Tag Archives: Consumerism

ADVERTISING AND ACADEMIA ARE CONTROLLING OUR THOUGHTS. Didn’t you know? – George Monbiot * A typology of consumer strategies for resisting advertising, and a review of mechanisms for countering them – Marieke L. Fransen, Peeter W.J. Verlegh, Amna Kirmani, Edith G. Smit.

We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behaviour in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second-nature but are really by design.”

By abetting the ad industry, universities are leading us into temptation, when they should be enlightening us.

“Our ACE typology distinguishes three types of resistance strategies: Avoiding, Contesting, and Empowering. We introduce these strategies, and present research describing advertising tactics that may be used to neutralize each of them.”

We are subject to constant influence, some of which we see, much of which we don’t. And there is one major industry that seeks to decide on our behalf. Its techniques get more sophisticated every year, drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology. It is called advertising.

To what extent do we decide? We tell ourselves we choose our own life course, but is this ever true? If you or I had lived 500 years ago, our worldview, and the decisions we made as a result, would have been utterly different. Our minds are shaped by our social environment, in particular the belief systems projected by those in power: monarchs, aristocrats and theologians then; corporations, billionaires and the media today.

Humans, the supremely social mammals, are ethical and intellectual sponges. We unconsciously absorb, for good or ill, the influences that surround us. Indeed, the very notion that we might form our own minds is a received idea that would have been quite alien to most people five centuries ago. This is not to suggest we have no capacity for independent thought. But to exercise it, we must, consciously and with great effort, swim against the social current that sweeps us along, mostly without our knowledge.

Surely, though, even if we are broadly shaped by the social environment, we control the small decisions we make? Sometimes. Perhaps. But here, too, we are subject to constant influence, some of which we see, much of which we don’t. And there is one major industry that seeks to decide on our behalf. Its techniques get more sophisticated every year, drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology. It is called advertising.
But what puzzles and disgusts me even more than this failure is the willingness of universities to host research that helps advertisers hack our minds. The Enlightenment ideal, which all universities claim to endorse, is that everyone should think for themselves. So why do they run departments in which researchers explore new means of blocking this capacity?

. . .

The Guardian

“The literature does not provide a clear overview of the different ways in which consumers may resist advertising, and the tactics that can be used to counter or avoid such resistance. This article fills this gap by providing an overview of the different types of resistance that consumers may show, and by discussing the ways in which resistance may be countered.”

A typology of consumer strategies for resisting advertising, and a review of mechanisms for countering them.

Marieke L. Fransen, Peeter W.J. Verlegh, Amna Kirmani, Edith G. Smit.

This article presents a typology of the different ways in which consumers resist advertising, and the tactics that can be used to counter or avoid such resistance. It brings together literatures from different fields of study, including advertising, marketing, communication, science and psychology. Although researchers in these subfields have Shown a substantial interest in (consumer) resistance, these streams of literature are poorly connected. This article aims to facilitate the exchange of knowledge, and serve as a starting point for future research.

Our ACE typology distinguishes three types of resistance strategies: Avoiding, Contesting, and Empowering. We introduce these strategies, and present research describing advertising tactics that may be used to neutralize each of them.

Keywords: persuasion; resistance; reactance; knowledge

Introduction

Advertising is designed to persuade consumers by creating brand and product awareness, or by communicating social, emotional or functional product benefits. But consumers are not always open to advertising, and often resist its attempts at persuasion. This resistance is nothing new: 20 years ago, Calfee and Ringold (1994) reviewed six decades of research on consumers’ opinions about advertising; they showed that scepticism abides, and that the majority of consumers (about 70%) feel that advertising tries to persuade people to buy things they do not want or need.

This defensive response to advertising has been studied in several streams of research. In marketing and consumer research, for example, Friestad and Wright (1994) developed the persuasion knowledge model to describe consumers’ responses to persuasive attempts. The model has become one of the key theories in marketing research, and is widely applied to understand when and how consumers respond defensively to marketing communications, ranging from traditional TV ads to advergames and social media applications (Panic, Cauberghe, and De Pelsmacker 2013; Van Noort, Antheunis, and Verlegh 2014).

In addition to the persuasion knowledge model, there has been a substantial amount of work focusing on topics such as scepticism, selective exposure, and reactance, which may all be classified as resistance to advertising. Unfortunately the literature does not provide a clear overview of the different ways in which consumers may resist advertising, and the tactics that can be used to counter or avoid such resistance. This article fills this gap by providing an overview of the different types of resistance that consumers may show, and by discussing the ways in which resistance may be countered.

Thus article should not only be interesting for practitioners, but also for academics, as it brings together literatures from different fields of study, including advertising, marketing, communication science and psychology. Although researchers in these subfields have shown a substantial interest in (consumer) resistance, these streams of literature are poorly connected, and this paper aims to facilitate the exchange of knowledge between these subflelds. The presented framework for organizing the different types of strategies provides further integration of different findings, and should serve as a starting point for further exploration of the defensive strategies employed by consumers.

This paper develops a typology of the main types of consumer resistance and provides some (evidence-based) strategies for coping with this resistance. We refer to this as the ACE typology, since it distinguishes among Avoiding, Contesting, and Empowering types of resistance strategies that consumers can use. We first introduce these strategies, and then suggest some advertising tactics that may be used to neutralize each of these types of resistance. The typology is summarized in Figure 1.

ACE a typology of resistance strategies

Knowles and Linn (2004) emphasize that resistance is a motivational state, in which people have the goal to reduce attitudinal or behavioural change or to retain one’s current attitude. Following their conceptualization, we view the mitigation of attitudinal or behavioural change as a (possible) outcome of the strategies that are employed by consumers who are motivated to resist persuasion. In this section, we will define the Avoidance, Contesting and Empowerment strategies. Further elaboration can be found in Fransen, Smit, and Verlegh (2014).

Avoidance strategies

Advertising avoidance is a well-studied phenomenon. Speck and Elliot (1997) investigated advertising avoidance in magazines, newspapers, radio and television. They identified several ways that people avoid advertising; (a) physical avoidance; (b) mechanical avoidance; and (c) cognitive avoidance. Physical avoidance entails a variety of strategies aimed at not seeing or hearing the ad. These include leaving the room or skipping the advertising section in a newspaper. In an insightful ethnographic study, Brodin (2007) found that TV viewers use commercial breaks to talk to others, go to the bathroom, or engage in other behaviours that purposefully or accidently lead to advertising avoidance. Using an eye tracking methodology, Dreze and Hussherr, (2003) found that consumers actively avoid looking at banners when using the Internet. In fact, consumers can employ the modern methods of physical avoidance, such as blocking online ads, filtering email, or subscribing to ‘do not email’, ‘do not call’ or ‘do not track’ programs (Johnson 2013).

Mechanical avoidance includes zapping, zipping, or muting the television or radio when the commercials start. The literature shows that a high percentage of television viewers zap (Tse and Lee 2001) or zip (Stemberg 1987) during commercial breaks. ‘Block zipping’, blocking two or more commercials at the same time, seems the most prevalent form of zipping (Cronin and Menelly 1992). Stafford and Stafford (1996) adopted the uses and gratifications perspective from communication theory to explain why people engage in mechanical avoidance. Boredom was found to explain both zipping and zapping behaviour whereas curiosity predicted only zapping behaviour.

Cognitive ad avoidance means not paying attention to specific advertisements. Consumers may engage in ‘selective exposure’ and ‘selective attention’; the tendency to avoid or devote less attention to persuasive communications that are likely to contain messages that contradict with existing beliefs or opinions (Freedman and Sears 1965; Knobloch-Westerwick and Meng 2009). In other words, people are motivated to seek information that is consonant with their beliefs and attitudes and to avoid information that is dissonant with their beliefs and attitudes. Most research on selective exposure is conducted in the fields of political and health communication (for a review see Smith, Fabrigar, and Norris 2008).

Research on the determinants of avoidance behaviour demonstrates that viewers are less inclined to avoid commercial messages that are emotional and entertaining, and more inclined to avoid messages that are informational (Olney, Holbrook, and Batra 1991; Woltman, Wedel, and Pieters, 2003). In addition, viewers are less likely to avoid advertisements on regularly purchased products (Siddarth and Chattopdahyay 1998).

An interesting question is whether there are differences between active (conscious) avoidance and passive (unconscious) avoidance. To show active avoidance, consumers have to be aware of the fact that an ad is there, but have to somehow force themselves not to see or hear it. Passive avoidance on the other hand does not necessarily require such action, and might therefore call for different types of neutralizing strategies.

Contesting strategies

In addition to avoiding advertising messages, consumers may resist advertising by using a contesting strategy. Contesting strategies involve actively refuting the ad by challenging it. An ad can be countered by considering different characteristics of the ad, (a) the advertising message itself (the content), (b) the source of the ad or (c) the persuasive tactics that are used in the ad.

In the persuasion literature, contesting the content of persuasive messages has been referred to as counter-arguing (e.g., Buller 1986; Wright, 1975; Jacks and Cameron 2003). Defined as a thought process that decreases agreement with a counter-attitudinal message, counter-arguing is often described as a mediating variable between a persuasive message and outcomes such as attitudes and behaviour (Festinger and Maccoby 1964; Silvia 2006). People who engage in counter-arguing scrutinize the arguments presented, and subsequently try to generate reasons to refute them.

Contesting the source of a message, referred to as source derogation, occurs when individuals dismiss the validity of the source. For instance, consumers may question the source’s expertise, trustworthiness, or motives (Jacks and Cameron (2003). As a consequence, the message will lose credibility, which reduces its impact. Source derogation is often used when the source can be construed as biased (Wright 1973). Batinic and Appel 2013) demonstrated that information from commercial sources (i.e., advertising) is perceived to be less trustworthy than information from non-commercial sources, such as consumer recommendations or word of mouth.

Contesting the persuasive tactics used in a message has often been examined in the context of the Persuasion Knowledge Model (Friestad and Wright (1994). When consumers become suspicious of the advertiser’s manipulative intent, they resist the advertising message. For instance, Campbell (1995) finds that borrowed-interest appeals, whereby marketers use consumers’ interest in an (unrelated) topic (e.g., celebrities or puppies) to trigger interest in their product or service, can lead to negative attitudes towards the advertiser. Similarly, consumers are more likely to become suspicious of advertisers’ motives when ads feature negative comparisons to the competition (Jain and Posavac 2014) or incomplete comparisons (Kirmani and Zhu 2007). Finally, consumers may counter-argue the ad and derogate the source when the advertiser is perceived as spending too much money, such as when the ad is repeated often (Kirmani 1997).

Empowering strategies

Empowering strategies are related to the recipients themselves, not to the content of the persuasive message. They involve reassuring the self or one’s existing attitude. Three types of empowering strategies have been described in the literature: attitude bolstering, social validation, and self-assertion.

Consumers who engage in attitude bolstering focus on defending their existing attitudes and behaviours rather than refuting or challenging a message. To achieve this, they generate thoughts that are supportive of those attitudes and behaviours when they are exposed to a persuasive message that challenges them (Lydon, Zanna, and Ross 1988; Meirick 2002). For example, a person who is ‘pro-choice’ might resist a message against abortion by actively thinking about arguments that are in support of their own position, rather than considering the arguments presented in the message.

A second empowering strategy is social validation, which entails validating one’s attitude with significant others (Jacks and Cameron 2003). Consumers who use this strategy will actively look for (significant) others who share their existing beliefs, in order to confirm their current attitudes or behaviours. Social validation is related to the concept of ‘social proof’; when uncertain about how to behave, people have the tendency to look at the behaviour of others (Cialdini 2001). Jacks and Cameron (2003) argue that people may use a similar heuristic when they seek to defend themselves against an unwanted persuasion attempt. They demonstrated that people who are presented with a persuasive message that is incongruent with their existing attitude think of others who share their existing beliefs. Their current attitude or behaviour is validated in this way, which makes them less susceptible to the influence of dissonant messages.

In their research on resistance strategies, Jacks and Cameron (2003) observed a third empowerment strategy: asserting the self. When using self-assertions, people remind themselves that they are confident about their attitudes and behaviours, and that nothing can be done to change these. Self-assertion provides a boost to one’s self-esteem, which reduces susceptibility to persuasive messages (Rhodes and Wood 1992; Leary and Baumeister 2000). In addition to boosting confidence in one’s own opinions, this strategy reduces the extent to which consumers feel social pressure to conform to the norms that are imposed by others (Levine and Moreland 1990).

Now we have introduced our typology of Avoidance, Contesting and Empowering resistance strategies, the next section examines tactics that can be used by advertisers to neutralize these three types of resistance strategies.

Resistance-neutralizing persuasion tactics

Advertisers have available to them a range of persuasion techniques to create successful advertisements. These tactics often focus on making a message more attractive by using, for example, humour, celebrities, or music. Knowles and Linn (2004) refer to these traditional persuasion techniques as ‘alpha strategies’, strategies that focus on increasing approach towards the attitudinal object. In contrast, they propose the term ‘omega strategies’ for tactics that are aimed specifically at reducing consumer resistance to persuasion. These strategies explicitly focus on reducing avoidance forces, in other words: decreasing the motivation to move away from the attitudinal object. Hence, omega strategies aim to neutralize resistance that people may experience when exposed to an ad.

We argue that such resistance-neutralizing tactics should be more effective when they are tailored to the specific resistance strategy that is adopted by consumers. In this section, we will therefore describe for each of the ACE strategies, the advertising tactics that are most likely to reduce resistance and enhance effectiveness.

Neutralizing avoidance strategies

By nature, avoidance-type resistance strategies are perhaps the most difficult to counter, because the avoidance behaviour itself cuts off the possibility of communication. One obvious strategy for preventing avoidance is the use of Forced Exposure. For example, in an online context people are often forced to view or hear commercials when they watch a video stream or listen to a radio channel. Hegner, Kusse, and Pruyn (2014) found that consumers perceive such ads to be intrusive, although this perception is weaker when the ad has a (positive) emotional appeal (a finding that is reminiscent of the finding that TV ads are less likely to be avoided if they are emotional rather than informational. Olney, Holbrook, and Batra 1990). Another form of forced exposure is so-called horizontal advertising blocks, in which television stations broadcast advertisements simultaneously. Research by Nam, Kwon, and Lee (2010) demonstrated that such horizontal advertising blocks are effective in reducing zapping behaviour. This tactic is, however, also perceived as intrusive and may lead to a negative image.

