My best wishes for 2015, fellow earthlings. May it be an exciting and meaningful year, which I think are two key properties of a fulfilling life. May you choose wisely, act sincerely, and drink good wine (the De Toren Z would be my choice). And may you create happiness, for yourself and for those around you.
Yes, create happiness. Because happiness is not something that you find in the way a toddler finds his lost teddy bear, or I finally find my car keys in my pocket after searching the whole apartment. No, happiness is something you work towards, plan towards, build towards. It is something you can actively create.
But how? What is the source of true happiness? Advice comes from three very different economists: the first, Adam Smith, eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinker and doyen of Economics; the second from Paul Dolan in his new book Happiness by Design; the third from The Economist.
Smith, explained in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts, says that to be happy one must be loved and lovely. We all want to be appreciated, respected and admired (loved), yes, but we must also be loveable people (lovely), that is, we want to earn the appreciation and respect and admiration of others. How do we do that? One way to be loved is through fame and power. Ronaldo and Messi are loved worldwide for what they do on the football pitch. Others become famous by making music, or entering politics, or building a business empire. But such fame and money and power can often also be a black hole of unhappiness and, in any case, not all of us can be world famous football players. Smith says that’s the wrong way to be loved. The right way is to be loveable, and to be loveable, we need to be proper and virtuous. He emphasises three virtues: prudence, justice and benevolence. The short of it is that we have to 1) do what others expect of us (proper), 2) take care of ourselves (prudence) 3) not hurt other people (justice), and 4) help others (benevolence). This hour-long interview with Roberts explains these virtues and other aspects of the book very well, including why owning the next iPhone probably won’t increase your happiness.
Dolan, a behavioural economist at the LSE, argues that happiness is made up of two components: pleasure and purpose. Because we are confronted with so many stimuli, we have to make decisions about what to focus on all the time. Happiness comes from paying attention to those things that give us pleasure and purpose, and avoid the things that don’t do either. This seems intuitive, but very few of us, I imagine, consider carefully what we pay attention to. (Does Facebook give pleasure or purpose? Not really. Yet we spend a considerable amount of time on it.) More interestingly, Dolan argues that while we can save money now to buy something bigger tomorrow, happiness doesn’t necessarily work that way: we can seldom recuperate the happiness (pleasure and purpose) we forgo in the present for greater happiness in the future. Think of it this way: working every day a week for R100 per day means you can spend R500 on the weekend, but giving up 100 units of happiness a day because you have to do something you don’t like won’t allow you to recuperate 500 units on the weekend. He suggests that life is less about trading off happiness now for happiness later and more about trading off pleasure and purpose.
This trade-off is especially difficult for the rich. As The Economist writes,
More people at the top are trading leisure for work because the gains of working—and the costs of shirking—are higher than ever before. Revealingly, inequalities in leisure have coincided with other measures of inequality, in wages and consumption, which have been increasing steadily since the 1980s. While the wages of most workers, and particularly uneducated workers, have either remained stagnant or grown slowly, the incomes at the top—and those at the very top most of all—have been rising at a swift rate. This makes leisure time terribly expensive.
It is the paradox of leisure: the more we earn, the more we can spend on leisure, presumably doing things that make us happy. Yet higher incomes also increase the opportunity cost of leisure, which makes us work harder for longer hours and thus indulge in fewer leisurely activities. Behavioural economists now also know that the more we think about how much money we are not earning (by being on holiday), the less we enjoy our holiday. There seems no escape from the tyranny of time. The Economist continues:
Leisure time is now the stuff of myth. Some [the poor and unemployed] are cursed with too much. Others find it too costly to enjoy. Many spend their spare moments staring at a screen of some kind, even though doing other things (visiting friends, volunteering at a church) tends to make people happier. Not a few presume they will cash in on all their stored leisure time when they finally retire, whenever that may be. In the meantime, being busy has its rewards. Otherwise why would people go to such trouble?
Alas time, ultimately, is a strange and slippery resource, easily traded, visible only when it passes and often most highly valued when it is gone. No one has ever complained of having too much of it. Instead, most people worry over how it flies, and wonder where it goes. Cruelly, it runs away faster as people get older, as each accumulating year grows less significant, proportionally, but also less vivid. Experiences become less novel and more habitual. The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.
All the more reason to find happiness in the present. Time, it seems, is not money, it is happiness. Let’s make 2015 an exciting (pleasurable) and meaningful (purposeful) year.