment The myth of immaterial growth and ‘infinite happiness’

  1. AvatarSandwichman

    You’re right but there is a simpler and more fundamental explanation.

    The growth imperative emerged out of the post-Great Depression anxiety about maintaining full employment. Economists argued that continuous improvement in labor-saving technology made it necessary for the economy to grow to maintain full employment (Harrod, Domar). It was not initially growth for growth’s sake but growth for jobs’ sake.

    Eventually, that full employment imperative got taken for granted by policy makers and central bankers who became more concerned with fighting inflation to maintain the real value of assets. Economists argued that the economy required a “natural rate” of unemployment or it would go into an inflationary spiral (Friedman, Phelps).

    Notwithstanding the shift in emphasis from maintaining full employment to fighting inflation, job creation remains the popular legitimizing rationale for growth. The problem with redefining what is measured to “creativity, quality of life and happiness” is quite simply that those qualities have, in economic theory, nothing to do with job creation. This is not to say there is no relationship whatsoever between employment and happiness but that there is no causal quantitative relationship such that an x% increase in happiness could be expected to generate approximately a y% increase in aggregate employment.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.