Toward a good society

A young dotcommer, a friend of my son's, sold his company for $35 million. He was very unhappy, because a friend of his had sold his start-up for $55 million. (This was a year ago, before much of all the funny money turned into dust.) When I asked him if he was content, having made such a killing, he moaned.

"Jossi Vardi [a dotcom venturist] sold his to AOL for $400 million," he explained. When I saw Mr. Vardi in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he seemed satisfied. But soon the conversation wistfully turned to junk-bond mogul Michael Milken, who made $550 million in one banner year.

These personal accounts all confirm what social science data have long demonstrated: that the level of one's socio-economic status has meager effects on one's "sense of well-being" and no significant effect on "satisfaction with life as a whole," to quote researchers Frank Andrews and Stephen Withey.

Psychologist Jonathan Freedman discovered that levels of reported happiness did not vary greatly among the members of different economic classes, with the exception of the very poor, who tended to be less happy than others. David Myers, a social psychologist, found that while per capita disposable (after-tax) income in inflation-adjusted dollars almost exactly doubled between 1960 and 1990, 32 percent of Americans reported that they were "very happy" in 1993, almost the same proportion as did in 1957. Although economic growth has slowed since the mid-1970s, Americans' reported happiness was remarkably stable (nearly always between 30 and 35 percent) across both high-growth and low-growth periods.

These and other data help us realize that the pursuit of well-being through ever higher levels of consumption is Sisyphean. When it comes to material goods, enough is never enough. This is not an argument in favor of a life of sackcloth and ashes. The argument is that once basic material needs - what Abraham Maslow called "creature comforts" - are well-sated and securely provided for, additional income does not add to happiness.

On the contrary, the evidence - not some touchy-feely hallucination - shows that profound contentment is found in bonding with others, in community-building and public service, and in cultural and spiritual pursuits.

Robert Fogel, a Nobel laureate in economics, showed that periods of great affluence are regularly followed by what he calls "great awakenings"; about a year ago, he said we're due for one in the near future. While it is evident that there is a growing quest for purposes deeper than conspicuous consumption, our ability to predict which specific form this yearning will take may be beyond us.

There are some who firmly believe that the form must be religious, because all others do not speak to the most profound matters that trouble the human soul nor provide sound moral guidance. These believers find good support in numerous indicators that there has been a considerable measure of revival in practically all forms of American religion over the past decades.

The revival is evident not just in the number of people who participate in religious activities and the frequency of participation, but also in the stronger kinds of commitments many are making to religion. Others see the spiritual revival as taking a more secular form, ranging from New Age cults to growing interest in applied ethics.

Aside from making people more content individuals, a major upward shift in society on the "Maslovian scale" is a prerequisite for addressing some of the most tantalizing problems plaguing modern societies, such as alienation.

Such a shift in personal priorities - from a preoccupation with creature comforts to developing loving relationships and respect for others - is also required before we can come into harmony with our physical environment.

And such a new set of priorities may well be the only conditions under which the well-off would be willing to support serious reallocation of wealth and power, as their personal "fortunes" would no longer be based on amassing consumer goods.

In addition, the transition to a knowledge-based economy provides a new source of satisfaction - objects that can be consumed and still shared, such as noncopyrighted software. This shift would free millions of people (one hopes all of them, gradually) to devote more of their time to each other.

The upward shift in priorities - a return to a sort of moderate counterculture, a turn toward voluntary simplicity - requires a grand dialogue about our personal and shared goals. Intellectuals and the media can help launch such a dialogue and model the new forms of behavior. Public leaders can nurse the recognition of these values by setting a more down-to-earth tone at public events and by celebrating those whose achievements are compatible with a good society rather than a merely affluent one.

But ultimately, such a shift lies in changes in our hearts and minds, in our values and conduct - what sociologist Robert Bellah called the "habits of the heart." We shall not travel far toward a good society unless such a dialogue is launched and advanced to a spiritually uplifting conclusion.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor at George Washington University and founder of the Communitarian Network, a group promoting the balance of community responsibility and individual rights. This article draws on his new book, 'Next: The Road to the Good Society' (Basic Books).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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