Amherst Magazine

Consuming Happiness

Daniel Barbezat talks money and happiness.

Interview by Peter Rooney

If there ever was a sobering time to teach an economics course titled “Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness,” it’s during the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Professor of Economics Daniel Barbezat spoke to Amherst magazine about his spring-semester course—and about the current recession and its effect on our own levels of happiness. 

Q To what extent do you incorporate the current downturn into the course?
A The course is really about how policy might be affected by studies of well-being. On one level, I’m trying to think about how people’s reported well-being is affected by policy, or how policy might best affect their level of satisfaction. Another level is to have students become aware and mindful of their own level of well-being and their consumption behavior.

Q Are you using well-being as a synonym for happiness?
A No. I’m using well-being as a catch phrase for words like satisfaction; some people may call it happiness, ease, contentment.

Q How will happiness be affected by a protracted downturn?
A A protracted downturn will create a lot of negative well-being values for a large group of the population who will become unemployed. It’s very clear that unemployment affects people’s well-being far more greatly than one would predict. That’s stable across structural equations in a variety of countries.

Q Two competing bumper stickers I’ve seen have the slogans “He who dies with the most toys, wins” and “Less is more.” Which is better, for the individual or for society?
A Both are looking at a very crude model of how much stuff is there. That’s not the issue. The issue is about providing a means for social well-being to be maximized. That might include things like distribution; it might include things like environmental quality. You might need less of certain things and more of other things. The idea that we should get rid of everything, want less, just causes more anxiety.

Q You designed this course with assistance of a fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Do you introduce Buddhist precepts into the course?
A The exercises we do are about awareness, but they’re not really Buddhist in nature. One exercise I had students do was to sit and become aware of their touch points.

I said, “I’m going to ask you to sit in a sense of satisfaction. Where do you locate that sense?” Then I said, “Now I’m going to ask you to sit in a sense of happiness.” I asked them to jot down what they saw. One, they get some sense of the differences when you’re asked, “How satisfied are you with your life, on a scale of one to four?” or “How happy are you with your life?” There’s a difference. And, some of them might be stunned by the notion that they could generate a sense of satisfaction, particularly when you think you need to change something to get satisfaction—to go get a Coke, to go get something and you’ll be happier.

Q If we’re heading into an era with less consumption, might some people’s sense of well-being actually increase?
A If you look at economies across the globe, wealthier economies have higher reported well-being than poorer countries do. And, if you look at cross-sectional data within the United States of people across income classes, people with more income report a higher level of well-being. The real question is how individuals respond to shocks placed on them, such as unemployment. More than likely, the result will be a loss in well-being, but it needn’t be so. The relationship between consumption and well-being is not a fixed, mechanist relationship. Happiness is as much an inside job as it is an outside job.


audio Listen to an audio interview with Professor Daniel Barbezat. (You will need to scroll down to find the interview.)


Photo by Samuel Masinter '04