There is an amazing moral dilemma hidden in the text of Richard Layard’s lectures on economics and happiness.
If you are evil, he outlines a reasonably simple reciepe you can use to make a large groups of people unhappy. The trick is to engineer a change in their model of their rank. This is easier to do than you might expect. You breakdown the barriers around their local community joining them to a larger community, but only if that larger community is better off than they are.
He tell the story of the East Germans. In the last decade and a half they have been set free from a horrible Governmen, for example it arranged for everybody to spy on each other. Their incomes have been risen substantially. This is obviously wonderful. But then, why are they collectively less happy? Apparently it’s because they now calibrate themselves against the West Germans. Their perceived rank has fallen in spite of their absolute rank having rising significantly.
What a mess! You do the obviously right thing; free an entire nation of people and pour tremendous amounts of energy into raising their standard of living and after a long period the end result is an overall decrease in the happiness of the very people you set out to help. At that point your only hope is to start to calculate some other score; maybe one where justice can counter the decrease in unhappiness. What a mess!
This problem is far more common than it appears at first. He reports the same story for holds true for many women in industrial nations who now compare their rank against that of men. Or, he reports, that watching television with pictures of beautiful people living rich lives causes people to start contrasting their rank with the people in those images (fictional people!) and this makes them unhappy.
If you are really evil – get a satellite television station. Beam images of first world life styles into the homes of third world citizens.
People say of the third world’s anger “What’s their problem?” Maybe it’s not our cultural imperialism. Maybe it’s not the way our media is full of violence, or loose morals. Maybe it’s not the destructive effects our culture has on local culturals, persay.
It could be entirely that our media erodes the boundary around their local frames of reference and in doing so it implicitly suggests that their rank is lower than ours. That doesn’t trigger a desire to strive; it only triggers a sense of unhappiness, frustration and worse.
You might make this argument not just between the first and third world, but between the urban and rural cultures or (between rich and poor) inside the first world.
All that got me to thinking – could you use these insights to make people happier. I think you might argue that the old TV show ‘Queen for a Day’ is an example of TV that made people happy. Queen for a Day ran for 25 years, each show would share with it’s audience two contestants who’s lives were mind boggling awful – the grinding poverty of recent widows who’s small children were suffering some crippling affliction. These stories gave the audience a point of reference that could only raise their self assessment of their rank in the world.
I recall traveling in Ireland many years ago where on the TV I saw documentaries about an awful place I was entirely unfamiliar with. This place went by the name America. These shows certainly did seem to cheer up all the Irish folks who were watching them.
But the most fascinating insight is that if you want to be a more cheerful person the answer is simple. Work to help those less fortunate than yourself.
Done right, this is a win all around. First the very poor gain substantial happiness from each and every improvement in their material condition. Those of us who are quite well off gain very little happiness from increases in our material well being. Second by associating with those who are less well off we recalibrate where we stand in the overall ranking of things. And that will make you happier!
Good news indeed; as long as in doing it you don’t create more unhappiness as in the West German example.