Does Capitalism Make Us Unhappy?

Lisa Larsen
Lisa Larsen

One of the first things you learn in an economics class is its definition: economics is the study of how groups and individuals satisfy their needs within the context of scarce resources. This idea is followed up with the notion that people are rational decision-markers (a shaky assumption when you observe humanity), and that they make trade-offs, and that such trade-offs lead to opportunity costs.

Our rational choices should theoretically leave us in the best position possible. Another way of stating this is, given all of our choices, we make the best choice possible for optimum satisfaction or happiness. But what if the very framework or system that we utilize to make choices –capitalism – doesn’t actually result in the best outcome possible (were we to consider all possibilities outside of a capitalist system)?

Happiness of course, is not an easy thing to measure, although economists, psychologists, academics, and others attempt to measure and analyze this feeling or state of being. The Happiness Research Institute, as its name suggests, is an organization dedicated to studying the intricacies of how happiness is achieved and maintained, and why some people and places have more of it than others.

The Danish welfare state reduces uncertainty and concerns among the population.”

According to a report conducted by the Happiness Research Institute ( click to download ), Denmark ranks high, sometimes even number one, in studies on happiness across countries. The reasons given for this are a high level of trust among each other, freedom and autonomy over individual choices, a high standard of living, and security among the Danish population. Explicitly, the report states, “The Danish welfare state reduces uncertainty and concerns among the population.”

As the report acknowledges however, this does not give the full picture of happiness in Denmark. An acknowledgement that is further emphasized by the high use of anti-depressant drugs in the country. Moreover, while happiness research can make analysis on correlative measurements in factors such as health and income, it often fails in showing any causal relationship between happiness and particular variables.

It might be tempting to hold it as factual that wealthier societies are happier but that isn’t necessarily true, and it is dependent on measurements considered. For example, in 2011, The Guardian reported that Nigerians are the happiest people in the world due to their high level of optimism, despite facing challenges such as social and economic inequality, corruption, and at times even violence on a large-scale.

Having some insight into this – being a Nigerian – I can tell you that we neither have the societal equity or national group trust of the Danes. The country’s lauded economic growth is making a slow and steady difference in terms of a growing middle class, but there are still vast amounts of inequality.

I wager however, that the country’s happiness stems from the very cultures that sometimes negatively affect it in terms of ethnocentrism and political, religious, and societal divisions. The positive side to these cultures is that withstanding life’s challenges, the sense of belonging to a community or culture, delaying gratification for long-term success or pleasure, and I would even add the positive aspects of religion and/or spirituality, that encourage one to believe that all things work for good in the end, are instilled in Nigerians from a young age, and foster an overall optimistic or happy perspective.

But what does any of this have to do with capitalism? Most people in most countries in the world support a free market system. A particularly interesting trend shows that this is especially true in emerging and developing countries as opposed to advanced countries, some of which have reported a decline in faith in capitalism. Americans are so disillusioned with the overall political system that the universal democracy system is questioned altogether as to whether it works for our brave new world.

Young people in countries that were often seen as the beacon of democracy and capitalism are losing hope.

There is no research that shows a causal relationship between decreased capitalism in a society and increased happiness (or satisfaction). We also know that happiness research changes when the measurements change, and that will always make it a difficult subject to analyze. In our American perspective which influences more than just the United States however, we seem to suffer from a cognitive dissonance in which many of our institutions encourage us to seek as much wealth as possible, while trying to also convince us of the old adage that “money doesn’t buy happiness.”

Our American-style business practices which value profit over everything, markets consumption and (the illusion) that more of it, will satisfy us. That we have choice and lots of it, is another ideology marketed to us, with the notion that the more choices we have, the better off we will be. But psychologists and even economists have also analyzed how too many choices can lead to paralysis. Moreover, the political and economic systems that have fostered the essential failure of trickle-down economics and increasing income inequality, have led to young people in this country increasingly voicing their openness to non-democratic rule, which arguably will contain less capitalism as we know it now.

It would be an overgeneralization to say that capitalism as a theory and practice makes us unhappy. It would be wise to consider all the evidence however, and ask questions on how the ways in which capitalism is practiced throughout the world may lead to greater or lesser satisfaction in societies. Pope Francis has been quoted as saying, “unfettered pursuit of money is the dung of the devil.” Young people in countries that were often seen as the beacon of democracy and capitalism are losing hope. For those of us not among the wealthiest groups of people, choice seems less of a reality; at best, it is superficial, and at worst, a hallucination.

Happiness will always be a difficult thing to quantify or qualify. What we can learn from wealthy countries such as Denmark is that it is found where economic security is expected. What we can learn from developing or emerging countries such as Nigeria is that where economic security is not experienced, the culture’s sense of community replaces it. Perhaps then it can be argued that some of the ways in which we practice capitalism in this country neither gives the population economic security, nor does it foster communal responsibility to each other in terms of culture.

We are by no means the unhappiest country in the world. But for a country that insists on being considered the greatest, we are far from the happiest, and the consequences of our version of capitalism, may have something to do with it. TC mark

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