Although some research demonstrates that forced exposure may lead to negative responses and negative associations with the advertiser (e.g., Edwards, Li, and Lee (2002), there are also studies suggesting that ‘any’ advertising exposure can be beneficial. Greyser’s (1973) classic work on imitation in advertising suggested for example that marketers often believe that irritating ads help raise brand awareness. Skumik and colleagues (2005) found that consumers may forget the valence of previously encountered information about a brand, while (positive effects of) familiarity remain. It therefore remains to be investigated how consumers respond to such forced exposure. One interesting possibility is that, while consumers may have a negative explicit response to forced exposure, they could still have a positive (implicit) response to the advertised product. It should be noted however, that consumers who cannot avoid advertising may also adopt different resistance strategies.

Rather than forcing exposure to advertising, marketers may choose to prevent avoidance by disguising the persuasive intent or the sender of the message. Marketers have developed a wide range of strategies to achieve this (cf., Kaikati and Kaikati 2004). One strategy that seeks to downplay the persuasive nature of marketing messages is to embed branded messages into the editorial content of a medium, so that consumers are less likely to recognize these messages as persuasive attempts. Such brand placements may occur in magazines, TV and radio shows, movies and games (van Reijmersdal, Smit, and Neijens 2010). In response to rising ethical concerns about this practice, the FTC and FCC have formally expressed their concerns, and the European Union has even developed regulation that requires marketers to inform consumers of the commercial intent of such messages. Several recent studies have examined consumers’ responses to such disclosures. In general, this research seems to suggest that such information often activates persuasion knowledge and has negative consequences for consumers’ evaluations of the advertised brands (Boerman et al. in press; Campbell, Mohr, and Verlegh 2013).

Marketers may also counter avoidance by enlisting consumers to share brand-related messages with others. Typically, consumers have greater trust in information provided by their peers than in information provided by marketers. Consumers may share brandrelated information via online or offline word of mouth, which can be stimulated through word-of-mouth marketing programs. The power of word of mouth lies in the fact that messages received by friends are not perceived as persuasive attempts, reducing the motivation to avoid such messages. The effectiveness of word of mouth marketing depends on the extent to which consumers attribute the message to enthusiasm about the brand or product rather than ulterior motives (Verlegh et al. 2013). Marketers who make use of such strategies should thus take care to avoid such attributions, and seek to maintain the informal and friendly character of word of mouth as an exchange of information among friends (Tuk et al. 2009).

In addition to exchanging information, viral marketing may stimulate consumers to share branded content. In crafting viral campaigns, marketers often use humorous, surprising, sexual or otherwise appealing content (cf., Golan and Zaidner 2008). It is important, however, to keep in mind that such campaigns should also convey brand-relevant information in order to achieve marketing communication goals such as enhancing brand awareness or attitude (Akpinar and Berger 2014).

Neutralizing contesting strategies

Several techniques are available to advertisers seeking to reduce consumer contesting of their messages. A direct and well-established strategy of coping with counterarguments is two-sided advertising. A two-sided advertisement includes both positive and negative elements. When people are also exposed to negative features of a product or service, they are less likely to come up with counterarguments themselves. ORen marketers directly refute the negative elements or diminish its importance in the ad. Moreover, advertising is perceived as more trustworthy when it includes (some) negative information, so that the overall impact of the ad increases (Eisend 2006). In a classic paper on oneversus two-sided advertising, Kamins and Assael (1987) found that two-sidedness is effective in reducing source derogation. In practice, however, the use of two-sided advertising is not very common, as marketers are wary of spreading negative information about their products. One exception is product failure, where brands often acknowledge their mistake (i.e. negative element) and then present their solution (i.e., positive element). Doing so prevents consumers from generating (perhaps more persuasive) negative elements (Fennis and Stroebe 2013).

There are also more indirect ways of coping with contesting strategies, which reduce the, ability, opportunity or motivation to generate counterarguments or engage in other contesting strategies (cf., Burkley 2008). Knowles and Linn 2004) demonstrated for example that participants generated significantly less counterarguments to a target message when it was presented at the end (versus the beginning) of a series of (seven) persuasive messages. Their finding illustrates the possibility of using cognitive depletion as a tactic for reducing consumers’ ability to contest messages. Recently, similar results were obtained by Janssen et a1. (2014), who demonstrated that mentally depleted consumers were less able to resist advertising, even when they received a forewaming that informed them of the persuasive intent of the message.

In addition to cognitive depletion, marketers may use distraction to reduce consumers’ opportunity to engage in contesting strategies. An example is given by the ‘disrupt then reframe’ technique, which is often used in personal selling (Fennis, Das, and Pruyn 2004). In this technique a subtle, unexpected twist (i.e., disruption) in the sales script, which distracts people’s attention, is followed by the persuasive conclusion of a message (i.e., the reframe). For example, when selling apples one could say ‘these apples are 250 cents, that is only 2.5 dollars, it is a bargain!’ This simple disruption (i.e., 250 cents) in combination with the reframe (i.e., it’s a bargain!’) distracts people and thereby reduces their efforts to contest the message.

Finally, to reduce the motivation to use contesting strategies, marketers may offer safety cues and warrants to minimize the perceived risk associated with a purchase. Research by van Noort, Kerkhof, and Fennis (2008) demonstrated that the presence of safety cues on websites provides people with a safe feeling. When people feel safe they are less inclined to contest the information on the website. Another way of providing a sense of safety is by postponing the payment, e.g., ‘Buy now, pay later’. These offers will reduce resistance and the use of counter-arguing, especially when the distance between the purchase and payment increases (Knowles and Linn 2004).

Neutralizing empowerment strategies

To neutralize resistance strategies that involve asserting the self or an existing attitude, marketers need to focus on the consumer rather than the message. Interestingly, Jacks and O’Brien (2004) found that people who are self-affirmed are actually more open to persuasive messages, suggesting that self-affirmation may also be used to enhance rather than reduce persuasion. Take, for example, an ad that urges consumers to stop smoking. Smokers may perceive such an ad as threatening to their self-view, because it reminds them of their unhealthy behaviour. This threat may be mitigated, however, by reminding them of their previous successes or important values (Steele 1988).

When people are self-affirmed, they are more open to messages that are dissonant with their attitudes and behaviour because they do not feel the need to protect their self-view. Pursuing this logic, it might be possible for advertisers to focus on enhancing consumers’ self-esteem and self-efficacy. One strategy could be to emphasize the experience and knowledge of consumers when addressing them: ‘As a mother, you know that. . .’. Indeed, several studies have shown that assigning expertise and affirming people’s positive self-views may reduce the perceptions of persuasive intent and reduce resistance (Dolinski, Nawrat, and Rudak 2001).

A second way to neutralize the motivation to adopt empowering strategies is to provide consumers with control over the situation; for example, by having consumers decide which ads they want to watch. This strategy may also reduce other forms of resistance, of course. The online television platform Hulu, for example, offers viewers the opportunity to select the ads they want to watch. Permission-based advertising is another way to provide consumers with more freedom. Tsang, Ho, and Liang (2004) demonstrated that advertisements that are received with permission are evaluated more positively than advertisements that are received without permission (e.g., spam). Asking consumers permission provides them control, which fosters acceptation and reduces resistance.

Conclusion

Advertisers can use a wide range of tactics to counter consumers’ resistance to persuasion. Knowles and Linn (2004) suggested using the term ‘omega strategies’ for persuasion strategies that explicitly deal with resistance that consumers may experience when exposed to (unwanted) advertising. In this paper, we argue that such resistance-neutralizing tactics should be more effective when they are tailored to the specific resistance strategy that is adopted by consumers.

We have introduced the ACE typology, and have discussed specific tactics for addressing the different strategies that consumers use to resist persuasion. This overview should be helpful for marketers who are interested in applying communication strategies that enhance persuasion by reducing consumer resistance.

To further the development of such strategies, more research is needed to better understand the various ways in which consumers provide resistance to persuasive messages. We see a particular need for research that goes beyond the study of individual strategies, and tries to establish personal and situational characteristics that favour one strategy over another. Such research could ultimately help to predict which types of resistance are likely to be triggered by a specific message, or in a specific market context. This knowledge, in turn, allows marketers to design communications that avoid these types of resistance. To facilitate this, we need research that establishes the extent to which specific marketing tactics can effectively counter the avoidance, contesting and empowering strategies that are distinguished in our typology.

Advertisements

ADVERTISING SHITS IN YOUR HEAD. Reconnecting to Meaningful Values * JUNK VALUES. Consumerism literally is depressing – Johann Hari.

Advertising is the PR team for an economic system, Neoliberal Globalisation, that operates by making us feel inadequate and telling us the solution is to constantly spend.

We are constantly bombarded with messages that we will feel better only if we buy some specific product; and then buy something more; and buy again, and on and on, until finally your family buys your coffin.

Can we turn off the autopilot, and take back control for ourselves?

Spending often isn’t about the object itself. It is about getting to a psychological state that makes you feel better.

When there is pollution in the air that makes us feel worse, we ban the source of the pollution.

Advertising is a form of mental pollution.

When I was trying to apply everything I had learned to change, in order to be less depressed, I felt a dull, insistent tug on me. I kept getting signals that the way to be happy is simple. Buy stuff. Show it off. Display your status. Acquire things. These impulses called to me, from every advertisement, and from so many social interactions. I had learned from Tim Kasser that these are junk values, a trap that leads only to greater anxiety and depression. But what is the way beyond them? I could understand the arguments against them very well. I was persuaded. But there they were, in my head, and all around me, trying to pull me back down.

But Tim, I learned, has been proposing two ways, as starters, to wriggle free. The first is defensive. And the second is proactive, a way to stir our different values.

When there is pollution in the air that makes us feel worse, we ban the source of the pollution: we don’t allow factories to pump lead into our air. Advertising, he says, is a form of mental pollution. So there’s an obvious solution. Restrict or ban mental pollution, just like we restrict or ban physical pollution.

This isn’t an abstract idea. It has already been tried in many places. For example, the city of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, was being slowly smothered by billboards. They covered every possible space, gaudy logos and brands dominated the skyline wherever you looked. It had made the city look ugly, and made people feel ugly, by telling them everywhere they looked that they had to consume.

So in 2007 the city’s government took a bold step, they banned all outdoor advertising: everything. They called it the Clean City Law. As the signs were removed one by one, people began to see beautiful old buildings that had long been hidden. The constant ego-irritation of being told to spend was taken away, and was replaced with works of public art. Some 70 percent of the city’s residents say the change has made it a better place. I went there to see it, and almost everyone says the city seems somehow psychologically cleaner and clearer than it did before.

We could take this insight and go further. Several countries, including Sweden and Greece, have banned advertising directed at children. While I was writing this book, there was a controversy after a company marketing diet products put advertisements in the London Underground asking, ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY? next to a picture of an impossibly lithe woman. The implication was that if you are one of the 99.99 percent of humans who look less buff than this, you are not “ready” to show your flesh on the beach. There was a big backlash, and the posters were eventually banned. It prompted a wave of protests across London, where people defaced ads with the words “Advertising shits in your head.”

It made me think: Imagine if we had a tough advertising regulator who wouldn’t permit ads designed to make us feel bad in any way. How many ads would survive? That’s an achievable goal, and it would clear a lot of mental pollution from our minds.

This has some value in itself, but I think the fight for it could spur a deeper conversation. Advertising is only the PR team for an economic system that operates by making us feel inadequate and telling us the solution is to constantly spend. My hunch is that, if we start to really talk about how this affects our emotional health, we will begin to see the need for more radical changes.

There was a hint of how this might start in an experiment that tried to go deeper, not just to block bad messages that divert our desires onto junk, but to see if we can draw out our positive values. This led to the second, and most exciting, path back that Tim has explored.

The kids were telling Nathan Dungan one thing, over and over again. They needed stuff. They needed consumer objects. And they were frustrated, outright angry, that they weren’t getting them. Their parents were refusing to buy the sneakers or designer clothes or latest gadgets that they needed to have, and it was throwing them into an existential panic. Didn’t their parents know how important it is to have all this?

Nathan didn’t expect to be having these conversations. He was a middle-aged man who had worked in financial services in Pennsylvania for years, advising people on investments. One day, he was talking to an educator at a middle school and she explained that the kids she was working with, middle-class, not rich, had a problem. They thought satisfaction and meaning came from buying objects. When their parents couldn’t afford them, they seemed genuinely distressed. She asked, could Nathan come in and talk to the kids about financial realities?

He agreed cautiously. But that decision was going to set him on a steep learning curve, and lead him to challenge a lot of what he took for granted.

Nathan went in believing his task was obvious. He was there to educate the kids, and their parents, about how to budget, and how to live within their financial means. But then he hit this wall of need, this ravenous hunger for stuff. To him, it was baffling. Why do they want it so badly? What’s the difference between the sneakers with the Nike swoosh and the sneakers without? Why would that gap be so significant that it would send kids into a panic?

He began to wonder if he should be talking not about how to budget, but why the teenagers wanted these things in the first place. And it went deeper than that. There was something about seeing teenagers craving apparently meaningless material objects that got Nathan to think, as adults, are we so different?

Nathan had no idea how to start that conversation, so he began to wing it. And it led to a striking scientific experiment, where he teamed up with Tim Kasser.

A short time later, in a conference room in Minneapolis, Nathan met with the families who were going to be the focus of his experiment. They were a group of sixty parents and their teenage kids, sitting in front of him on chairs. He was going to have a series of long sessions with them over three months to explore these issues and the alternatives. (At the same time, the experiment followed a separate group of the same size who didn’t meet with Nathan or get any other help. They were the experiment’s control group.)

