Rainn Wilson on Life’s Big Questions
False and True Selves

Reinventing Happiness

By Jonathan B. Wight

In the modern economic view, happiness arises from the attainment of outcomes that satisfy one’s preferences. This best applies, I think, at the Maslow’s hierarchy stage when we are simply trying to acquire basic needs for food, shelter, and safety. 

Once basic needs are satisfied, the economic view runs into numerous difficulties. First, preferences are not fixed, they evolve.  Obtaining one thing leads to an evolution of preferences. One can never feel satisfied with such a moving target. Second, preferences are socially formed and socially evolve. It is impossible to talk about happiness except in relation to the social milieu.  In this context, what one attains is always relative to others and one’s expectations. Third, behavioral issues arise of people’s preferences for bad things (addictions), and so on. 

Talking intelligently about happiness might require that economists become more pluralist, and try to understand non-outcome based ethical systems such as duty and virtue ethics.

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Deepak Chopra and Sonja Lyubomirsky have an online course outlining a totally different approach to happiness.

Here is an excerpt:

“In the Vedic and Buddhist traditions of ancient India, there are five causes linked to suffering and unhappiness:

  1. Not knowing your true identity.
  2. Clinging to the idea of permanence in a world that is inherently impermanent.
  3. Fear of change.
  4. Identifying with the socially induced hallucination called the ego.
  5. Fear of death.

You only need to focus on the first tenet of unhappiness, which is not knowing your true identity. Once you know your true identity, all of your suffering will cease. Enlightenment is knowing who you truly are.”

Following this are Action Steps for practicing this alternative approach.  In the virtue ethics tradition, practice is required for developing good habits of thinking and acting. One’s happiness requires hard work to achieve to change oneself—and that work is internal.  By contrast, the economic approach also requires hard work to make money to buy things in the market—work that is external and requires no personal change.

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What if our students were taught the Chopra approach to happiness in Econ 101? Would this be more or less helpful as a preparation for life?  Which approach do you think leads to better mental health and ultimately happiness? 


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