The patriotic movement, as it sorts out what are the core values the nation is to share and dedicate itself to, must also determine which economic system best serves these values. Over recent decades, as even former communist countries have adopted capitalism as their main economic system, it seems as if the debate has ended. While some nations combine capitalism with authoritarian forms of government and others with democratic ones, very few states now still seek the planned economic systems. Even North Korea and Cuba are beginning to relent. Most nations act as if they consider an affluent life, working hard to gain higher levels of consumption—even if it entails sacrificing some other goods (e.g., more time with the family)—as the good life the national government should help promote.1 In effect, a good part of the legitimacy of many regimes is that they are or are about to provide material affluence.
This consensus needs to be subjected to critical evaluation. There are major reasons to doubt that a world in which ever-more people are seeking ever-more affluence is sustainable. Sustainability is a term so often used that one tends to gloss over it. However, there are strong reasons to doubt the environment can tolerate ever-higher levels of resource extraction to meet ever-rising global market demands for goods and services. Also, rising automation may well kill more jobs than it creates, leaving tens of millions of people—many of them young and educated—without a meaningful occupation. The same holds for the ever-higher social burdens capitalism engenders as it externalizes the social costs it imposes. All these developments call for a reexamination of the legitimacy of capitalism and the legitimacy of material affluence.
Equally important is that even if one could keep the world on a pathway of ever-higher economic grown (and materialism), there are reasons to doubt that this would make people flourish and be content. This chapter hence focuses on addressing the question, What makes a good society and what constitutes a life well lived for those whose basic economic needs have been met?2
Income and Happiness
Data suggest that once a certain threshold of income is reached, additional accumulation of income creates little additional contentment. On the whole, social science findings, despite their well-known limitations and sometimes conflicting conclusions, seem to confirm the weak link between happiness and income—with the notable exception of the poor. Frank M. Andrews and Stephen B. Withey found that socioeconomic status has a meager effect on the “sense of well-being” and no significant effect on life satisfaction.3 A survey of more than one thousand participants, who rated their sense of satisfaction and happiness on a 7-point scale and a 3-point scale, noted no correlation between socioeconomic status and happiness; in fact, the second-highest socioeconomic group was consistently among the least happy of all seven brackets measured. Further, Jonathan Freedman discovered that levels of reported happiness do not vary greatly among different economic classes, apart from the poor, who tend to be less happy than others.4
Additional evidence suggests that economic growth does not significantly affect happiness (though at any given time the people of poor countries are generally less happy than those of wealthy ones). David G. Myers and Ed Diener reported that while per-capita disposable (after-tax) income in inflation-adjusted dollars almost exactly doubled between 1960 and 1990, virtually the same proportion of Americans reported that they were “very happy” in 1993 (32 percent) as they did in 1957 (35 percent).5 Although economic growth has slowed since the mid-1970s, Americans’ reported happiness has been remarkably stable (nearly always between 30 and 35 percent) across both high-growth and low-growth periods.6 Moreover, in the same period (1960–90), rates of depression, violent crime, divorce, and teen suicide all rose dramatically.7
In a 1973 study, Richard Easterlin reported on a phenomenon that has since been labeled the “Easterlin Paradox.”8 At any given time, higher income generates more happiness, though over the longer run (ten years or more), happiness fails to increase alongside national income. In other words, long-term economic growth does not improve the overall happiness of citizens. Japan is an often-cited example of the Easterlin Paradox. Between 1962 and 1987, the Japanese economy grew at an unprecedented rate, more than tripling its GNP per capita; yet Japan’s overall happiness remained constant over that period.9 Similarly, in 1970, while the average American income could buy over 60 percent more than it could in the 1940s, average happiness did not increase.10 Another survey found that people whose income had increased over a ten-year period were no happier than those whose incomes had stagnated.11
Interest in the Easterlin Paradox was revived in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as several scholars called into question Easterlin’s findings. A 2006 paper by Ruut Veenhoven and Michael Hagerty explained some of the reasons for the discrepancy among happiness researchers.12 First, changes in happiness tend to be small and must be aggregated over long periods of time. As very little data spans more than a few decades, its significance is open to different interpretation. Also, average happiness tends to fluctuate, making it difficult to separate the overall trend from the statistical noise. Further, happiness surveys lack uniformity; methodologies and questions have changed over time, possibly skewing results. Social scientists may choose to limit their data to only identical surveys (as Easterlin did) or to draw on a variety of surveys (as Veenhoven and Hagerty did), which may lead to different conclusions.