Nathan started the conversation by handing everyone worksheets with a list of open-ended questions. He explained there was no right answer: he just wanted them to start to think about these questions. One of them said: “For me, money is …” and you had to fill in the blank.

At first, people were confused. They’d never been asked a question like this before. Lots of the participants wrote that money is scarce. Or a source of stress. Or something they try not to think about. They then broke into groups of eight, and began to contemplate their answers, haltingly. Many of the kids had never heard their parents talk about money worries before.

Then the groups began to discuss the question, why do I spend? They began to list the reasons why they buy necessities (which are obvious: you’ve got to eat), and then the reasons why they buy the things that aren’t necessities. Sometimes, people would say, they bought nonessential stuff when they felt down. Often, the teenagers would say, they craved this stuff so badly because they wanted to belong, the branded clothes meant you were accepted by the group, or got a sense of status.

As they explored this in the conversation, it became clear quite quickly, without any prompting from Nathan, that spending often isn’t about the object itself. It is about getting to a psychological state that makes you feel better. These insights weren’t deeply buried. People offered them quite quickly, although when they said them out loud, they seemed a little surprised. They knew it just below the surface, but they’d never been asked to articulate that latent feeling before.

Then Nathan asked people to list what they really value, the things they think are most important in life. Many people said it was looking after your family, or telling the truth, or helping other people. One fourteen-year-old boy wrote simply “love,” and when he read it out, the room stopped for a moment, and “you could hear a pin drop,” Nathan told me. “What he was speaking to was, how important is it for me to be connected?”

Just asking these two questions, “What do you spend your money on?” and “What do you really value?”, made most people see a gap between the answers that they began to discuss. They were accumulating and spending money on things that were not, in the end, the things that they believed in their heart mattered. Why would that be?

Nathan had been reading up on the evidence about how we come to crave all this stuff. He learned that the average American is exposed to up to five thousand advertising impressions a day, from billboards to logos on T-shirts to TV advertisements. It is the sea in which we swim. And “the narrative is that if you [buy] this thing, it’ll yield more happiness, and so thousands of times a day you’re just surrounded with that message,” he told me. He began to ask: “Who’s shaping that narrative?” It’s not people who have actually figured out what will make us happy and who are charitably spreading the good news. It’s people who have one motive only, to make us buy their product.

In our culture, Nathan was starting to believe, we end up on a materialistic autopilot. We are constantly bombarded with messages that we will feel better (and less stinky, and less disgustingly shaped, and less all-around worthless) only if we buy some specific product; and then buy something more; and buy again, and on and on, until finally your family buys your coffin. What he wondered is, if people stopped to think about this and discussed alternatives, as his group was doing, could we turn off the autopilot, and take back control for ourselves?

At the next session, he asked the people in the experiment to do a short exercise in which everyone had to list a consumer item they felt they had to have right away. They had to describe what it was, how they first heard about it, why they craved it, how they felt when they got it, and how they felt after they’d had it for a while. For many people, as they talked this through, something became obvious. The pleasure was often in the craving and anticipation. We’ve all had the experience of finally getting the thing we want, getting it home, and feeling oddly deflated, only to find that before long, the craving cycle starts again.

People began to talk about how they had been spending, and they were slowly seeing what it was really all about. Often, not always, it was about “filling a hole. It fills some sort of loneliness gap.” But by pushing them toward that quick, rapidly evaporating high, it was also nudging them away from the things they really valued and that would make them feel satisfied in the long run. They felt they were becoming hollow.

There were some people, both teens and adults, who rejected this fiercely. They said that the stuff made them happy, and they wanted to stick with it. But most people in the group were eager to think differently.

They began to talk about advertising. At first, almost everyone declared that ads might affect other people but didn’t hold much sway over them. “Everyone wants to be smarter than the ad,” Nathan said to me later. But he guided them back to the consumer objects they had longed for. Before long, members of the group were explaining to each other: “There’s no way they’re spending billions of dollars if it’s not having an impact. They’re just not doing that. No company is going to do that.”

So far, it had been about getting people to question the junk values we have been fed for so long.

But then came the most important part of this experiment.

Nathan explained the difference that I talked about before between extrinsic and intrinsic values. He asked people to draw up a list of their intrinsic values, the things they thought were important, as an end in themselves and not because of what you get out of it. Then he asked: How would you live differently if you acted on these other values? Members of the groups discussed it.

They were surprised. We are constantly encouraged to talk about extrinsic values, but the moments when we are asked to speak our intrinsic values out loud are rare. Some said, for example, they would work less and spend more time with the people they loved. Nathan wasn’t making the case for any of this. Just asking a few open questions took most of the group there spontaneously.

Our intrinsic motivations are always there, Nathan realized, lying “dormant. It was brought out into the light,” he said. Conversations like this, Nathan was realizing, don’t just happen “in our culture today. We don’t allow space or create space for these really critical conversations to take place, so it just creates more and more isolation.”

Now that they had identified how they had been duped by junk values, and identified their intrinsic values, Nathan wanted to know: could the group choose, together, to start to follow their intrinsic goals? Instead of being accountable to advertising, could they make themselves accountable to their own most important values, and to a group that was trying to do the same thing? Could they consciously nurture meaningful values?

Now that each person had figured out his or her own intrinsic goals, they would report back at the next series of meetings about what they’d done to start moving toward them. They held each other accountable. They now had a space in which they could think about what they really wanted in life, and how to achieve it. They would talk about how they had found a way to work less and see their kids more, for example, or how they had taken up a musical instrument, or how they had started to write.

Nobody knew whether all this would have any real effect, though. Could these conversations really reduce people’s materialism and increase their intrinsic values?

Independent social scientists measured the levels of materialism of the participants at the start of the experiment, and they measured them again at the end. As he waited for the results, Nathan was nervous. This was a small intervention, in the middle of a lifetime of constant consumerist bombardment. Would it make any difference at all?

When the results came through, both Nathan and Tim were thrilled. Tim had shown before that materialism correlates strongly with increased depression and anxiety. This experiment showed, for the first time, that it was possible to intervene in people’s lives in a way that would significantly reduce their levels of materialism. The people who had gone through this experiment had significantly lower materialism and significantly higher selfesteem. It was a big and measurable effect.

It was an early shot of proof that a determined effort to reverse the values that are making us so unhappy works.

The people who took part in the study could never have made these changes alone, Nathan believes. “There was a lot of power in that connection and that community for people, removing the isolation and the fear. There’s a lot of fear around this topic.” It was only together, as a group, that they there were able to “peel those layers away, so you could actually get to the meaning, to the heart: their sense of purpose.”

I asked Nathan if we could integrate this into our ordinary lives, if we all need to form and take part in a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for junk values, a space where we can all meet to challenge the depression-generating ideas we’ve been taught and learn to listen instead to our intrinsic values. “I would say, without question,” he said. Most of us sense we have been valuing the wrong things for too long. We need to create, he told me, a “counter-rhythm” to the junk values that have been making us mentally sick.

From his bare conference room in Minneapolis, Nathan has proven something, that we are not imprisoned in the values that have been making us feel so lousy for so long. By coming together with other people, and thinking deeply, and reconnecting with what really matters, we can begin to dig a tunnel back to meaningful values.

Also on TPPA = CRISIS

JUNK VALUES. CONSUMERISM LITERALLY IS DEPRESSING

Johann Hari

Just as we have shifted en masse from eating food to eating junk food, we have also shifted from having meaningful values to having junk values.

All this mass-produced fried chicken looks like food, and it appeals to the part of us that evolved to need food; yet it doesn’t give us what we need from food, nutrition. Instead, it fills us with toxins.

In the same way, all these materialistic values, telling us to spend our way to happiness, look like real values; they appeal to the part of us that has evolved to need some basic principles to guide us through life; yet they don’t give us what we need from values, a path to a satisfying life.

Studies show that materialistic people are having a worse time, day by day, on all sorts of fronts. They feel sicker, and they are angrier. Something about a strong desire for materialistic pursuits actually affects their day-to-day lives, and decreases the quality of their daily experience. They experienced less joy, and more despair.

For thousands of years, philosophers have been suggesting that if you overvalue money and possessions, or if you think about life mainly in terms of how you look to other people, you will be unhappy.

Modern research indicates that materialistic people, who think happiness comes from accumulating stuff and a superior status, have much higher levels of depression and anxiety. The more our kids value getting things and being seen to have things, the more likely they are to be suffering from depression and anxiety.

The pressure, in our culture, runs overwhelmingly one way, spend more; work more. We live under a system that constantly distracts us from what’s really good about life. We are being propagandized to live in a way that doesn’t meet our basic psychological needs, so we are left with a permanent, puzzling sense of dissatisfaction.

The more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be.

JUNK VALUES. CONSUMERISM LITERALLY IS DEPRESSING – Johann Hari

. . .

from

Lost Connections. Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions

by Johann Hari

get it at Amazon.com

The Spirit Level. Why equality is better for everyone – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

“For the first time in history, the poor are on average fatter than the rich.”
How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history? The luxury and extravagance of our lives is so great that it threatens the planet.

At the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life. Our societies are, despite their material success, increasingly burdened by their social failings.

If we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies. It is possible to improve the quality of life for everyone. We shall set out the evidence and our reasons for interpreting it the way we do, so that you can judge for yourself.

Social theories are partly theories about ourselves; indeed, they might almost be regarded as part of our selfawareness or self-consciousness of societies. The knowledge that we cannot carry on as we have, that change is necessary, is perhaps grounds for optimism: maybe we do, at last, have the chance to make a better world.

The truth is that both our broken society and broken economy resulted from the growth of inequality. The problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even by being too rich) but by the scale of material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society.

Why do we mistrust people more in the UK than in Japan? Why do Americans have higher rates of teenage pregnancy than the French? What makes the Swedish thinner than the Greeks? The answer: inequality.

This groundbreaking book, based on years of research, provides hard evidence to show:

  • How almost everything from life expectancy to depression levels, violence to illiteracy is affected not by how wealthy a society is, but how equal it is.
  • That societies with a bigger gap between rich and poor are bad for everyone in them including the well-off.
  • How we can flnd positive solutions and move towards a happier, fairer future.

Urgent, provocative and genuinely uplifting, The Spirit Level has been heralded as providing a new way of thinking about ourselves and our communities, and could change the way you see the world.

Richard Wilkinson has played a formative role in international research on the social determinants of health. He studied economic history at the London School of Economics before training in epidemiology and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham Medical School, Honorary Professor at University College London and Visiting Professor at the University of York.

Kate Pickett is Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York and a National Institute for Health Research Career Scientist. She studied physical anthropology at Cambridge, nutritional sciences at Cornell and epidemiology at the University of California Berkeley.

People usually exaggerate the importance of their own work and we worry about claiming too much. But this book is not just another set of nostrums and prejudices about how to put the world to rights. The work we describe here comes out of a very long period of research (over fifty person-years between us) devoted, initially, to trying to understand the causes of the big differences in life expectancy, the ‘health inequalities’ between people at different levels in the social hierarchy in modern societies. The focal problem initially was to understand why health gets worse at every step down the social ladder, so that the poor are less healthy than those in the middle, who in turn are less healthy than those further up.

Like others who work on the social determinants of health, our training in epidemiology means that our methods are those used to trace the causes of diseases in populations, trying to find out why one group of people gets a particular disease while another group doesn’t, or to explain why some disease is becoming more common. The same methods can, however, also be used to understand the causes of other kinds of problems, not just health.

Epidemiology is the study and analysis of the distribution (who, when, and where) and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations.

Just as the term ‘evidence-based medicine’ is used to describe current efforts to ensure that medical treatment is based on the best scientific evidence of what works and what does not, we thought of calling this book ‘Evidence-based Politics’. The research which underpins what we describe comes from a great many research teams in different universities and research organizations. Replicable methods have been used to study observable and objective outcomes, and peer-reviewed research reports have been published in academic, scientific journals.

This does not mean that there is no guesswork. Results always have to be interpreted, but there are usually good reasons for favouring one interpretation over another. Initial theories and expectations are often called into question by later research findings which make it necessary to think again. We would like to take you on the journey we have travelled, signposted by crucial bits of evidence and leaving out only the various culs-de-sac and wrong turnings that wasted so much time, to arrive at a better understanding of how we believe it is possible to improve the quality of life for everyone in modern societies. We shall set out the evidence and our reasons for interpreting it the way we do, so that you can judge for yourself.

At an intuitive level people have always recognized that inequality is socially corrosive. But there seemed little reason to think that levels of inequality in developed societies differed enough to expect any measurable effects. The reasons which first led one of us to look for effects seem now largely irrelevant to the striking picture which has emerged. Many discoveries owe as much to luck as judgement.

The reason why the picture we present has not been put together until now is probably that much of the data has only become available in recent years. With internationally comparable information not only on incomes and income distribution but also on different health and social problems, it could only have been a matter of time before someone came up with findings like ours. The emerging data have allowed us, and other researchers, to analyse how societies differ, to discover how one factor is related to another, and to test theories more rigorously.

It is easy to imagine that discoveries are more rapidly accepted in the natural than in the social sciences, as if physical theories are somehow less controversial than theories about the social world. But the history of the natural sciences is littered with painful personal disputes, which started off as theoretical disagreements but often lasted for the rest of people’s lives. Controversies in the natural sciences are usually confined to the experts: most people do not have strong views on rival theories in particle physics. But they do have views on how society works. Social theories are partly theories about ourselves; indeed, they might almost be regarded as part of our selfawareness or self-consciousness of societies. While natural scientists do not have to convince individual cells or atoms to accept their theories, social theorists are up against a plethora of individual views and powerful vested interests.

In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweiss discovered that if doctors washed their hands before attending women in childbirth it dramatically reduced deaths from puerperal fever. But before his work could have much benefit he had to persuade people, principally his medical colleagues to change their behaviour. His real battle was not his initial discovery but what followed from it. His views were ridiculed and he was driven eventually to insanity and suicide. Much of the medical profession did not take his work seriously until Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister had developed the germ theory of disease, which explained why hygiene was important.

