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That XBox Will Make You Crazy! January 15, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.

Economists and social scientists have been devoting lots of attention to happiness lately. See especially Layard’s work. Here and  here.

The data seems to show that there is little connection between material wealth and reported levels of happiness (beyond the threshold where basic material needs are satisfied) and that the percentages of people afflicted with depression, panic attacks and anxiety are rising even as we become wealthier.

Oliver James takes the argument one step further. Not only does capitalism fail to make us happier; he claims it is making us mentally ill! Relying on data that suggests a higher incidence of mental distress in inhabitants of competitive societies,

“He [James] tracks how “selfish capitalism” generates insecurity and inflates comparisons; how a winner-takes-all competitiveness merely creates losers and a pandemic of low self esteem, with its compensatory pathologies around celebrity and status.”

The explanation is not implausible on its face, but the big question is why, if consumerism is so bad for us, we continue to slog away on the treadmill. It’s not as if the Nordstrom Police show up at our door step every morning and carry us off to the mall for a day of bone-wearying, debilitating shopping.

Throughout much of human history, people who could afford them, have been attracted to “bright, pretty things.” Pace Aristotle, perhaps an XBox is the highest good for human beings even if it makes us sick.



1. Tony Pettina - January 15, 2008

Such data does not surprise me in the least. I have to admit that I too have wondered if I were rich, would I be happier. I also would admit that there is still a part of me that wants to give it a try. Maybe these rich people are just not doing it right.

I think the bigger issue is the underlying one in the clash between material wealth and happiness. I don’t think that it is wealth itself that is the evil. It is what we all end up doing with such wealth that really makes the difference. Our society bombards us all with the real or imagined need for things of all shapes and sizes. The display of “bright, pretty things” interrupts our thoughts constantly. When we surrender and become attached to these things, set out on the endless shopping expeditions to acquire them, and get sucked into the competition with others for the necessary resources, we court emptiness and thus unhappiness. There is no lasting substance to spending our wealth on things. The very nature of capitalism is such that we should never be satisfied with the things we have, for there are ever more new things that must be obtain. By extention, then, we are unhappy right after we have acquired the newest thing because we know its luster will not last and we will be on the hunt for the next shiny bauble.

As I said, it is not wealth that is evil, but rather what we do with it. I think happiness would correlate more highly with wealth if such wealth were invested in people rather than things. Even if it is only invested in family and close friends, the happiness quotient would, I think, rise considerably. Historically in the US, investing in people has always been a bone of contention. We are never quite sure if our social programs really help anyone because it is often too hard to measure the return on dollars spent. Mostly, it is because the return on the investment does not happen overnight as it often does with things. People are not things and that is the point. Investing in them intelligently is always worthwhile.

Interaction with other people carries with it more substantive and lasting value. Rather than alienating us from one another as the race for things tends to do, investing time and wealth in people brings us closer together. It reminds us of the commonalities we share and breeds compassion. It seems that this could have a positive impact on the number of mental illnesses and the low self esteem James talks about.

Now, if I can just figure out how to get more of this wealth everybody keeps talking about!

2. Moriae - January 16, 2008

That man is quite liable to mistaking amusement for happiness should have become a commonplace understanding by now. But it suits our interests to not pay too much attention to our faults. There is no doubt that the clever creatures among us profit on the error, and encourage it as well, perhaps, in part, to take their minds off their own contented and inoffensive lives. So why regret what is a commonplace? We are the Hollow Men, the Stuffed Men, aren’t we?

Memories are short I know, but I seem to remember something Moriae spoke in 1517.