While such issues can be raised about most social science studies of this kind (especially longitudinal studies), a more serious challenge is Veenhoven and Hagerty’s finding that both happiness and income increased in the second half of the twentieth century, indicating a correlation between the two.13 Ruut Veenhoven and Floris Vergunst’s more recent paper contests Easterlin’s empirical findings, arguing that data taken from the World Database of Happiness reveals a positive correlation between GDP growth and affective well-being.14 Similarly, a 2008 study by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers noted a similar correlation between income growth and happiness.15
In December 2010, Easterlin and his associates challenged Stevenson and Wolfers’s study.16 Showing that much of the study’s data focused on a short period (six years instead of ten), they argued that longer-term trends were attributable to factors other than economic growth. They also added data from a number of non-Western, developing countries, including China, South Korea, and Chile, and found further support for the Easterlin Paradox. Although China’s growth rate doubled per-capita income in less than ten years, South Korea’s in thirteen, and Chile’s in eighteen years, none of these countries showed a statistically significant increase in happiness. The authors wrote: “With incomes rising so rapidly in these three different countries, it seems extraordinary that there are no surveys that register the marked improvement in subjective well-being that mainstream economists and policy makers worldwide would expect to find.”17
As already noted, there is one important exception to these findings—when incomes of the poor are increased, happiness is significantly enhanced. This observation is important because some may use the data I cited to argue for the futility of reforms seeking to improve the lot of the poor. Thus, as Richard Layard’s 2005 book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science shows, when a country’s average income exceeds $20,000 a year per person, contentment also rises considerably.18 Layard used happiness data from three major long-term public opinion surveys (the Eurobarometer for western Europe, the General Social Survey for the United States, and the World Values Survey for eastern Europe and developing nations) to calculate an average happiness measure for each country, which was compared to average income per capita. (Critics of this data argue that it used absolute rather than proportional measurements.)19
A 2010 study identified $75,000 as the threshold after which additional income produces little additional happiness.20 The study’s authors found that while high income improved individuals’ life evaluation (their thoughts about their life), it did not improve emotional well-being, defined as “the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection that make one’s life pleasant or unpleasant.”21 Hence, whereas life evaluation rises steadily with increases in income, emotional well-being does not progress once an annual income of $75,000 is reached.22 A 2018 study found that “satiation occurs at $95,000 for life evaluation and $60,000 to $75,000 for emotional well-being. However, there is substantial variation across world regions, with satiation occurring later in wealthier regions. We also find that in certain parts of the world, incomes beyond satiation are associated with lower life evaluations.”23
In short, although the data does not all point in one direction, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that, at the very least, high levels of income do not buy much happiness. Thus, the legitimacy bestowed by affluence is questionable, regardless of whether or not a high-growth pathway is achievable and sustainable.
One reason high wage-earners derive less happiness from additional income is that material goods are judged relative to goods available to others rather than in terms of their intrinsic worth. Indeed, Easterlin himself observed that individuals tend to evaluate their earnings and satisfaction on a comparative rather than absolute scale. The familiar expression “keeping up with the Joneses” captures well this competitive character of contentment in social life where goods are used as visible markers of rank in a never-ending race.