We live in a pessimistic period. As well as being worried by the likely consequences of global warming, it is easy to feel that many societies are, despite their material success, increasingly burdened by their social failings. And now, as if to add to our woes, we have the economic recession and its aftermath of high unemployment. But the knowledge that we cannot carry on as we have, that change is necessary, is perhaps grounds for optimism: maybe we do, at last, have the chance to make a better world. The extraordinarily positive reception of the hardback editon of this book confirms that there is a widespread appetite for change and a desire to find positive solutions to our problems.

We have made only minor changes to this edition. Details of the statistical sources, methods and results, from which we thought most readers would want to be spared, are now provided in an appendix for those with a taste for data. Chapter 13, which is substantially about causation, has been slightly reorganized and strengthened. We have also expanded our discussion of what has made societies substantially more or less equal in the past. Because we conclude that these changes have been driven by changes in political attitudes, we think it is a mistake to discuss policy as if it were a matter of finding the right technical fix. As there are really hundreds of ways that societies can become more equal if they choose to, we have not nailed our colours to one or other set of policies. What we need is not so much a clever solution as a society which recognizes the benefits of greater equality.

If correct, the theory and evidence set out in this book tells us how to make substantial improvements in the quality of life for the vast majority of the population. Yet unless it is possible to change the way most people see the societies they live in, the theory will be stillborn. Public opinion will only support the necessary political changes if something like the perspective we outline in this book permeates the public mind.

We have therefore set up a not-for-profit organization called The Equality Trust (described at the end of this book) to make the kind of evidence set out in the following pages better known and to suggest that there is a way out of the woods for us all.

PART ONE

Material Success, Social Failure

1 The end of an era

“I care for riches, to make gifts to friends, or lead a sick man back to health with ease and plenty. Else small aid is wealth for daily gladness; once a man be done with hunger, rich and poor are all as one.” Euripides, Electra

It is a remarkable paradox that, at the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life. Lacking the relaxed social contact and emotional satisfaction we all need, we seek comfort in overeating, obsessive shopping and spending, or become prey to excessive alcohol, psychoactive medicines and illegal drugs.

How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history? Often what we feel is missing is little more than time enjoying the company of friends, yet even that can seem beyond us. We talk as if our lives were a constant battle for psychological survival, struggling against stress and emotional exhaustion, but the truth is that the luxury and extravagance of our lives is so great that it threatens the planet.

Research from the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation (commissioned by the Merck Family Foundation) in the USA shows that people feel that ‘materialism’ somehow comes between them and the satisfaction of their social needs. A report entitled Yearning for Balance, based on a nationwide survey of Americans, concluded that they were ‘deeply ambivalent about wealth and material gain’. A large majority of people wanted society to ‘move away from greed and excess toward a way of life more centred on values, community, and family’. But they also felt that these priorities were not shared by most of their fellow Americans, who, they believed, had become ‘increasingly atomized, selfish, and irresponsible’. As a result they often felt isolated. However, the report says, that when brought together in focus groups to discuss these issues, people were ‘surprised and excited to find that others share[d] their views’. Rather than uniting us with others in a common cause, the unease we feel about the loss of social values and the way we are drawn into the pursuit of material gain is often experienced as if it were a purely private ambivalence which cuts us off from others.

Mainstream politics no longer taps into these issues and has abandoned the attempt to provide a shared vision capable of inspiring us to create a better society. As voters, we have lost sight of any collective belief that society could be different.

Instead of a better society, the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position as individuals within the existing society.

The contrast between the material success and social failure of many rich countries is an important signpost. It suggests that, if we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies. However, as soon as anything psychological is mentioned, discussion tends to focus almost exclusively on individual remedies and treatments. Political thinking seems to run into the sand.

It is now possible to piece together a new, compelling and coherent picture of how we can release societies from the grip of so much dysfunctional behaviour. A proper understanding of what is going on could transform politics and the quality of life for all of us. It would change our experience of the world around us, change what we vote for, and change what we demand from our politicians.

In this book we show that the quality of social relations in a society is built on material foundations. The scale of income differences has a powerful effect on how we relate to each other. Rather than blaming parents, religion, values, education or the penal system, we will show that the scale of inequality provides a powerful policy lever on the psychological wellbeing of all of us. Just as it once took studies of weight gain in babies to show that interacting with a loving care-giver is crucial to child development, so it has taken studies of death rates and of income distribution to show the social needs of adults and to demonstrate how societies can meet them.

Long before the financial crisis which gathered pace in the later part of 2008, British politicians commenting on the decline of community or the rise of various forms of anti-social behaviour, would sometimes refer to our ‘broken society’. The financial collapse shifted attention to the broken economy, and while the broken society was sometimes blamed on the behaviour of the poor, the broken economy was widely attributed to the rich.

Stimulated by the prospects of ever bigger salaries and bonuses, those in charge of some of the most trusted financial institutions threw caution to the wind and built houses of cards which could stand only within the protection of a thin speculative bubble. But the truth is that both the broken society and the broken economy resulted from the growth of inequality.

WHERE THE EVIDENCE LEADS

We shall start by outlining the evidence which shows that we have got close to the end of what economic growth can do for us. For thousands of years the best way of improving the quality of human life was to raise material living standards. When the wolf was never far from the door, good times were simply times of plenty. But for the vast majority of people in affluent countries the difficulties of life are no longer about filling our stomachs, having clean water and keeping warm. Most of us now wish we could eat less rather than more. And, for the first time in history, the poor are on average fatter than the rich.

Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. The populations of rich countries have got to the end of a long historical journey.

Figure 1.1 Only in its early stages does economic development boost life expectancy.
.

The course of the journey we have made can be seen in Figure 1.1. It shows the trends in life expectancy in relation to Gross National Income per head in countries at various stages of economic development. Among poorer countries, life expectancy increases rapidly during the early stages of economic development, but then, starting among the middle-income countries, the rate of improvement slows down. As living standards rise and countries get richer and richer, the relationship between economic growth and life expectancy weakens. Eventually it disappears entirely and the rising curve in Figure 1.1 becomes horizontal showing that for rich countries to get richer adds nothing further to their life expectancy. That has already happened in the richest thirty or so countries nearest the top righthand corner of Figure 1.1.

The reason why the curve in Figure 1.1 levels out is not because we have reached the limits of life expectancy. Even the richest countries go on enjoying substantial improvements in health as time goes by. What has changed is that the improvements have ceased to be related to average living standards. With every ten years that passes, life expectancy among the rich countries increases by between two and three years. This happens regardless of economic growth, so that a country as rich as the USA no longer does better than Greece or New Zealand, although they are not much more than half as rich. Rather than moving out along the curve in Figure 1.1, what happens as time goes by is that the curve shifts upwards: the same levels of income are associated with higher life expectancy. Looking at the data, you cannot help but conclude that as countries get richer, further increases in average living standards do less and less for health.

While good health and longevity are important, there are other components of the quality of life. But just as the relationship between health and economic growth has levelled off, so too has the relationship with happiness. Like health, how happy people are rises in the early stages of economic growth and then levels off. This is a point made strongly by the economist Richard Layard, in his book on happiness.

Figure 1.2 Happiness and average incomes (data for UK unavailable).
.

Figures on happiness in different countries are probably strongly affected by culture. In some societies not saying you are happy may sound like an admission of failure, while in another claiming to be happy may sound selfsatisfied and smug. But, despite the difficulties, Figure 1.2 shows the ‘happiness curve’ levelling off in the richest countries in much the same way as life expectancy. In both cases the important gains are made in the earlier stages of economic growth, but the richer a country gets, the less getting still richer adds to the population’s happiness. In these graphs the curves for both happiness and life expectancy flatten off at around $25,000 per capita, but there is some evidence that the income level at which this occurs may rise over time.

The evidence that happiness levels fail to rise further as rich countries get still richer does not come only from comparisons of different countries at a single point in time (as shown in Figure 1.2). In a few countries, such as Japan, the USA and Britain, it is possible to look at changes in happiness over sufficiently long periods of time to see whether they rise as a country gets richer. The evidence shows that happiness has not increased even over periods long enough for real incomes to have doubled. The same pattern has also been found by researchers using other indicators of wellbeing such as the ‘measure of economic welfare’ or the ‘genuine progress indicator’, which try to calculate net benefits of growth after removing costs like traffic congestion and pollution.

So whether we look at health, happiness or other measures of wellbeing there is a consistent picture. In poorer countries, economic development continues to be very important for human wellbeing. Increases in their material living standards result in substantial improvements both in objective measures of wellbeing like life expectancy, and in subjective ones like happiness. But as nations join the ranks of the affluent developed countries, further rises in income count for less and less.

This is a predictable pattern. As you get more and more of anything, each addition to what you have, whether loaves of bread or cars, contributes less and less to your wellbeing. If you are hungry, a loaf of bread is everything, but when your hunger is satisfied, many more loaves don’t particularly help you and might become a nuisance as they go stale.

Sooner or later in the long history of economic growth, countries inevitably reach a level of affluence where ‘diminishing returns’ set in and additional income buys less and less additional health, happiness or wellbeing. A number of developed countries have now had almost continuous rises in average incomes for over 150 years and additional wealth is not as beneficial as it once was.

The trends in different causes of death confirm this interpretation. It is the diseases of poverty which first decline as countries start to get richer. The great infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera or measles which are still common in the poorest countries today, gradually cease to be the most important causes of death. As they disappear, we are left with the so-called diseases of affluence, the degenerative cardiovascuiar diseases and cancers. While the infectious diseases of poverty are particularly common in childhood and frequently kill even in the prime of life, the diseases of affluence are very largely diseases of later life.

One other piece of evidence confirms that the reason why the curves in Figures 1.1 and 1.2 level off is because countries have reached a threshold of material living standards after which the benefits of further economic growth are less substantial. It is that the diseases which used to be called the ‘diseases of affluence’ became the diseases of the poor in affluent societies. Diseases like heart disease, stroke and obesity used to be more common among the rich. Heart disease was regarded as a businessman’s disease and it used to be the rich who were fat and the poor who were thin. But from about the 1950s onwards, in one developed country after another, these patterns reversed. Diseases which had been most common among the better-off in each society reversed their social distribution to become more common among the poor.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL LIMITS TO GROWTH

At the same time as the rich countries reach the end of the real benefits of economic growth, we have also had to recognize the problems of global warming and the environmental limits to growth. The dramatic reductions in carbon emissions needed to prevent runaway climate change and rises in sea levels may mean that even present levels of consumption are unsustainable particularly if living standards in the poorer, developing, world are to rise as they need to. In Chapter 15 we shall discuss the ways in which the perspective outlined in this book fits in with policies designed to reduce global warming.

INCOME DIFFERENCES WITHIN AND BETWEEN SOCIETIES

We are the first generation to have to find new answers to the question of how we can make further improvements to the real quality of human life. What should we turn to if not to economic growth? One of the most powerful clues to the answer to this question comes from the fact that we are affected very differently by the income differences within our own society from the way we are affected by the differences in average income between one rich society and another.

In Chapters 4-12 we focus on a series of health and social problems like violence, mental illness, teenage births and educational failure, which within each country are all more common among the poor than the rich. As a result, it often looks as if the effect of higher incomes and living standards is to lift people out of these problems. However, when we make comparisons between different societies, we find that these social problems have little or no relation to levels of average incomes in a society.

Take health as an example. Instead of looking at life expectancy across both rich and poor countries as in Figure 1.1, look just at the richest countries. Figure 1.3 shows just the rich countries and confirms that among them some countries can be almost twice as rich as others without any benefit to life expectancy. Yet within any of them death rates are closely and systematically related to income.

Figure 1.3 Life expectancy is unrelated to differences in average income between rich countries.
.

Figure 1.4 shows the relation between death rates and income levels within the USA. The death rates are for people in zip code areas classified by the typical household income of the area in which they live. On the right are the richer zip code areas with lower death rates, and on the left are the poorer ones with higher death rates. Although we use American data to illustrate this, similar health gradients, of varying steepness, run across almost every society. Higher incomes are related to lower death rates at every level in society.

Figure 1.4 Death rates are closely related to differences in income within societies.
.

Note that this is not simply a matter of the poor having worse health than everyone else. What is so striking about Figure 1.4 is how regular the health gradient is right across society it is a qradient which affects us all.

Within each country, people’s health and happiness are related to their incomes. Richer people tend, on average, to be healthier and happier than poorer people in the same society. But comparing rich countries it makes no difference whether on average people in one society are almost twice as rich as people in another.

What sense can we make of this paradox that differences in average income or living standards between whole populations or countries don’t matter at all, but income differences within those same populations matter very much indeed? There are two plausible explanations. One is that what matters in rich countries may not be your actual income level and living standard, but how you compare with other people in the same society. Perhaps average standards don’t matter and what does is simply whether you are doing better or worse than other people, where you come in the social pecking order.

The other possibility is that the social gradient in health shown in Figure 1.4 results not from the effects of relative income or social status on health, but from the effects of social mobility, sorting the healthy from the unhealthy. Perhaps the healthy tend to move up the social ladder and the unhealthy end up at the bottom.

This issue will be resolved in the next chapter. We shall see whether compressing, or stretching out, the income differences in a society matters. Do more and less equal societies suffer the same overall burden of health and social problems?

2 Poverty or inequality?

“Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status It has grown as an invidious distinction between classes”

Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics

HOW MUCH INEQUALITY?

In the last chapter we saw that economic growth and increases in average incomes have ceased to contribute much to wellbeing in the rich countries. But we also saw that within societies health and social problems remain strongly associated with incomes. In this chapter we will see whether the amount of income inequality in a society makes any difference.

Figure 2.1 How much richer are the richest 20 per cent than the poorest 20 per cent in each country?
.

Figure 2.1 shows how the size of income differences varies from one developed country to another. At the top are the most equal countries and at the bottom are the most unequal. The length of the horizontal bars shows how much richer the richest 20 per cent of the population is in each country compared to the poorest 20 per cent.

