Thursday, April 01, 2010

Happiness Indices: Post-industrial and Pre-Modern

Richard Florida, diving into Gallup research on people's self-reported levels of happiness in different countries, brought to the surface of my mind two contradictory -- or seemingly contradictory -- ideas I have long harbored (sometimes musing fitfully on their apparent contradictoriness) regarding the relative happiness of different societies. 

Here, first (via Sullivan), is Florida's idea, which tracks with one general assumption of mine:

It is not just the level of economic development that matters, but its nature and type. The past several decades have seen a shift from older industrial-style economies and societies to newer post-industrial ones characterized by higher levels of knowledge-based, professional, and creative jobs, more highly educated populations, and a shift toward what Ronald Inglehart has dubbed "post-materialist values" -- a diminished commitment to traditional authority and institutions and a shift toward self-expression, openness, and tolerance. My recent research with Charlotta Mellander and Jason Rentfrow finds evidence that post-industrial socioeconomic structures and post-materialist values matter to the happiness of nations, especially of the most advanced nations...

There is something in the nature of post-industrial economies and in their values that appears to affect the happiness of their people over and above the effects of income. Perhaps it is that people with higher levels of education have more flexibility or choice in pursuing their dreams, building families and social relationships that are more fulfilling, or simply in their ability to adjust to misfortune or bad times. Perhaps it is that knowledge-based jobs are more challenging and fulfilling. It's also clear that the most troubled societies -- those with the highest reported levels of suffering -- also, generally speaking, face the highest levels of intolerance. 
And here, set against this data-driven vision of post-industrial happiness, is one expression of a suspicion that sitting in front of a computer screen for most of one's waking hours and living in a manicured suburb may not be the pinnacle of (average) human well-being: W. H. Murray's biography of the Scottish highland chief and outlaw hero Rob Roy MacGregor. Murray does not stint to describe the privations of this life: two thirds of children died before the age of 5, the vast majority of highlanders were illiterate; they often brushed the edge of starvation in winter. There were cycles and periods of horrific violence, though the biography begins in a period of relative peace, in the late seventeenth century. In the early chapters, nonetheless, Murray details a very full range of adult activity, both in work and social life, and sums up:
Lowland and English spectators of Rob Roy's Gaelic society disclose its grimmer aspect. They record that hens and goats wandered in and out of ill-lit huts with leaking roofs; that early on cold mornings people would emerge naked from huts to squat on the nearby bog; that all were shabbily dressed by day, and so on. While writers have marshaled the evidence to dispel romantic illusions, the truth about Highland life lies between the extremes of heaven and hell. The animals that wandered in and out of the houses were liked for their company and warmth, if not the scent  left behind; leaking roofs were no Highland prerogative; the sanitation was by far superior to that of Edinburgh, and graced with abundant space and air....In short, primitive as conditions were, they were so by modern standards. The people were bred to the life, enjoyed it in communities much more lively and interesting than any now to be found in the glens, and had greatly varied work...In many respects the people lived fuller lives than now, and happier ones. In others, they suffered colder winters, bore starvation in bad years, and knew more nearly and often the griefs of bereavement (40-41).

As someone who can't prune a rose bush without overthinking every cut, I am susceptible to the idea that a life of varied subsistence tasks -- farming, boat-building, fishing, herding, droving, not to say training in arms and fighting -- would challenge human faculties more fully than garden variety knowledge work in a post-industrial economy. 

In this vein too, I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin's note of the apparently superior charms of life among the Iroquois compared with that of English settlers in North America:
When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. And that this is not natural [only to Indians], but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho' ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet within a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of Life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

Both Iroquois and Highland Scottish societies were tribal and relatively non-hierarchical.  While neither could accurately be called nomadic, adult male life in both entailed a good deal of trekking through country that bore only subtle and scattered human imprint -- wilderness, that is.

I don't want to idealize, overgeneralize, minimize the harshness and precariousness of these premodern and free-ranging modes of life, or even draw any conclusions.  And of course, we can't send Gallup back to the seventeenth century on either continent.  But we do have Franklin's small-sample, anecdotal poll to haunt at least our dreams.

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