Sunday, January 07, 2007

Dont Worry. Be Happy

Bobby McFerrin rode to fame in 1988 with his album Simple Pleasures, where he scored a chart-topping pop smash with "Don't Worry, Be Happy". But last week The Economist , yes that purveyor of the dismal science, joined the ranks of sappy happiness Gurus when it tried to analyze why people are not getting any happier even as the world economy is on its way to notching up its best decade ever. Market capitalism is doing its job well in terms of raising living standards but not necessarily making people happier which may be best left to saints and philosophers.

There are some fundamental problems according to The Economist. Capitalism is highly efficient in bringing to the masses what only a few elite enjoyed - cars, fashion goods, gourmet food, exotic vacations. But these luxuries soon become necessities. Once you are on the tiger you cannot dismount.

Second, there are a set of good and services that people believe will make them happy that are limited by necessity. These "positional goods" such as a a tony address or a fancy car or a top education lose their value if everyone has it. So a Harvard degree is no longer prized if everyone who applies is accepted into the program irrespective of the intrinsic value of a superior edification of the mind.

The race to be happy forces people to climb to the highest rung of the social ladder which forces others to climb harder and faster to keep up. What is the point?

As The Economist editorial concluded, "Capitalism can make you well off. And it also leaves you free to be as unhappy as you choose. To ask any more of it would be asking too much". I must admit that, John Micklethwait, the 16th editor of the August publication does have a sense of humor.