Within countries such as Japan and some of the Scandinavian countries at the top of the chart, the richest 20 per cent are less than four times as rich as the poorest 20 per cent. At the bottom of the chart are countries in which these differences are at least twice as big, including two in which the richest 20 per cent get about nine times as much as the poorest. Among the most unequal are Singapore, USA, Portugal and the United Kingdom. (The figures are for household income, after taxes and benefits, adjusted for the number of people in each household.)

There are lots of ways of measuring income inequality and they are all so closely related to each other that it doesn’t usually make much difference which you use. Instead of the top and bottom 20 per cent, we could compare the top and bottom 10 or 30 per cent. Or we could have looked at the proportion of all incomes which go to the poorer half of the population. Typically, the poorest half of the population get something like 20 or 25 per cent of all incomes and the richest half get the remaining 75 or 80 per cent.

Other more sophisticated measures include one called the Gini coefficient. It measures inequality across the whole society rather than simply comparing the extremes. If all income went to one person (maximum inequality) and everyone else got nothing, the Gini coefficient would be equal to 1. If income was shared equally and everyone got exactly the same (perfect equality), the Gini would equal 0. The lower its value, the more equal a society is. The most common values tend to be between 0.3 and 0.5. Another measure of inequality is called the Robin Hood Index because it tells you what proportion of a society’s income would have to be taken from the rich and given to the poor to get complete equality.

To avoid being accused of picking and choosing our measures, our approach in this book has been to take measures provided by official agencies rather than calculating our own. We use the ratio of the income received by the top to the bottom 20 per cent whenever we are comparing inequality in different countries: it is easy to understand and it is one of the measures provided ready-made by the United Nations. When comparing inequality in US states, we use the Gini coefficient: it is the most common measure, it is favoured by economists and it is available from the US Census Bureau. In many academic research papers we and others have used two different inequality measures in order to show that the choice of measures rarely has a significant effect on results.

DOES THE AMOUNT OF INEQUALITY MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Having got to the end of what economic growth can do for the quality of life and facing the problems of environmental damage, what difference do the inequalities shown in Figure 2.1 make?

It has been known for some years that poor health and violence are more common in more unequal societies. However, in the course of our research we became aware that almost all problems which are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies. It is not just ill-health and violence, but also, as we will show in later chapters, a host of other social problems. Almost all of them contribute to the widespread concern that modern societies are, despite their affluence, social failures.

To see whether these problems were more common in more unequal countries, we collected internationally comparable data on health and as many social problems as we could find reliable figures for.

The list we ended up with included:

  • level of trust
  • mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction)
  • life expectancy and infant mortality
  • obesity
  • children’s educational performance
  • teenage births
  • homicides
  • imprisonment rates
  • social mobility (not available for US states)

Occasionally what appear to be relationships between different things may arise spuriously or by chance. In order to be confident that our findings were sound we also collected data for the same health and social problems or as near as we could get to the same for each of the fifty states of the USA. This allowed us to check whether or not problems were consistently related to inequality in these two independent settings. As Lyndon Johnson said, ‘America is not merely a nation, but a nation of nations.’

To present the overall picture, we have combined all the health and social problem data for each country, and separately for each US state, to form an Index of Heaith and Social Problems for each country and US state. Each item in the indexes carries the same weight so, for example, the score for mental health has as much influence on a society’s overall score as the homicide rate or the teenage birth rate. The result is an index showing how common all these health and social problems are in each country and each US state. Things such as life expectancy are reverse scored, so that on every measure higher scores reflect worse outcomes. When looking at the Figures, the higher the score on the Index of Health and Social Problems, the worse things are. (For information on how we selected countries shown in the graphs we present in this book, please see the Appendix.)

Figure 2.2 Health and social problems are closely related to inequality among rich countries.
.

We start by showing, in Figure 2.2, that there is a very strong tendency for ill-health and social problems to occur less frequently in the more equal countries. With increasing inequality (to the right on the horizontal axis), the higher is the score on our Index of Health and Social Problems. Health and social problems are indeed more common in countries with bigger income inequalities. The two are extraordinarily closely related, chance alone would almost never produce a scatter in which countries lined up like this.

Figure 2.3 Health and social problems are only weakly related to national average income among rich countries.
.

To emphasize that the prevalence of poor health and social problems in whole societies really is related to inequality rather than to average living standards, we show in Figure 2.3 the same index of health and social problems but this time in relation to average incomes (National Income per person). It shows that there is no similarly clear trend towards better outcomes in richer countries. This confirms what we saw in Figures 1.1 and 1.2 in the first chapter. However, as well as knowing that health and social problems are more common among the less well-off within each society (as shown in Figure 1.4), we now know that the overall burden of these problems is much higher in more unequal societies.

To check whether these results are not just some odd fluke, let us see whether similar patterns also occur when we look at the fifty states of the USA. We were able to find data on almost exactly the same health and social problems for US states as we used in our international index.

Figure 2.4 Health and social problems are related to inequality in US states.
.

Figure 2.4 shows that the Index of Health and Social Problems is strongly related to the amount of inequality in each state, while Figure 2.5 shows that there is no clear relation between it and average income levels.

Figure 2.5 Health and social problems are only weakly related to average income in US states.
.

The evidence from the USA confirms the international picture. The position of the US in the international graph (Figure 2.2) shows that the high average income level in the US as a whole does nothing to reduce its health and social problems relative to other countries.

We should note that part of the reason why our index combining data for ten different health and social problems is so closely related to inequality is that combining them tends to emphasize what they have in common and downplays what they do not. In Chapters 4-12 we will examine whether each problem taken on its own is related to inequality and will discuss the various reasons why they might be caused by inequality.

This evidence cannot be dismissed as some statistical trick done with smoke and mirrors. What the close fit shown in Figure 2.2 suggests is that a common element related to the prevalence of all these health and social problems is indeed the amount of inequality in each country. All the data come from the most reputable sources from the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and others.

Could these relationships be the result of some unrepresentative selection of problems? To answer this we also used the ‘Index of child wellbeing in rich countries’ compiled by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It combines forty different indicators covering many different aspects of child wellbeing. (We removed the measure of child relative poverty from it because it is, by definition, closely related to inequality.)

Figurer 2.6 The UNICEF index of child wellbeing in rich countries is related to inequality.
.

Figure 2.6 shows that child wellbeing is strongly related to inequality, and Figure 2.7 shows that it is not at all related to average income in each country.

Figure 2.7 The UNICEF index of child wellbeing is not related to Gross National Income per head in rich countries.
.

SOCIAL GRADIENTS

As we mentioned at the end of the last chapter, there are perhaps two widespread assumptions as to why people nearer the bottom of society suffer more problems. Either the circumstances people live in cause their problems, or people end up nearer the bottom of society because they are prone to problems which drag them down. The evidence we have seen in this chapter puts these issues in a new light.

Let’s first consider the view that society is a great sorting system with people moving up or down the social ladder according to their personal characteristics and vulnerabilities. While things such as having poor health, doing badly at school or having a baby when still a teenager all load the dice against your chances of getting up the social ladder, sorting alone does nothing to explain why more unequal societies have more of all these problems than less unequal ones. Social mobility may partly explain whether problems congregate at the bottom, but not why more unequal societies have more problems overall.

The view that social problems are caused directly by poor material conditions such as bad housing, poor diets, lack of educational opportunities and so on implies that richer developed societies would do better than the others. But this is a long way from the truth: some of the richest countries do worst.

It is remarkable that these measures of health and social problems in the two different settings, and of child wellbeing among rich countries, all tell so much the same story.

The problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even by being too rich) but by the scale of material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society.

Of course a small proportion of the least well-off people even in the richest countries sometimes find themselves without enough money for food. However, surveys of the 12.6 per cent of Americans living below the federal poverty line (an absolute income level rather than a relative standard such as half the average income) show that 80 per cent of them have airconditioning, almost 75 per cent own at least one car or truck and around 33 per cent have a computer, a dishwasher or a second car.

What this means is that when people lack money for essentials such as food, it is usually a reflection of the strength of their desire to live up to the prevailing standards. You may, for instance, feel it more important to maintain appearances by spending on clothes while stinting on food. We knew of a young man who was unemployed and had spent a month’s income on a new mobile phone because he said girls ignored people who hadn’t got the right stuff. As Adam Smith emphasized, it is important to be able to present oneself creditably in society without the shame and stigma of apparent poverty.

However, just as the gradient in health ran right across society from top to bottom, the pressures of inequality and of wanting to keep up are not confined to a small minority who are poor. Instead, the effects are as we shall see widespread in the population.

. . .

from

The Spirit Level. Why equality is better for everyone

by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

get it at Amazon.com

FROM SELF TO SELFIE. Is it time for Selfie-Psychology? – Elena Bezzubova.

For homo digital, whose life is developing on social platforms, defined by virtual likes and measured by numbers of virtual friends, visits and comments, Selfie replaces Self.

We used to be Selves. This was in the age of BC: Before CellPhone. Now, in the age of AC, After CellPhone, we are becoming Selfies. One might say that Selfie is just a contemporary form of a photograph of oneself, just with more sophisticated tricks to appear better and impress more. But for homo digital, whose life is developing on social platforms, defined by virtual likes and measured by numbers of virtual friends, visits and comments, Selfie replaces Self. The interplay between Self and Selfie can be confusing and dramatic as in the story of one nice girl, whose nick was Selfie-Girl.

But first she called her self Ugly Duckling. Delicately introverted, thirsty for recognition, she felt lost and unnoticed among peers. In her diary she composed long lists of things about herself she found embarrassing and wanted to change: from the color of her hair to the tone of her voice. She did not like how she looked and how she was treated by others. She was not happy to be who she was.

Then Facebook emerged. “Building my profile really became my second birth!” She was able to create herself exactly as she wanted. Inspired by the digital thrill of self-design, she played in a “virtual fairytale of my life.” Selfies became building blocks of her new identity. She could choose her look: change the color of her hair and eyes, form of her nose, shape of her legs or style of her dress. She could virtually be in the surroundings she wants: change the furniture in her room or the view from her window. She could virtually attend any party she desired. She could virtually be a friend with so many people. Fascinated by their daughter’s computer skills, her loving parents happily provided her with every new model of cellphone and full access to the most advanced apps and programs. She felt happy. She turned her Self of Ugly Duckling into Selfie of a Happy Girl. Her avatar showed a truly beautiful artfully crafted Selfie Girl.

She felt that “Selfie is my true I” and considered Selfies as an effective way of enchancing self-esteem, deepen self-understanding and improving relationships with others. “My Selfies reveal the best of my personality that can be missed in real life.” “I am anxious with people in the room. It makes me awkward. People do not find me attractive. But my Selfies show me without anxiety, free and beautiful. I always get lots of likes.”

Then Selfie Girl discovered that the relationships between Self and Selfie are more complicated and can be alarmingly confusing. She felt “lost in between Self and Selfie, between reality and virtuality.” “I formatted my embarrassing Self into my nice Selfie. What is my real I, then? Have I shown my true self or I am getting depersonalized?”

This self-searching inquiry was dramatically interrupted by a gravely serious illness. After several, very difficult and very sad months, medicine was able to suggest only palliative care. This young and beautiful girl was facing death. The girl and her family stayed close together, dealing with the tragedy with dignity and honesty. Her death and related practicalities was discussed. She herself asked that her gravestone be in the form of a Cellphone with her favorite Selfie. She felt this was the true her and she wanted to be remembered this way. After her death her wish was honored. (The gravestone master noted that he had already made a number of monuments in the form of a Cellphone with a Selfie.)

The Selfie Girl is a millennial who saw herself as Selfie. She represented the 21st century. The previous 20th is called a century of Self, with creation of a special discipline known as Self-Psychology. The current 21st century has started as a century of Selfie. The very word ‘Selfie’ was inaugurated, made its way to the Oxford Dictionary and gained the title of word of year. Is it time to Selfie-Psychology?

Elena Bezzubova, Ph.D. maintains a private practice as a psychoanalyst in Newport Beach and teaches at the New Center for Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.

Psychology Today

JUNK VALUES. CONSUMERISM LITERALLY IS DEPRESSING – Johann Hari.

Just as we have shifted en masse from eating food to eating junk food, we have also shifted from having meaningful values to having junk values.

All this mass-produced fried chicken looks like food, and it appeals to the part of us that evolved to need food; yet it doesn’t give us what we need from food, nutrition. Instead, it fills us with toxins.

In the same way, all these materialistic values, telling us to spend our way to happiness, look like real values; they appeal to the part of us that has evolved to need some basic principles to guide us through life; yet they don’t give us what we need from values, a path to a satisfying life.

Studies show that materialistic people are having a worse time, day by day, on all sorts of fronts. They feel sicker, and they are angrier. Something about a strong desire for materialistic pursuits actually affects their day-to-day lives, and decreases the quality of their daily experience. They experienced less joy, and more despair.

For thousands of years, philosophers have been suggesting that if you overvalue money and possessions, or if you think about life mainly in terms of how you look to other people, you will be unhappy.

Modern research indicates that materialistic people, who think happiness comes from accumulating stuff and a superior status, have much higher levels of depression and anxiety. The more our kids value getting things and being seen to have things, the more likely they are to be suffering from depression and anxiety.

The pressure, in our culture, runs overwhelmingly one way, spend more; work more. We live under a system that constantly distracts us from what’s really good about life. We are being propagandized to live in a way that doesn’t meet our basic psychological needs, so we are left with a permanent, puzzling sense of dissatisfaction.

The more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be.

When I was in my late twenties, I got really fat. It was partly a side effect of antidepressants, and partly a side effect of fried chicken. I could still, from memory, talk you through the relative merits of all the fried chicken shops in East London that were the staples of my diet, from Chicken Cottage to Tennessee Fried Chicken (with its logo of a smiling cartoon chicken holding a bucket of fried chicken legs: who knew cannibalism could be an effective marketing tool?). My own favorite was the brilliantly named Chicken Chicken Chicken. Their hot wings were, to me, the Mona Lisa of grease.

One Christmas Eve, I went to my local branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and one of the staff behind the counter saw me approaching and beamed. “Johann!” he said. “We have something for you!” The other staff turned and looked at me expectantly. From somewhere behind the grill and the grizzle, he took out a Christmas card. I was forced, by their expectant smiles, to open it in front of them. “To our best customer,” it said, next to personal messages from every member of the staff.