Different studies have shown how contextual judgments affect reported subjective well-being. For example, people taking happiness surveys in the presence of someone in a wheelchair rate themselves as 20 percent happier on average than those in a control group.24 Given this, increasing the total wealth of a given society would not necessarily increase the happiness of its members, as more or “better” consumer goods would merely raise the bar for what people judged to be “good”—leaving people perpetually dissatisfied with their material objects despite their higher quality and quantity. At the same time, improving the material plight of the poor would enhance their reported well-being, as their possessions would move closer to the societal standard.
The same social factor seems to help explain why small-towners are happier than big-city dwellers.25 Daniel Gilbert notes: “Now, if you live in Hallelujah, Arkansas, the odds are good that most of the people you know do something like you do and earn something like you earn and live in houses something like yours. New York, on the other hand, is the most varied, most heterogeneous place on earth. No matter how hard you try, you really can’t avoid walking by restaurants where people drop your monthly rent on a bottle of wine and store windows where shoes sit like museum pieces on gold pedestals. You can’t help but feel trumped.”26 Another explanation for the disconnect between increased income and happiness draws on the adaptivity of human satisfaction to varying conditions known as the “hedonic treadmill” theory.27 There are different accounts of what constitutes the hedonic treadmill.28 One account suggests that people psychologically acclimatize to changes in well-being, gravitating to a set level of happiness regardless of external stimulus. In a seminal study that coined the term, Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman observed that lottery winners were no happier than a control group of nonwinners.29 Another survey found that the one hundred wealthiest Americans on the Forbes List were only “modestly” happier than a control group selected at random from the same geographic areas.30
The hedonic treadmill is also construed through rising expectations in the wake of improvements in material well-being. Thus, a study of rural Chinese found that while rising incomes improved subjective well-being, income aspirations also grew and quickly offset satisfaction gains.31 According to the authors, this “partial hedonic treadmill” explains why China’s rapid economic growth has not elevated subjective well-being.32 It would also explain Amartya Sen’s findings that subjective well-being is often higher among citizens of poor than of rich countries, as the former may be more resourceful in adjusting their expectations to match their circumstances, whereas the latter tend to covet a higher quality of life than they can realistically attain.33
In whatever way the hedonic treadmill is understood, the basic insight holds: there is no way to find contentment in the high-growth, high-consumption way of life because well-being is pinned to runaway desire and external validations.
Historical Precedents for Non-Affluence-Based Contentment
In seeking alternatives to material affluence as the source of happiness, one can turn to historical movements and previous cultures and modes of legitimacy that defined the good life by drawing on core values other than affluence. As Jeffrey Sachs notes: “The essence of traditional virtue ethics—whether in Buddhism, Aristotelianism, or Roman Catholicism—is that happiness is achieved by harnessing the will and the passions to live the right kind of life. Individuals become virtuous through rational thought, instruction, mind training, and habits of virtuous behavior.”34 Consider the Buddhist tradition where happiness is understood not as self-aggrandizement or gratification but rather as self-enlightenment and transformation; being happy demands attaining a new way of experiencing and partaking in the world, and as such is more akin to a skill or ability than a sensation.35
For centuries the literati of imperial China came to prominence not through acquisition of wealth but through pursuit of knowledge and cultivation of the arts. This group of scholar-bureaucrats dedicated their early lives to rigorous study, in preparation for the exams required for government service. They spent years memorizing the Confucian classics. The literati, having passed the imperial exams, were qualified for government service but instead elected to dedicate their lives to the arts or retired early in order to follow artistic pursuits. They played music and composed poetry, learned calligraphy, and gathered with like-minded friends to share ideas and discuss great works of the past.
