Consuming Happiness

Barbezat
Professor Daniel Barbezat 

If there ever was a sobering time to teach an economics course titled "Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness," it might be during the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

The course, being taught this semester by Economics Professor Daniel P. Barbezat, aims to open students’ eyes about the link between well-being and consumption, and how government policies and economic conditions can impact that well-being. To help students gain insight, he’s also introducing elements of mindfulness into the course, and leading meditation exercises as well.

Professor Barbezat recently sat down with Director of Public Affairs Peter Rooney to discuss the class, as well as his thoughts about the current downturn and how it might impact our own sense of happiness. (He also spoke with Kimberly Palmer ’01 about the course for a piece she wrote for U.S. News & World Report.)

Listen to the full interview:

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Highlights

Q: It’s a very intriguing title, given the times and the unraveling of the economy.  To what extent are you incorporating the downturn into the course or discussion?

A: I haven’t yet. The course for me is really about looking at 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 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. All of these words have a lot of connotation around them.

Q: Moving to the current economic crisis, how will happiness be affected by a protracted downturn?


A: First of all, it won’t be felt equally. Also, 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 greater than one would predict. That’s stable across structural equations in a variety of countries.

Q: Two competing bumper stickers I’ve seen addressing consumption are “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 and all sorts of features of our lives that have nothing to do with objects or services. 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.

How about “May You Be Mindful.”? You can think of this as Buddhist or anarchist,  but my own belief is that as we become truly open and mindful, the kinds of allocations and features of what we want in the market to sustain well-being for ourselves and others in the context in which we live arise.

Q: You designed this course with assistance of a fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Do you introduce Buddhist teachings and meditation practices into the course?

 
A: In the class, the exercises we do are about awareness but they’re not really Buddhist in nature. One exercise I had students do at the beginning of class was to sit for a moment with their eyes closed or eyes open, whatever they felt more comfortable doing, and to become aware of their touch points, and to sit with that for about five minutes.

Then I said, “Now I’m going to ask you to sit in sense of satisfaction. Where do you locate that sense?” Then I said, “Okay, come back to your body, and now I’m going to ask you to sit in a sense of happiness.” I had them sit for while like that. Then I brought them out of that, and asked them to jot down what they saw.

This is important for two reasons. 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?” There’s a difference.

And the second thing, and this is the more covert thing, is that maybe some of them might be stunned by the notion that they could generate a sense of satisfaction within themselves. That is a very interesting moment for a lot of people, particularly  when you think you need to change something to get satisfaction–go get a Coke, or go get something and you’ll be happier.

Q: If we’re heading into an era with less consumption, is it possible that some people’s sense of well-being will actually increase?

A: If you look at economies across the globe, it is in fact true that wealthier economies have higher reported well-being than poorer countries do. And, if you look at cross-sectional data within the U.S. 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 my belief is 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.

Q: What message or lessons do you hope that students will come away with after taking your course?

A: I hope they will begin to be mindful of what indeed provides them with a stable, viable sense of well-being in their lives. Although I have a belief about that, in fact it’s  far more interesting for me to be challenged around that than for them to adopt, without any self-reflection, a view that I were to give them.