I never ate at KFC again.

Most of us know there is something wrong with our physical diets. We aren’t all gold medalists in the consumption of lard like I was, but more and more of us are eating the wrong things, and it is making us physically sick. As I investigated depression and anxiety, I began to learn something similar is happening to our values, and it is making many of us emotionally sick.

This was discovered by an American psychologist named Tim Kasser, so I went to see him, to learn his story.

As a little boy, Tim arrived in the middle of a long stretch of swampland and open beaches. His dad worked as a manager at an insurance company, and in the early 1970s, he was posted to a place called Pinellas County, on the west coast of Florida. The area was mostly undeveloped and had plenty of big, broad outdoor spaces for a kid to play, but this county soon became the fastest growing in the entire United States, and it was about to be transformed in front of Tim’s eyes. “By the time I left Florida,” he told me, “it was a completely different physical environment. You couldn’t drive along the beach roads anymore and see the water, because it was all condos and high-rises. Areas that had been open land with alligators and rattlesnakes became subdivision after subdivision after shopping mall.”

Tim was drawn to the shopping malls that replaced the beaches and marshes, like all the other kids he knew. There, he would play Asteroids and Space Invaders for hours. He soon found himself longing for stuff, the toys he saw in ads.

It sounds like Edgware, where I am from. I was eight or nine when its shopping mall, the Broadwalk Centre, opened, and I remember wandering around its bright storefronts and gazing at the things I wanted to buy in a thrilled trance. I obsessively coveted the green plastic toy of Castle Grayskull, the fortress where the cartoon character He-Man lived, and Care-a-Lot, the home in the clouds of some animated creatures called the Care Bears. One Christmas, my mother missed my hints and failed to buy me Care-a-Lot, and I was crestfallen for months. I ached and pined for that lump of plastic.

Like most kids at the time, I spent at least three hours a day watching TV, usually more, and whole days would pass in the summer when my only break from television would be to go to the Broadwalk Centre and back again. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me this explicitly, but it seemed to me then that happiness meant being able to buy lots of the things on display there. I think my nine-year-old self, if you had asked him what it meant to be happy, would have said: somebody who could walk through the Broadwalk Centre and buy whatever he wanted. I would ask my dad how much each famous person I saw on television earned, and he would guess, and we would both marvel at what we would do with the money. It was a little bonding ritual, over a fantasy of spending.

I asked Tim if, in Pinellas County where he grew up, he ever heard anyone talking about a different way of valuing things, beyond the idea that happiness came from getting and possessing stuff. “Well, I think, not growing up. No,” he said. In Edgware, there must have been people who acted on different values, but I don’t think I ever saw them.

When Tim was a teenager, his swim coach moved away one summer and gave him a small record collection, and it included albums by John Lennon and Bob Dylan. As he listened to them, he realized they seemed to be expressing something he didn’t really hear anywhere else. He began to wonder if there were hints of a different way to live lying in their lyrics, but he couldn’t find anyone to discuss it with.

It was only when Tim went to study at Vanderbilt University, a very conservative college in the South, at the height of the Reagan years, that it occurred to him, slowly, to think more deeply about this. In 1984, he voted for Ronald Reagan, but he was starting to think a lot about the question of authenticity. “I was stumbling around,” he told me. “I think I was questioning just about everything. I wasn’t just questioning these values. I was questioning lots about myself, I was questioning lots about the nature of reality and the values of society.” He feels like there were pinatas all around him and he was hitting chaotically at them all. He added: “I think I went through that phase for a long time, to be honest.”

When he went to graduate school, he started to read a lot about psychology. It was around this time that Tim realized something odd.

For thousands of years, philosophers had been suggesting that if you overvalue money and possessions, or if you think about life mainly in terms of how you look to other people, you will be unhappy, that the values of Pinellas County and Edgware were, in some deep sense, mistaken. It had been talked about a lot, by some of the finest minds who ever lived, and Tim thought it might be true. But nobody had ever conducted a scientific investigation to see whether all these philosophers were right.

This realization is what launched him on a project that he was going to pursue for the next twenty-five years. It led him to discover subtle evidence about why we feel the way we do, and why it is getting worse.

It all started in grad school, with a simple survey.

Tim came up with a way of measuring how much a person really values getting things and having money compared to other values, like spending time with their family or trying to make the world a better place. He called it the Aspiration Index, and it is pretty straightforward. You ask people how much they agree with statements such as “It is important to have expensive possessions” and how much they agree with very different statements such as “It is important to make the world a better place for others.” You can then calculate their values.

At the same time, you can ask people lots of other questions, and one of them is whether they are unhappy or if they are suffering (or have suffered) from depression or anxiety. Then, as a first step, you see if they match.

Tim’s first tentative piece of research was to give this survey to 316 students. When the results came back and were all calculated out, Tim was struck by the results: materialistic people, who think happiness comes from accumulating stuff and a superior status, had much higher levels of depression and anxiety.

This was, he knew, just a primitive first shot in the dark. So Tim’s next step was, as part of a larger study, to get a clinical psychologist to assess 140 eighteen-year-olds in depth, calculating where they were on the Aspiration Index and if they were depressed or anxious. When the results were added up, they were the same: the more the kids valued getting things and being seen to have things, the more likely they were to be suffering from depression and anxiety.

Was this something that happened only with young people? To find out, Tim measured one hundred citizens of Rochester in upstate New York, who came from a range of age groups and economic backgrounds. The result was the same.

But how could he figure out what was really happening, and why?

Tim’s next step was to conduct a more detailed study, to track how these values affect you over time. He got 192 students to keep a detailed mood diary in which, twice a day, they had to record how much they were feeling nine different emotions, such as happiness or anger, and how much they were experiencing any of nine physical symptoms, such as backache. When he calculated out the results, he found, again, higher depression among the materialistic students; but there was a result more important than that. It really did seem that materialistic people were having a worse time, day by day, on all sorts of fronts. They felt sicker, and they were angrier. “Something about a strong desire for materialistic pursuits,” he was starting to believe, “actually affected the participants’ day-to-day lives, and decreased the quality of their daily experience.” They experienced less joy, and more despair.

Why would this be? What could be happening here? Ever since the 1960s, psychologists have known that there are two different ways you can motivate yourself to get out of bed in the morning. The first are called intrinsic motives, they are the things you do purely because you value them in and of themselves, not because of anything you get out of them. When a kid plays, she’s acting totally on intrinsic motives, she’s doing it because it gives her joy. The other day, I asked my friend’s five-year-old son why he was playing. “Because I love it,” he said. Then he scrunched up his face and said “You’re silly!” and ran off, pretending to be Batman. These intrinsic motivations persist all through our lives, long after childhood.

At the same time, there’s a rival set of values, which are called extrinsic motives. They’re the things you do not because you actually want to do them, but because you’ll get something in return, whether it’s money, or admiration, or sex, or superior status. Joe, who you met two chapters ago, went to work every day in the paint shop for purely extrinsic reasons, he hated the job, but he needed to be able to pay the rent, buy the Oxy that would numb his way through the day, and have the car and clothes that he thought made people respect him. We all have some motives like that.

Imagine you play the piano. If you play it for yourself because you love it, then you are being driven to do it by intrinsic values. If you play in a dive bar you hate, just to make enough cash to ensure you don’t get thrown out of your apartment, then you are being driven to do it by extrinsic values.

These rival sets of values exist in all of us. Nobody is driven totally by one or the other.

Tim began to wonder if looking into this conflict more deeply could reveal something important. So he started to study a group of two hundred people in detail over time. He got them to lay out their goals for the future. He then figured out with them if these were extrinsic goals, like getting a promotion, or a bigger apartment, or intrinsic goals, like being a better friend or a more loving son or a better piano player. And then he got them to keep a detailed mood diary.

What he wanted to know was, Does achieving extrinsic goals make you happy? And how does that compare to achieving intrinsic goals?

The results, when he calculated them out were quite startling. People who achieved their extrinsic goals didn’t experience any increase in day-to-day happiness, none. They spent a huge amount of energy chasing these goals, but when they fulfilled them, they felt the same as they had at the start, Your promotion? Your fancy car? The new iPhone? The expensive necklace? They won’t improve your happiness even one inch.

But people who achieved their intrinsic goals did become significantly happier, and less depressed and anxious. You could track the movement. As they worked at it and felt they became (for example) a better friend, not because they wanted anything out of it but because they felt it was a good thing to do, they became more satisfied with life. Being a better dad? Dancing for the sheer joy of it? Helping another person, just because it’s the right thing to do? They do significantly boost your happiness.

Yet most of us, most of the time, spend our time chasing extrinsic goals, the very thing that will give us nothing. Our whole culture is set up to get us to think this way. Get the right grades. Get the best-paying job. Rise through the ranks. Display your earnings through clothes and cars. That’s how to make yourself feel good.

What Tim had discovered is that the message our culture is telling us about how to have a decent and satisfying life, virtually all the time, is not true. The more this was studied, the clearer it became! Twenty-two different studies have in the years since, found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be. Twelve different studies found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more anxious you will be. Similar studies, inspired by Tim’s work and using similar techniques, have now been carried out in Britain, Denmark, Germany, India, South Korea, Russia, Romania, Australia, and Canada-and the results, all over the world, keep coming back the same.

Just as we have shifted en masse from eating food to eating junk food, Tim has discovered, in effect, that we have shifted from having meaningful values to having junk values. All this mass-produced fried chicken looks like food, and it appeals to the part of us that evolved to need food; yet it doesn’t give us what we need from food, nutrition. Instead, it fills us with toxins.

In the same way, all these materialistic values, telling us to spend our way to happiness, look like real values; they appeal to the part of us that has evolved to need some basic principles to guide us through life; yet they don’t give us what we need from values, a path to a satisfying life. Instead, they fill us with psychological toxins. Junk food is distorting our bodies. Junk values are distorting our minds.

Materialism is KFC for the soul.

When Tim studied this in greater depth, he was able to identify at least four key reasons why junk values are making us feel so bad.

The first is that thinking extrinsically poisons your relationships with other people. He teamed up again with another professor, Richard Ryan, who had been an ally from the start, to study two hundred people in depth, and they found that the more materialistic you become, the shorter your relationships will be, and the worse their quality will be. If you value people for how they look, or how they impress other people, it’s easy to see that you’ll be happy to dump them if someone hotter or more impressive comes along. And at the same time, if all you’re interested in is the surface of another person, it’s easy to see why you’ll be less rewarding to be around, and they’ll be more likely to dump you, too. You will have fewer friends and connections, and they won’t last as long.

Their second finding relates to another change that happens as you become more driven by junk values. Let’s go back to the example of playing the piano. Every day, Tim spends at least half an hour playing the piano and singing, often with his kids. He does it for no reason except that he loves it, it makes him, on a good day, feel satisfied, and joyful. He feels his ego dissolve, and he is purely present in the moment. There’s strong scientific evidence that we all get most pleasure from what are called “flow states” like this, moments when we simply lose ourselves doing something we love and are carried along in the moment. They’re proof we can maintain the pure intrinsic motivation that a child feels when she is playing.

But when Tim studied highly materialistic people, he discovered they experience significantly fewer flow states than the rest of us. Why would that be?

He seems to have found an explanation. Imagine if, when Tim was playing the piano every day, he kept thinking: Am I the best piano player in Illinois? Are people going to applaud this performance? Am l going to get paid for this? How much? Suddenly his joy would shrivel up like a salted snail. Instead of his ego dissolving, his ego would be aggravated and jabbed and poked.

That is what your head starts to look like when you become more materialistic. If you are doing something not for itself but to achieve an effect, you can’t relax into the pleasure of a moment. You are constantly monitoring yourself. Your ego will shriek like an alarm you can’t shut off.

This leads to a third reason why junk values make you feel so bad. When you are extremely materialistic, Tim said to me, “you’ve always kind of got to be wondering about yourself, how are people judging you?” It forces you to “focus on other people’s opinions of you, and their praise of you, and then you’re kind of locked into having to worry what other people think about you, and if other people are going to give you those rewards that you want. That’s a heavy load to bear, instead of walking around doing what it is you’re interested in doing, or being around people who love you just for who you are.”

If “your self-esteem, your sense of self-worth, is contingent upon how much money you’ve got, or what your clothes are like, or how big your house is,” you are forced into constant external comparisons, Tim says. “There’s always somebody who’s got a nicer house or better clothes or more money.” Even if you’re the richest person in the world, how long will that last? Materialism leaves you constantly vulnerable to a world beyond your control.

And then, he says, there is a crucial fourth reason. It’s worth pausing on this one, because I think it’s the most important.

All of us have certain innate needs, to feel connected, to feel valued, to feel secure, to feel we make a difference in the world, to have autonomy, to feel we’re good at something. Materialistic people, he believes, are less happy, because they are chasing a way of life that does a bad job of meeting these needs.

What you really need are connections. But what you are told you need, in our culture, is stuff and a superior status, and in the gap between those two signals, from yourself and from society, depression and anxiety will grow as your real needs go unmet.

You have to picture all the values that guide why you do things in your life, Tim said, as being like a pie. “Each value” you have, he explained, “is like a slice of that pie. So you’ve got your spirituality slice, and your family slice, and your money slice, and your hedonism slice. We’ve all got all the slices.” When you become obsessed with materialism and status, that slice gets bigger. And “the bigger one slice gets, the smaller other slices have to get.” So if you become fixated on getting stuff and a superior status, the parts of the pie that care about tending to your relationships, or finding meaning, or making the world better have to shrink, to make way.

“On Friday at four, I can stay [in my office] and work more, or I can go home and play with my kids,” he told me. “I can’t do both. It’s one or the other. If my materialistic values are bigger, I’m going to stay and work. If my family values are bigger, I’m going to go home and play with my kids.” It’s not that materialistic people don’t care about their kids, but “as the materialistic values get bigger, other values are necessarily going to be crowded out,” he says, even if you tell yourself they won’t.

