The status of happiness
Ever since the advent of advanced commercial societies in the West, writers and thinkers have speculated upon and theorised about the relationship between status and happiness. For example, in the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that the principal source of human unhappiness was our tendency to make invidious comparisons with each other when isolated individuals in the presocial state of nature were forced together by circumstances. This increased proximity fuelled competition for standing in the eyes of others which is the origin of the pervasive unhappiness that he believed was one of the hallmarks of modern civilisation. I argue that this account is partly correct and partly incorrect. On the one hand, there is now substantial credible evidence that supports the view that relative position matters much more to individuals than do absolute levels of wealth. The competition for status that Rousseau saw as a defining feature of modern civilisation has left the vast majority of people much less happy than they would otherwise be by fostering costly expenditure arms races that reduce objective welfare and significantly increase stress and anxiety. On the other hand, there is also mounting evidence that he was wrong that this situation is unnatural. According to some evolutionary biologists, human beings evolved in an environment of scarcity and intense resource competition, where each individual’s position was closely linked to his/her prospects for survival and reproductive success. For most of human history having high relative standing was instrumental in helping individuals to achieve the objectives they instinctively care most deeply about, namely survival and reproductive success. Copyright Springer-Verlag 2012
Volume (Year): 59 (2012)
Issue (Month): 4 (December)
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