01 Sep Whatever the ordeal a person may experience, the indicators of satisfaction quickly return to their initial levels. (Homo Economicus – Daniel Cohen)
Another fundamental trait of human nature is its incredible capacity for adaptation. Polar bears and brown bears form two distinct species. Humans, by contrast, undertook long migrations both north and south; they did not mutate, but instead adapted. Inuits and Pygmies belong to the same human species, they can mate and have children. In the realm of human psychology, research has long noted this essential trait of adapting to life’s events, whether happy or tragic. Whatever the ordeal a person may experience, the indicators of satisfaction quickly return to their initial levels.
A person seems to get used to everything, which is both reassuring and depressing. Thus across time and space, the percentages of happy and unhappy people are remarkably stable. This stability obviously owes a lot to humans’ formidable capacity of adaptation and imitation. Any wealth or any progress is relative, and quickly dissolves in a comparison with others. When millionaires are asked about the size of the fortune necessary to make them feel ‘truly at ease’, they all respond in the same way, whatever the level of income they have already attained: they need double what they already possess! The heart of the problem is that people do not anticipate their own capacity to adapt. They think that they might be happy if they were given (a little) more and then they would be satisfied, but they are not. The rise in income to come always makes one dream, although once it is achieved, this rise is never sufficient. For people compare their future income to their current aspirations, without taking into account the ineluctable evolution of the aspirations. This is the principal key to the vain quest for happiness. For Kant, ‘happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of the imagination’.
Given the average stability of levels of happiness, though, there exist certain essential parameters that affect it systematically. The relation between happiness and age is the most surprising. It resembles a U-curve: the young and the seniors are (much) happier than adults of intermediate ages. From 25 to 50 years of age, happiness constantly shrinks, before rising back up. One finds at age 70 the happiness of a young person of 30. At 80, one has rediscovered (on average) the joy of being 18! How can we make sense of this astonishing graph? Perhaps economists are not best placed to answer this question, but the distinction proposed by Bruno Frey helps us grasp what is in play. Old age liberates us from a huge weight, that of accumulating useless goods, and allows us to give their place back to intrinsic goods.
Rabelais puts in the mouth of one of his characters this question: ‘What shall be the end of so many trials and tribulations?’ The answer given is: ‘That when we return we shall sit down, rest, and be merry.’ Old age opens us to the pleasure of simple ‘duration’, of passing time that is intrinsically valuable. Milan Kundera in Testaments Betrayed (1993) marvels at the ‘crepuscular’ late work of Beethoven. In the evening of his life, the master composed sonatas that broke the traditional codes of composition. According to Kundera, this is the work of a genius liberated from the weight of having to be one, of having to please.
Homo Economicus: The (Lost) Prophet of Modern Times