And the pressure, in our culture, runs overwhelmingly one way, spend more; work more. We live under a system, Tim says, that constantly “distracts us from what’s really good about life.” We are being propagandized to live in a way that doesn’t meet our basic psychological needs, so we are left with a permanent, puzzling sense of dissatisfaction.

For millennia, humans have talked about something called the Golden Rule. It’s the idea that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Tim, I think, has discovered something we should call the I-Want-Golden-Things Rule. The more you think life is about having stuff and superiority and showing it off, the more unhappy, and the more depressed and anxious, you will be.

But why would human beings turn, so dramatically, to something that made us less happy and more depressed? Isn’t it implausible that we would do something so irrational? In the later phase of his research, Tim began to dig into the question.

Nobody’s values are totally fixed. Your level of junk values, Tim discovered by following people in his studies, can change over your lifetime. You can become more materialistic, and more unhappy; or you can become less materialistic, and less unhappy. So we shouldn’t be asking, Tim believes, “Who is materialistic?” We should be asking: “When are people materialistic?” Tim wanted to know: What causes the variation?

There’s an experiment, by a different group of social scientists, that gives us one early clue. In 1978, two Canadian social scientists got a bunch of four and five year old kids and divided them into two groups. The first group was shown no commercials. The second group was shown two commercials for a particular toy. Then they offered these four or five year old kids a choice. They told them: You have to choose, now, to play with one of these two boys here. You can play with this little boy who has the toy from the commercials, but we have to warn you, he’s not a nice boy. He’s mean. Or you can play with a boy who doesn’t have the toy, but who is really nice.

If they had seen the commercial for the toy, the kids mostly chose to play with the mean boy with the toy. If they hadn’t seen the commercial, they mostly chose to play with the nice boy who had no toys.

In other words, the advertisements led them to choose an inferior human connection over a superior human connection, because they’d been primed to think that a lump of plastic is what really matters.

Two commercials, just two, did that. Today, every person sees way more advertising messages than that in an average morning. More eighteen-month-olds can recognize the McDonald’s M than know their own surname. By the time an average child is thirty-six months old she aIready knows a hundred brand logos.

Tim suspected that advertising plays a key role in why we are, every day, choosing a value system that makes us feel worse. So with another social scientist named Jean Twenge he tracked the percentage of total US. national wealth that’s spent on advertising, from 1976 to 2003, and he discovered that the more money is spent on ads, the more materialistic teenagers become.

A few years ago, an advertising agency head named Nancy Shalek explained approvingly: “Advertising at its best is making peopie feel that without their product, you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. You open up emotionaI vulnerabilities, and it’s very easy to do with kids because they’re the most emotionally vulnerable.”

This sounds harsh, until you think through the logic. Imagine if I watched an ad and it told me, Johann, you’re fine how you are. You look good. You smell good. You’re likable. People want to be around you. You’ve got enough stuff now. You don’t need any more. Enjoy life.

That would, from the perspective of the advertising industry, be the worst ad in human history, because I wouldn’t want to go out shopping, or lunge at my laptop to spend, or do any of the other things that feed my junk values. It would make me want to pursue my intrinsic values, which involve a whole lot less spending, and a whole lot more happiness.

When they talk among themselves, advertising people have been admitting since the 1920s that their job is to make people feel inadequate, and then offer their product as the solution to the sense of inadequacy they have created. Ads are the ultimate frenemy, they’re always saying: Oh babe, I want you to look/smell/feel great; it makes me so sad that at the moment you’re ugly/ stinking/miserable; here’s this thing that will make you into the person you and I really want you to be. Oh, did I mention you have to pay a few bucks? I just want you to be the person you deserve to be. Isn’t that worth a few dollars? You’re worth it.

This logic radiates out through the culture, and we start to impose it on each other, even when ads aren’t there. Why did I, as a child, crave Nike air-pumps, even though I was as likely to play basketball as I was to go to the moon? It was partly because of the ads, but mostly because the ads created a group dynamic among everyone I knew. It created a marker of status, that we then policed. As adults, we do the same, only in slightly more subtle ways.

This system trains us, Tim says, to feel “there’s never enough. When you’re focused on money and status and possessions, consumer society is always telling you more, more, more, more. Capitalism is always telling you more, more, more. Your boss is telling you work more, work more, work more. You internalize that and you think: Oh, I’ve got to work more, because my self depends on my status and my achievement. You internalize that. It’s a kind of form of internalized oppression.”

He believes it also explains why junk values lead to such an increase in anxiety. “You’re always thinking: Are they going to reward me? Does the person love me for who I am, or for my handbag? Am I going to be able to climb the ladder of success?” he said. You are hollow, and exist only in other people’s reflections. “That’s going to be anxiety-provoking.”

We are all vulnerable to this, he believes. “The way I understand the intrinsic values,” Tim told me, is that they “are a fundamental part of what we are as humans, but they’re fragile. It’s easy to distract us from them. You give people social models of consumerism and they move in an extrinsic way.” The desire to find meaningful intrinsic values is “there, it’s a powerful part of who we are, but it’s not hard to distract us.” And we have an economic system built around doing precisely that.

As I sat with Tim, discussing all this for hours, I kept thinking of a middle-class married couple who live in a nice semidetached house in the suburbs in Edgware, where we grew up. They are close to me; I have known them all my life; I love them.

If you peeked through their window, you’d think they have everything you need for happiness, each other, two kids, a good home, all the consumer goods we’re told to buy. Both of them work really hard at jobs they have little interest in, so that they can earn money, and with the money they earn, they buy the things that we have learned from television will make us happy, clothes and cars, gadgets and status symbols. They display these things to people they know on social media, and they get lots of likes and comments like “OMG, so jealous!” After the brief buzz that comes from displaying their goods, they usually find they become dissatisfied and down again. They are puzzled by this, and they often assume it’s because they didn’t buy the right thing. So they work harder, and they buy more goods, display them through their devices, feel the buzz, and then slump back to where they started.

They both seem to me to be depressed. They alternate between being blank, or angry, or engaging in compulsive behaviors. She had a drug problem for a long time, although not anymore; he gambles online at least two hours a day. They are furious a lot of the time, at each other, at their children, at their colleagues, and, diffusely, at the world, at anyone else on the road when they are driving, for example, who they scream and swear at. They have a sense of anxiety they can’t shake off, and they often attach it to things outside them, she obsessively monitors where her teenage son is at any moment, and is afraid all the time that he will be a victim of crime or terrorism.

This couple has no vocabulary to understand why they feel so bad. They are doing what the culture has been priming them to do since we were infants, they are working hard and buying the right things, the expensive things. They are every advertising slogan made flesh.

Like the kids in the sandbox, they have been primed to lunge for objects and ignore the prospect of interaction with the people around them.

I see now they aren’t just suffering from the absence of something, such as meaningful work, or community. They are also suffering from the presence of something, an incorrect set of values telling them to seek happiness in all the wrong places, and to ignore the potential human connections that are right in front of them.

When Tim discovered all these facts, it didn’t just guide his scientific work. He began to move toward a life that made it possible for him to live consistent with his own findings, to go back, in a sense, to something more like the beach he had discovered joyfully in Florida as a kid. “You’ve got to pull yourself out of the materialistic environments, the environments that are reinforcing the materialistic values,” he says, because they cripple your internal satisfactions. And then, he says, to make that sustainable, you have to “replace them with actions that are going to provide those intrinsic satisfactions, and encourage those intrinsic goals.”

So, with his wife and his two sons, he moved to a farmhouse on ten acres of land in Illinois, where they live with a donkey and a herd of goats. They have a small TV in the basement, but it isn’t connected to any stations or to cable, it’s just to watch old movies on sometimes. They only recently got the Internet (against his protestations), and they don’t use it much. He works part time, and so does his wife, “so we could spend more time with our kids, and be in the garden more and do volunteer work and do activism work and I could write more”, all the things that give them intrinsic satisfaction. “We play a lot of games. We play a lot of music. We have a lot of family conversations.” They sing together.

Where they live in western Illinois is “not the most exciting place in the world,” Tim says, “but I have ten acres of land, I have a twelve-minute commute with one flashing light and three stop signs on my way to my office, and we afford that on one [combined full-time] salary.”

I ask him if he had withdrawal symptoms from the materialistic world we were both immersed in for so long. “Never,” he says right away. “People ask me that: “Don’t you miss this? Don’t you wish you had that?” No, I don’t, because I am never exposed to the messages telling me that I should want it. I don’t expose myself to those things, so no, I don’t have that.”

One of his proudest moments was when one of his sons came home one day and said: “Dad, some kids at school are making fun of my sneakers.” They were not a brand name, or shiny-new. “Oh, what’d you say to them?” Tim asked. His son explained he looked at them and said: “Why do you care?” He was nonplussed, he could see that what they valued was empty, and absurd.

By living without these polluting values, Tim has, he says, discovered a secret. This way of life is more pleasurable than materialism. “It’s more fun to play these games with your kids,” he told me. “It’s more fun to do the intrinsically motivated stuff than to go to work and do stuff you don’t necessarily want to do. It’s more fun to feel like people love you for who you are, instead of loving you because you gave them a big diamond ring.”

Most people know all this in their hearts, he believes. “At some level I really believe that most people know that intrinsic values are what’s going to give them a good life,” he told me. When you do surveys and ask people what’s most important in life, they almost always name personal growth and relationships as the top two. “But I think part of why people are depressed is that our society is not set up in order to help people live lifestyles, have jobs, participate in the economy, or participate in their neighborhoods” in ways that support their intrinsic values. The change Tim saw happening in Florida as a kid, when the beachfronts were transformed into shopping malls and people shifted their attention there, has happened to the whole culture.

Tim told me people can apply these insights to their own life, on their own, to some extent. “The first thing is for people to ask themselves, Am I setting up my life so I can have a chance of succeeding at my intrinsic values? Am I hanging out with the right people, who are going to make me feel loved, as opposed to making me feel like I made it? Those are hard choices sometimes.” But often, he says, you will hit up against a limit in our culture. You can make improvements, but often “the solutions to the problems that I’m interested in can’t be easily solved at the individual person level, or in the therapeutic consulting room, or by a pill.” They require something more, as I was going to explore later.

When I interviewed Tim, I felt he solved a mystery for me. I had been puzzled back in Philadelphia about why Joe didn’t leave the job he hated at the paint company and go become a fisherman in Florida, when he knew life in the Sunshine State would make him so much happier. It seemed like a metaphor for why so many of us stay in situations we know make us miserable.

I think I see why now. Joe is constantly bombarded with messages that he shouldn’t do the thing that his heart is telling him would make him feel calm and satisfied. The whole logic of our culture tells him to stay on the consumerist treadmill, to go shopping when he feels lousy, to chase junk values. He has been immersed in those messages since the day he was born. So he has been trained to distrust his own wisest instincts.

When I yelled after him “Go to Florida!” I was yelling into a hurricane of messages, and a whole value system, that is saying the exact opposite.

from

Lost Connections. Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions

by Johann Hari

get it at Amazon.com

THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset – Nick Powdthavee.

What do we do, then? What do we do when our lives are a series of trade-offs between different combinations of ‘what ifs”? What do we do when there is an endless horizon of time and resource constraints constantly telling us that whatever we do, we can’t possibly have it all?

“Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.” Rabbi Hyman Schachtel.

Why is marriage worth £200,000 a year? Why will having children make you unhappy?

Why does happiness from winning the lottery take two years to arrive?

Why does time heal the pain of divorce or the death of a loved one but not unemployment?

Everybody wants to be happy. But how much happiness precisely will each life choice bring? Should I get married? Am I really going to feel happy about the career that I picked? How can we decide not only which choice is better for us, but how much it’s better for us?

The result of new, unique research, The Happiness Equation brings to a general readership for the first time the new science of happiness economics.

It describes how we can measure emotional reactions to different life experiences and present them in ways we can relate to. How, for instance, monetary values can be put on things that can’t be bought or sold in the market such as marriage, friendship, even death so that we can objectively rank them in order of preference. It also explains why some things matter more to our happiness than others (like why seeing friends is worth more than a Ferrari) while others are worth almost nothing (like sunny weather).

Nick Powdthavee whose work on happiness has been discussed on both the Undercover Economist and Freakanomics blogs brings cutting-edge research on how we value our happiness to a general audience with a style that wears its learning lightly and is a joy to read.

Dr Nattavudh (Nick) Powdthavee is a behavioural economist at the University of York (shortly to move to the Department of Economics, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). Discussions of his work on the economics of happiness have appeared in over 50 major international newspapers in the past five years, including the New York Times and the Guardian, as well as on TV, including Channel 5 News and The Wright Stuff. He is originally from Thailand.

CHAPTER 1

THE PURSUIT

Most of us go through life believing we know exactly what we need to make us happy. For the most part, we believe that all we ever need is to have someone we love loving us back. Or it’s a combination of more money, a good job, a stable marriage and perfect health. Sometimes it’s the little things in life, like a day off work; a clear blue sky on an autumn afternoon; a nice cup of cool mochaccino on a hot day; an hour-long foot rub; a day spent laughing with friends and family; 45 minutes of uninterrupted sex with our partner, and the energy to last for the best part of it.

But unfortunately in the words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards we can’t always get what we want. At least, we can’t always get what we want all the time. A day off work every so often sounds like a good idea until, of course, we realise that we will become a little poorer because of it. And that’s no good because, according to the abstract idea we have in our heads of what makes a good life, money matters a lot. Okay then, in that case, we’ll put in more hours at work. But wait. That will also mean less time to be spent with friends and family, and that doesn’t seem so good either.

So what do we do, then? What do we do when our lives are a series of trade-offs between different combinations of ‘what ifs”? What do we do when there is an endless horizon of time and resource constraints constantly telling us that whatever we do, we can’t possibly have it all? Well, according to economists, who are supposedly experts on decision-making, what usually happens is that we try to do the best we can with our choices. We gather all necessary information about our options. We engage in rationalisation and mental calculations. We quietly argue and debate within ourselves over the potential impacts of each individual decision on our happiness. We cross-refer them to the rule-book of ‘All the things that make me happy’, put each possibility into an order of preference, and then, subject to both time and resource constraints, choose the best combination of bundles that we know would optimise our wellbeing. Easy.

