Tuesday, July 19, 2011

We Can Only See the Happy Society If We Accept That the World Is Better Off Now Than It Has Ever Been

My main project for this sabbatical and for the years to follow is to explore the idea of the happy society. I changed the subtitle of this blog to reflect that new quest.

I am reading Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist. He argues that life for the vast majority of people is better now than it has ever been, due to specialization and exchange.

The idea that this reading, and many others like it, has led me to is this:

The quest for the happy society begins with the courage to proclaim that the world is better off now than it ever has been, and is getting better.

I believe this is true no matter how materialist or spiritual your standard of happiness is.


Solomon Kleinsmith said...

Totally agree. People lose site of this without taking a long term view. Things aren't as good as they were a few years ago, so people freak out... but they are astonishingly better than a generation ago, and giant leaps better than two, three and four generations ago. Just about every global indicator you can look at is far and beyond better than what it used to be.

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

Actually I just remembered a book I've had for a while that fits perfectly into this... it's called 'It's Getting Better All The Time':


Been years since I cracked it, but I think it's got some libertarian spinning, but is mostly just a ton of long term positive trends.

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

...aaaand one more comment...

Funny little coincidence... that book you mention in the above post is the first book shown in the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" area, haha

Sister Edith Bogue said...

There is quite a bit of evidence for your premise.

When we look at the best-off parts of this better-than-before world, though, we see the highest rates of depression, unhappy relationships.

I remember my utter amazement, when studying the French Revolution in college, to discover that it took place at a time when the rural peasants were actually much better off than they had been a few decades before. However, their expectations had risen faster than their actual lifestyle, increasing the gap between what they wanted and what they had.

That gap between expectations and reality is, I think, the challenge of living into the happy society. In richer nations, flashy new goods and experiences are constantly dangled in front of people. In poorer nations, the real or pseudo-real lifestyle of people in the richer nations is also dangled before people. Either way, focus is drawn to the gap between reality and desire.

gruntled said...

Sister Edith, Bradley Wright has written a book on exactly this point. I have just ordered it, with hope. http://www.amazon.com/Upside-Surprising-About-State-World/dp/0764208365/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1311133268&sr=8-1

ceemac said...

I have to admit that on the surface the "happy society" seems like an odd topic for a Calvinist to pursue.

I am curious how your concept of "happy society" either meshes with or conflicts with the Calvinist quest for a society that is "rightly ordered and disciplined."

I suspect it depends on how you define happy.

gruntled said...

Ah, ceemac, you ask a deep question (as usual). My short answer is that most people report that they are happy in their own lives. But many are anxious about society. It would seem possible for all these happy people to see society as a whole as a happy place.

The deeper answer is that there are higher and lower forms of happiness. Aristotle and the biblical faiths (at least) agree that the highest happiness comes from contemplation of the divine order. I don't know if we can ever have a whole society doing that.

Sister Edith Bogue said...

Thank you for the reference. I'm glad to see that a sample chapter is available for the Kindle apps - that's become a favorite way to see what kind of argument an author will set up, and whether / how data are used.