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Man and Superman: A Case for Human Happiness

Posted on Thursday, May 18th 2017

By Guest Author Ajit Narayanan

This Man-Superman terminology smells like some adolescent Ayn Rand-ian fantasy, but I agree that humanity will bifurcate into two types of people: the Happy and the Not-Happy. And entrepreneurship or capital (or even skill) will not be the dividing line here.

There was a lovely interview with Jan Koum a few days ago, and Koum says that after the deal with Facebook, his life was “90% the same” — he lives in the same place, has the same job, the same friends. This is a theme that recurs in the stories of multiple super-wealthy entrepreneurs: Sergei Brin and Bill Gates have said very similar things. In a CNBC interview in Feb 2017, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett both agreed that the most important thing for both of them was “whether the people closest to you are happy and love you”; Bill Gates goes on to say that the thing he’s looking forward to the most in the future is being a grandfather. It’s good to know that even though I have $86.4 billion less in the bank than Gates, I can aspire to exactly the same things as he does, and be just as happy.

Despite the insistence of many vocal evangelists of entrepreneurship, the pursuit of happiness is largely independent of – and possibly even negatively correlated with – the pursuit of wealth. The current model of entrepreneurship is something like this: people have aspirations, they demand stuff, entrepreneurs create stuff, and make a lot of money. Then people demand new stuff, more stuff. In this cycle, there is a positive return on capital, a few entrepreneurs become enormously wealthy and the already enormously wealthy become even wealthier because their capital is at work here.

This process has three side-effects. First, the pleasure that people get from getting stuff is fleeting, so they always need more stuff to sustain the high. Second, this cycle of consumption-driven happiness ends up leaving people with the overarching emotion of yearning; people are generally unhappy, resentful of the richer, fearful of death, lacking meaning and purpose; their relationships with other people become transactional. Third, this enormous industry engendered by entrepreneurs fuels the wholesale destruction of our planet, which makes our oceans sterile, our forests non-existent, and our fellow species near-extinct.

The evangelists of entrepreneurship would have us believe that entrepreneurship will somehow help us prevail. But it is becoming quite clear to clear thinkers everywhere, that it is in fact the act of getting off the hamster-wheel of chasing money that will lead anywhere close to happiness. In short, “man” has one way of making this so-called “superman” completely irrelevant, and that is to simply stop buying stuff. This will have the wonderful side-effect of making us happier, making our relationships more satisfying, and saving the planet.

There are many otherwise intelligent people who believe that the opposite of capitalism is communism (“Stupidity’s true opposite’s the opposite stupidity”, as Piet Hein once said.) The reality is that true opposite of a capitalist is a responsible consumer. Capitalism by itself cannot explain, for example, the runaway success of the organic food industry, now the fastest growing sector in the US food industry. It’s very surreal, if you think about it: consumers are paying more money, to buy vegetables that are smaller, look weird, don’t taste any better, and have no perceptible health benefits. They are paying more because they are endorsing a certain means of producing food – not for the food itself.

Capitalists cannot wrap their world-view around this. Neither can they wrap their world-view around the fact that an increasing number of people are foregoing vacationing abroad because of its enormous carbon footprint; that people are buying from local producers even if it’s more expensive and poorer quality; that people are boycotting products based on the country of origin. The definition of “quality” in capitalism is changing in a way that capitalists find very scary: from being a judgment on the inherent nature of the product, to being a judgment on the person and process producing it. The “organic” backlash tomorrow<, against self-driving cars, for example, may be that a consumer (in India) deliberately and conscientiously chooses to encourage the employment of drivers by boycotting self-driving cars, even paying a higher cost. Remarkably, that would end up making the consumer and the driver happier, and building a happier society to boot.

An idea, or set of ideas, that makes people reliably and sustainably happy could, through the workings of democracy, find a way into the very fabric of society — even at the expense of reduced economic growth and reduced technological progress.

Is there, then, a ‘research program’ that focuses on what it is that makes people happy? We seem to spend billions on researching improved ways of recharging batteries, or making better drones. (Neither of which would lead to any kind of happiness at all.)

There is, in fact, a large body of work that deals with the study of happiness (and how to achieve it) in a remarkably rigorous way. A small part of that work comes from modern economics. A 2010 survey by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton – both Nobel laureates – gave us a remarkable finding: that happiness peaks at a rather low threshold of income. When there’s reliable access to healthcare and security, the “price” of happiness is only around $75,000/yr (in the USA – I would expect it to be much lower in India or China). What this means is that a middle-class consumer can choose to “vote with their wallets” to create a more equitable, happier society – a $300,000/yr earner could choose a $75,000/yr driver instead of a $75,000 self-driving car – instead of making some billionaire and his rich investors a little bit richer.

The caveat, of course, is the “reliable access to healthcare and security” part. But there is cause for cautious optimism: data shows we’ve reached a stage in human civilization right now where food security is a matter of distribution, not production; and even that is something we can hopefully address in a generation. Crime plummets in equitable societies. And war is a political decision with mostly economic motives. To take our poorest citizens out of poverty and warfare, we do not need new enterprises: we need responsible consumers, responsible voters.

The growing volume of research into happiness in journals of economics only validates a similar vein of argument in the great works of Eastern philosophy written hundreds of years back – which are of vital global importance today. The main thrust of these investigations is that the end goal of happiness comes from the careful cultivation of a great attitude. These philosophies, at their core, furnish a  comprehensive “user manual” for building this kind of attitude, carefully and deliberately, over a couple of decades, with the payoff being a kind of everlasting happiness called ananda.

I find it fascinating that these philosophies have a world view of human purpose, which is almost the exact polar opposite of entrepreneurship and capitalism. Humans are inevitably mortal; therefore, purpose in human life can only come from an attitude of self-identification with a larger group over a long timespan. Indeed, the largest group you can think of contains all people, all things, the entire Universe, and across all time. When we see the purpose of our lives as serving as guardians of this incomparable universe and an impeccable way of living, we achieve a measurable permanent state of happiness that seems to be not only independent of wealth and income, but also of the vicissitudes of fate.

This segment is a part in the series : Man and Superman

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