Reinhard Bendix writes that in keeping with Confucian teachings, “the educated man must stay away from the pursuit of wealth . . . because acquisitiveness is a source of social and personal unrest. To be sure, this would not be the case if the success of economic pursuits was guaranteed, but in the absence of such a guarantee the poise and harmony of the soul are jeopardized by the risks involved. . . . The cultured man strives for the perfection of the self, whereas all occupations that involve the pursuit of riches require a one-sided specialization that acts against the universality of the gentleman.”36
The Ancient Greeks—aside from the Epicureans37—generally took “happiness” to be the pursuit of excellence rather than pleasure. For example, Aristotle conceived “happiness” (eudaimonia) as the exercise of human faculties in accordance with various practical and intellectual virtues, such as prudence, justice, courage, or temperance. To be happy is to realize your full potential in diverse practices as parent, friend, worker, and citizen.38 Aristotle’s happiness, best translated as flourishing, is a way of being that requires cultivation and involves finding a balance between “excess and deficiency,” experiencing “emotions at the right times and on the right occasions and towards the right persons and for the right causes and in the right manner.”39 Aristotle’s conception of happiness is much broader than that of many contemporary thinkers, amounting to “a kind of living that is active, inclusive of all that has intrinsic value, and complete, meaning lacking in nothing that would make it richer or better.”40 It thus stands in contrast to the idea of welfare used by most contemporary economists, which lines up much more with Bentham’s account of happiness.41
St. Thomas Aquinas sought to synthesize an Aristotelean conception of happiness with Christian teachings. He redefined Aristotle’s everyday virtues with a view of human beings’ ultimate destiny. For Aquinas, true happiness cannot attach to worldly honors and riches; attaining it is nothing short of attaining one’s final good, which is fellowship with God alongside other saints.42 Earthly life is but a formidable training of the soul for eternal life.43 Whatever intermittent fulfillment is experienced in the course of completing daily responsibilities, it is full of conflicts and ordeals that will be set aright in the Kingdom to come.44
During the Middle Ages, knights were expected to adhere to an exacting code of chivalry. The tenets they were to live by are well captured in the “Song of Roland,” an eleventh-century poem. Throughout the poem, the worthy knight is shown to gladly and faithfully serve his liege lord, to protect the weak and the defenseless, to show proper reverence for God, to respect and honor women, to be truthful and steadfast, and to view financial reward with revulsion and disdain. In traditional Jewish communities, studying the Torah was considered the preferred way of life.
In recent ages, numerous social movements and communities advocated consumerism-resistant forms of the good life within capitalist societies. The Shakers, who left Manchester for America in the 1770s, founded religious communities characterized by a simple ascetic lifestyle.45 Other such communities (some secular, some religious) include the Brook Farm Institute, the Harmony Society, the Amana Colonies, and the Amish. In Britain, John Ruskin founded the Guild of St. George in the 1870s to help form agrarian communities whose members would lead a simple and modest life. Jewish refugees to Palestine in the early twentieth century established kibbutzim, in which austerity was considered virtuous, consumption restrained, communal life promoted, and socialist and Zionist agendas advanced.
In the 1960s, a counterculture (hippie) movement rose on both sides of the Atlantic. Its core values were anticonsumerism, communal living, equality, environmentalism, free love, and pacifism. Timothy Leary encapsulated the hippie ethos when he advised a crowd to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”46 The British iteration of the hippie movement manifested itself in London’s underground culture, a “community of like-minded anti-establishment, anti-war, pro-rock’n’roll individuals, most of whom had a common interest in recreational drugs,” and many of whom opted out of mainstream consumerist culture.47 Many of these movements and communities sought to renounce both consumerism and work structures while fostering an alternative universe committed to asceticism and various transcendental practices drawing on eclectic spiritual, religious, and social ideas. The underlying goal was to replace rather than limit capitalism.
Most important, these various movements and communities failed to lay a foundation for a new contemporary society—and practically all of them either disintegrated, shriveled, or lost their defining features. It seems that most people cannot abide an austere, ascetic lifestyle in the longer run. Hence if the patriotic movement intends to form a society less centered around consumption, it should not seek to displace consumption but to limit it and channel some of its resources and energy to other pursuits. If one questions whether consumption can be curbed without frustrating basic human needs, Maslow’s work provides an answer, albeit not a fully satisfactory one.