Human Folly spoke:

“. . . with a mixture of ignorance, thoughtlessness, forgetfulness of evil, hope of good things, and sometimes a sprinkling of pleasure, I bring relief from troubles so that men are loathe to give up their lives even when, their thread of life having been cut by the fates, their lives are ready to leave them. The tedium of life is so far from touching them that the less reason they have for living, the more they enjoy life. . . they drink, go around in the company of young girls, and write love letters. They are laughed at by everyone because of their great foolishness. But they are pleased with themselves. They are bathed in delights and completely immersed in honey—all this happiness because of my gift. Of those who scorn this type of folly, I would only ask that they consider whether it is not better to lead a pleasant life of folly like this than to look for, as they say, the rope and rafters. Anyway, that their actions are scorned by people means nothing to my fools, for they either do not realize that anything is wrong or, if they do realize it, they easily shrug it off. If a rock falls on your head, that is certainly painful; but shame, disgrace, insult, and curses are only harmful in so far as they are realized. If there is no realization, there can be no harm done. What harm is done if the whole world hisses you, so long as you applaud yourself? Folly is what helps a person to do this.

However, I seem to hear the philosophers disagreeing. They say that it is misery itself to live in folly, to err, to be deceived, and to be ignorant. On the contrary, however, this is what it is to be human. I cannot see why they call this kind of life miserable when it is the common lot of all men to be born, brought up, and constituted in such a way. Nothing is miserable that is constant with its own nature. If so, then who would argue that man should be pitied because he cannot fly like a bird, walk on four feet with the rest of the animals, or be fitted with horns like the bulls? In the same way the finest horse could be called unhappy because it is neither a grammarian nor a gourmet. Therefore, a foolish man is no more unhappy or ill-fated than an illiterate horse for the simple reason that each defect belongs to the particular nature. . . ”

3. Forrest Noble - January 17, 2008

Moriae Encomium,

Very nice Desiderius– your namesake did have a way with words, that’s probably why he’s your namesake, and that it’s applicable is this context, nice!

Re: James….It’s easy to complain and degrade a belief or system of economics in this case. Of course there might be some truth to what James is saying but what is his alternative? Just like our system of justice, it’s far from ideal but it beats the heck out of the second best system. Let him propose — if he can’t it is probably because there currently is no better system that I know of. Socialism is a cool system if you’re rich enough to afford it, or if you’re not smart enough, too lazy, have mental or psychological problems, etc., to do it yourself– then the state could help you out. But can the middle class afford it? Not at the present time I would assert. As wealth slowly increases so will the extent of social programs in a capitalistic system like ours. Remember, money is not the root of all evil, according to the bible, the Apostle Paul said “for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil – not the same thing.

your friend forrest

your friend forrest

4. Huan - January 27, 2008

I do not agree that men must be happy with himself simply because his ignorance was taught.(Couldn’t be obtained any other way, but that’s not the point) If the lack of understanding and care is so blissful, then why is it that the data presented by the study shows that it isn’t?

I believe it all comes down to understanding your own actions, the consequences, the motivation, things like that. Those who seek comfort and indulgence do not have a lot of understanding over their choices, their despair will be the result of a system that has few winners and a lot of losers like the main post says. Yet they do not have a grasp over the system, or their desires themselves. That is the true consequence of capitalism, a whole lot of people who are mentally weak and are in constant seek of the comfort in an adversarial society in order to not feel absolutely horrible.

The solution to this problem isn’t really state regulation of liberty or justice in my opinion, any type of state regulation will be the opposite of empowering the people, and the problem itself is the lack of power within individuals. Therefore the solution would only be enforcing the problem. The solution to me is to rid of the adversarial nature that comes with our society, something that has been carried over from nature itself. I deem that we have evolved far enough to not need to compete amongst ourselves for no particular reason, economic expansion only means to expand at the expense of someone else.

In other words, cutting off everyone else’s legs in a room full of people doesn’t actually mean that you grew taller, and the people who lost their legs will vouch for that. I propose competing against yourself in order to progress and grow, and what better way to compete against yourself than to engage in friendly competition? What better way to sharpen your thinking than to have a friendly philosophical debate? Competition doesn’t have to equal a battle for superiority, it could just as well be a way to progress yourself.

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