Keeping up with the Jones’

In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Easterlin et al. have published a study on changes in “life satisfaction” (a.k.a. happiness) in Chinese villages during their economic transition over the past several decades. One might predict that as the Chinese have increased their incomes, they would become happier.

But as this study and a growing body of research demonstrates, money really can’t buy happiness. Prior to the conversion of a state economy to something resembling a market economy, Chinese life satisfaction was highest. As the country began its economic transition in the mid-1990’s, life satisfaction declined, possibly due to the increased level of uncertainty in many people’s lives. After 2000-2005 life satisfaction began to increase, but only for those in the upper income brackets. Even for those in the highest income brackets, life satisfaction has not yet approached what it was before the transition.

Over the transition, China had moved from one of the most egalitarian societies in terms of wealth distribution to one of the least. Although it is possible that the poor were left even poorer by the transition (or at least their economic stability declined), the results suggest that it is relative wealth that creates a decrease in life satisfaction. When you are surrounded by individuals as poor as you, the poverty doesn’t sting quite as bad. This phenomenon has been found often in past studies, suggesting that we humans can be a ferociously jealous lot.

This study (and others like it) has two implications for sustainability.

1. For a majority of people, “life satisfaction” is at the top of their list of characteristics of a sustainable life, right up there with adequate food and water, shelter and clothing, family and friends. Therefore, if researchers in sustainability science can figure out a way to accurately measure this characteristic, they can then use it to measure the current sustainability of a community, region, or nation, and help inform policies, programs and activities that might help a community move towards sustainability by increasing their general life satisfaction. For a long time, per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was used as a proxy for this characteristic, but now a measure of income or wealth inequality called the Gini index has also been added to better capture this notion of happiness, mainly due to studies like Easterlin et al.’s.

2. Since excess consumption in luxury items (i.e., those things we want but don’t need) is one of the main drivers of resource depletion, studies like this one reinforce the lesson that happiness (and therefore sustainability) is unlikely to reside in things but rather in community and one’s place in it. The applied side of sustainability efforts often focus on replacing luxury consumption with activity and community work (e.g., volunteering, local governance, etc.). Indeed it was not long ago when this idea was prevalent in America; Victory Gardens (and war rations), the Peace Corps, and other activities that¬†emphasized community contributions over consumption received popular support. Many of these new sustainability movements (e.g., Transition Towns, the Slow Movement) are actually repurposed efforts from previous eras to increase the life satisfaction component of our lives.


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