Bounded rationality

But of course, if that were true if we always chose the best possible combination of options according to stable preference functions and the constraints facing them then the way we led our lives would literally be disappointment-free. Whatever decisions we made, we would know exactly well in advance what we were getting ourselves into. After all, our rationality would have already done the homework for us: we would be getting the greatest reward at the lowest cost.

How could we possibly not be happy with that?

The reality, however, is that our lives are too often filled with disappointing and regrettable decisions, whether big or small. The holiday we went on last summer; that antique car we bought; or even the job or college degrees we picked. The following anecdotal evidence from a chance meeting between two economists and a dentist makes it all too clear.

Two economics professors and friends, John Bennett and Chuck Blackorby, were attending an economics conference. On the first evening, they met a dentist at the hotel bar who was at an annual conference for dentists just next door to them. After a brief introduction and a couple of drinks, Chuck, who was known for his sometimes brash and direct manner, decided to ask the dentist, by then a little tipsy, a somewhat personal question.

‘So, tell me, are you very happy being a dentist?’

‘Happy? I’m miserable as a dentist’, replied the man.

Chuck smiled to himself. ‘What? If you’re so unhappy, why on earth did you choose to become a dentist in the first place?’

‘I didn’t choose to become a dentist.’ The man took another swig of his drink before delivering the final hammer blow. ‘It’s that stupid kid eighteen years ago that chose to become a dentist. Not me.’

And even when we’re not too disappointed; when we actually think we’re fairly satisfied with the choices we made, sometimes there’s just no way for us to know for certain whether or not we would have been happier if we’d gone with the alternatives. Take having children, for example. For most parents, a natural and genuine response to the question, ‘Would you be happier without children?’ would be a screaming ‘No!’ However, there’s no real way of knowing precisely what life would have been like if these parents had decided not to have their little David or Sarah simply because the childless alternative didn’t take place for them. The same argument holds true for partners who choose not to become parents.

One of the main reasons why we aren’t always able to choose the best options for ourselves is that our rationality is often bounded by the amount of information it possesses, the cognitive limitations of our brains, and the finite amount of time we have to make a decision. According to the so-called ‘bounded rationality’ concept, we human beings are only partly rational and downright irrational in the remaining part of our actions. While economists believe that all human beings are approximately Homo economicus (economic man), rational and broadly self-interested by nature, the reality is that we are just as likely, if not more likely, to let emotions overrule rationality and completely dictate the way we behave.

That we are not wholly rational is shown by studies that have identified two distinct sides to our brains: one that is rational controlled, slow, deliberative and deductive; and one that is emotional automatic, rapid, associative and affective. The mesh between the two is extremely complex, and one does not always dominate the other. And while economic theories of decision making have tended to emphasise the operation of the rational side of our brain in guiding choice behaviour, it’s often the case that, when making decisions under pressure or under conditions where information is incomplete or overly complex, we tend to rely on simplifying heuristics or ‘gut feelings’ rather than extensive algorithmic processing. These ‘rules of thumb’ are far from perfect, and it’s precisely why we sometimes spend too much money on food when we go grocery shopping with an empty stomach, or find it increasingly difficult to walk away from a bus stop the longer we have been waiting for a bus to come even if it would have been a lot quicker to walk than to wait for that damn bus to arrive.

The adaptive unconscious and past experiences

But maybe it’s not always such a bad thing to trust our emotions. Research carried out by psychology professor Timothy Wilson suggests that, in situations where we have had a lot of experience, decisions made without thinking (those made on impulses and gut feelings) can often lead to better and happier outcomes than if they had been made under a strict rule of optimisation, simply because this is when the emotional part of our brain works best at detecting that something is out of the ordinary even if we may not know ourselves what that something is at the time and alerts us in the form of emotional alarm bells such as sweaty palms and butterflies in our stomach. And it’s in these scenarios that practice really makes perfect. It’s also where thinking too much about our past experiences can actually hurt rather than help us.

The question is: Why?

One reason. According to psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, the cognitive part of our brain tends to suffer from what he called the ‘peak-end’ effect, which is the tendency to judge past experiences both pleasant and unpleasant almost entirely on how they were at their peak and how they ended.

Kahneman and his colleagues illustrated the core concept of the peak-end theory in a series of experiments, most notably that involving hospital patients and the very painful colonoscopy procedure. While undergoing a colonoscopy, the patients reported their level of discomfort every 60 seconds throughout the procedure. Afterwards, the patients were asked to remember how unpleasant the procedure was, using several different scales including a ten-point scale, and also about the relative unpleasantness of the colonoscopy compared to other unpleasant experiences such as stubbing a toe, or an average visit to the dentist.

What Kahneman and his colleagues found was astonishing. While there was almost zero correlation between the duration of the colonoscopies that different patients experienced and the global rating of the procedure, the relationship between the peak-end average (the average of the peaks and how the patients felt at the end of the procedure) and the global rating of the procedure was simply undeniable. In other words, we are more likely to remember our experience of a colonoscopy as being awful if the peaks of unpleasantness were very high or if it ended awfully for us, than if the entire procedure itself took a long time to finish. What matters is not the duration of an experience; we hardly ever think about it when we try to recall and judge how happy or unhappy we were in the past. It’s how we were feeling at the peaks and at the end of our experience that count the most.

What about frequency? Surely having experienced something often can teach us to repeat only the things that we remember with pleasure and fondness, and avoid those that we remember with embarrassment and regret? The trouble is, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, we are just not very good at remembering them correctly. He illustrates his point by prompting the readers of his book Stumbling on Happiness to think about where they were, whom they were with, and what they were doing when they first heard the news about the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Okay, that sounds easy enough. Closing my eyes, I can still remember that I was standing at one of the check-in counters at London Heathrow airport, trying to get on the evening flight to Bangkok. Sitting behind the Finnair counter was a man in his late 50s who, as I recall, spoke with a very thick Glaswegian accent.

‘So you’re off to Thailand then, eh? Ah, what a beautiful country! Lovely food, gorgeous beaches, very pretty women!’ His eyes twinkled as he said this.

I smiled politely, acknowledging his appreciation of my country of birth. I knew he was just trying to be friendly in what seemed to be a surprisingly empty airport on a Tuesday afternoon.

‘Okay, sir. Here’s your boarding pass. Have a nice flight. Oh, and have you heard? Two planes hit the World Trade Center not half an hour ago. Probably a terrorist attack. But since you’re flying to Finland first, I’m sure you’ll be just fine.’ He ended with a beam while I stood there, rigid as a board.

Like me, most people will be able to remember in fine detail what they were doing when they first heard the news. But, Gilbert added, would the same people also remember precisely where they were, whom they were with, and what they were doing on the morning of 10 September 2001, one day before the attacks?

I personally couldn’t, of course. And I’m confident enough to bet that not many people could either, a fact that is also true for most Americans.

The main reason why it’s relatively easier for us to recall the exact details of 11 September 2001, but nearly impossible to remember what happened a day earlier, is because momentous events like the 9/11 attacks do not happen frequently in our lifetime. While 11 September 2001 defied our every sense of normality, 10 September, by contrast, was like almost any other day. And unless we religiously keep a diary of everything that ever happened in our lives, any other day is nothing more than a blob in our memory bank.

Daniel Gilbert’s message is clear: it is the infrequent and unusual experiences that are most memorable. These are the ones that stick like glue to the clipboard of our memory cortex. Not the other way round.

Conventional wisdom and imagination

There are two lessons we can draw at this stage. The first is that, in situations where we have had a lot of experience, it’s perhaps better to trust our instincts when it comes to making a decision. And the second lesson, related to the first, is that it seems important not to rely completely on emotions in situations where we have had little or no prior experience. The explanation is simple: in these circumstances, the emotional part of our brain will not have had enough chances to adapt and learn from our past experiences, which will inevitably make it impossible for it to distinguish which decision is better for us.

That sounds perfectly reasonable. All we need to do now is follow any great professional’s advice and just practise, practise, practise. Then afterwards, we can sit back in situations where we have had a lot of these experiences and just make snap decisions without having to think too much about the best outcomes.

Two problems, though. First, how do we know when we have had enough practice doing something? How do we know when we can let the rational brain take a back seat and the emotional brain do all the work? Will 10,000 hours of doing something repetitively be enough? Or will it take a lifetime of experience? Second, what about other, more novel situations? How do we know that we will be happier being married than staying single? How do we know whether we will be happier in a job that pays less but is nevertheless much closer to home? How can we be sure that rationality will not fail us when we have to face dilemmas that we have never faced before?

So now we’ve come full circle: economists’ description of how the world works though somewhat incomplete actually turns out to be useful advice on what we should do in situations where we have had little or no prior experience. According to theories on rational choice, there are perhaps two essential ingredients to successful decision-making when a degree of rationality is involved. The first is time. Unlike the emotional part of our brain where all decision-making is done instantaneously, the rational part of our brain needs time to think things over, to mull over the information. The second ingredient is getting the right information. It’s important that we have perfect awareness of all relevant information regarding the outcome of our choice before making a decision, especially one that could change our lives.

Since we can often find time to think things over before coming up with a solution for many of our life problems, could it just be the case that we don’t always have the right information about the choices we plan to make? Going back to the unhappy dentist, could it be possible that he decided to obtain a degree in dentistry on a whim or, worse, on a dare? Maybe. Nevertheless, considering the potentially life-changing impact of choosing the right career, it’s perhaps more likely that he did try to seek all the available information about how happy a career in dentistry would make him in eighteen years’ time. How could he then have been so wrong?

There are usually two ways of getting the information we need about the potential impacts of a novel experience. First, we can do some research about the experience. So in the case of the unhappy dentist, his decision to study dentistry could have been influenced by what he was expecting to get objectively from becoming a dentist, such as financial return, or by other people’s accounts of their subjective experiences as dentists, or even by conventional wisdom passed down from generation to generation.

Second, if all else fails, we can still use our imagination to conjure up the information we need to undertake a decision. We can try, for example, to picture ourselves in the future: what life would be like being married, or having kids, or having so much money we don’t know what to do with it.

. . .

from

THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset

by Nick Powdthavee

get it at Amazon.com

SOUL DAMAGE. The Precious Resources of Our Time and Attention – Linda and Charlie Bloom.

How do we nurture our soul?

Soul-damage occurs when we deny ourselves the kinds of enriching experiences that we need to have in order to thrive, rather than simply survive, experiences that make our heart sing, that infuse our lives with a sense of passion and vitality.

Most of us know that there are certain kinds of experiences that nurture our souls and others that don’t. We also know that “experiences” are not “things,” and that although things, like money, homes, and motor vehicles do matter in our lives, they do not nourish our hearts and spirits. There’s nothing wrong with something that enhances only the material as long as we don’t expect more from it than that. For most of us, separating unrealistic expectations from real ones is not easy.

If we spent even 10% as much of our time and energy on matters of the heart as we do on matters that relate to the fulfillment of our ego’s desires, our quality of life would transform.

For most of us, even 10% would represent a several-fold increase of our time. Many of us give more time and concern towards the maintenance of our cars than to our deeper needs. We may insist that what we most value is love, inner peace, family, or ‘truth”, yet our lives may not reflect this priority.

It has been said that you can know a person by the way in which they spend their time, not by their words. What we truly love is what we give our energies to, and this may not be what we say matters most to us.

It is the first and most critical step in the process of bringing integrity into our lives. Until we have done so, self-deception and rationalization will permeate our daily existence.

Psychology Today

Only 403 years to go. Plastic bottle washes up looking ‘almost new’ after nearly 50 years at sea – Kate Lyons.

A plastic washing-up bottle that is at least 47 years old has been found washed up on a beach in the UK with its lettering and messaging still clear, prompting warnings about the enduring problem of plastic waste.

Surfing Indonesia

.
The bottle advertises itself as 4d off, meaning it dates back to before decimalisation was introduced in Britain in 1971, making it at least 47 years old.

Some types of plastic bottles take 450 years to break down.

Every dot represents 20kg of plastic, according to a six year worldwide study.

.
The Guardian

An Obesogenic & Debtogenic environment. Shopping our way into debt. – Bernard Hickey. 

Two apparently unrelated things happened in the first week of October that say so much about New Zealand these days.

The world’s two biggest “fast fashion” chains, H&M and Zara, opened shops here, creating the kind of scenes we’ve not seen before. More than 300 people queued and there was applause and a rush for the racks when the door opened.

Remember, these were people queuing to pay money for clothes that can be bought any day of the week, from any computer on the planet, and there is no shortage of choice It is not queuing for bread in a war zone. It was an active choice by sane people willing to take time out of their busy days to enthusiastically consume.

Four days after the H&M opening and the day before the Zara opening, Treasury published a paper on the rise in New Zealand’s household debt to record high levels relative to income. Our household debt to income ratio of 165 per cent is now about 5 per cent above those previous highs of 2008 and rising quickly as debt rises around twice as fast as incomes.

Researchers are starting to look at the issue of debt and saving in a similar way to those who study obesity epidemics. Our Western society has created an environment full of cues and prompts to encourage us to eat high-energy food as often and as cheaply as possibly – an obesogenic environment.

It has also developed into an economic geography that encourages us to spend money we don’t have.

There are ways you can look at obesity epidemics as being very similar in terms of what do we have to do around changing the systems and the culture, and not just the information, so different choices are not just possible, but different choices are being normalised. NZ Herald 

You’re “investing” in your house, after all, so it’s not consuming your future wealth, is it? 

Our easy finance culture makes it simple to borrow to get the things we “deserve”, and coupled with a dose of excusitis, we convince ourselves that we’ve made an “investment”.
The idea is that when you retire, your super can be used to pay off your supersized mortgage. The problem here is that you’ve just consumed your retirement savings in one fell swoop paying off the bank. It won’t be long before the banks here want to know how much KiwiSaver you’re expecting when you turn 65. NZ Herald