The Maslowian Exit
Abraham Maslow’s “A Theory of Human Motivation,” though published in 1943, speaks directly to our current predicament. Maslow argued that humans have a hierarchy of needs. At the bottom are the basic human necessities of safety, food, shelter, clothing, and health; once these needs are met, affection and self-esteem are next in line; and, finally, the pinnacle of satisfaction is achieved by attending to what he calls “self-actualization.” So long as basic creature comforts are satisfied, rising wealth facilitates genuine contentment. However, once consumption is used to satisfy the higher needs, it runs the risk of morphing into consumerism and spawning varied social malaises.
One might object that economic growth is necessary for satisfying not just basic necessities but higher-order needs as well. It might be suggested, for example, that the goods of self-esteem and self-actualization often require material support well beyond what a low-growth economy can provide.
In response, one might observe that a game of chess can be enjoyed whether played with plastic or mahogany pieces, a reading of Hamlet whether it is printed in a cheap paperback or leather-bound edition; and bonding with children whether one builds a toy together or buys an expensive one. In a similar vein, one might note that God answers prayers irrespective of whether someone wears the most recent designer garments or regular blue jeans.
In historical terms, in the US a turning point for people with incomes well above the poverty line came in the decades following World War II. Around the time of World War II, economists held that individuals have fixed needs. Once those needs are satisfied, people would allocate additional income toward savings rather than consumption. During the war, however, as the American productive capacity greatly expanded, the economists feared that, once the conflicts ended and war-related materials would be no longer needed, there would be massive unemployment and economic depression, comparable to that of the 1930s. Why produce more when fixed, peacetime needs are sated? In this context, David Riesman published a widely discussed essay called “Abundance for What?”48 He suggested that the “surplus” be used for public projects, such as maintaining the 1955 lifestyle of New Orleans so future generations could visit this sociological Disneyland to appreciate life in earlier ages, much as we do today in Colonial Williamsburg.49 John Kenneth Galbraith suggested that, given that private needs were met, excess productive capacities could be used for public goods such as schools and parks.50 These ideas, however, were soon set aside when Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers called attention to the fact that large-scale advertising is able to produce artificial, unbounded private wants.51 The notion that people can be sated by buying a given amount of goods and services, any amount, went out the window. Capitalism banks on people wanting ever more, whether or not they need more.
In the decades that followed World War II, industrial corporations discovered that they could manufacture artificial needs for whatever products they were selling. For instance, first women and then men were taught that they smelled bad and needed to purchase deodorants. Men who used to wear white shirts and gray flannel suits learned that they “had to” purchase a variety of shirts and suits and that last year’s style was not proper in the year that followed. Soon, it was not just suits but also cars, ties, handbags, sunglasses, watches, and numerous other products that had to be constantly replaced to keep up with the latest trends. More recently, people have been convinced that they have various illnesses (such as restless leg syndrome) requiring medications.
One cannot stress enough that the quest for a new definition of the good life is a project for those whose creature comforts have been well and securely met. Urging such a project on individuals, classes, or societies that have not reached that stage of economic development is to promote what sociologists call “status acceptance,” to urge the “have-nots” to love their misery. It is to provide a rationale to those who “have” all they need and more—and who deny such basics to others. Such a position hardly comports with a definition of a good life.
To reiterate, material consumption per se is not the issue. Maslow does not suggest an austere life of sacks and ashes or of making a virtue out of poverty. Rather, his theory holds that securing basic creature comforts is fully legitimate. However, material consumption turns into an obsession when—after necessities are provided—people use the means suitable for attending to creature comforts to try to buy affection, esteem, and even self-actualization. This point is the subject of a considerable number of plays and novels, most dramatically Death of a Salesman. In the play, the husband (the context is of earlier generations where breadwinners were typically men) neglects his spouse, children, and community by investing his time and energy in “bringing home the bacon.” In the process, both he and his family are shortchanged.
Maslow’s conception of the good life falls short, however, in its characterization of self-actualization as the highest good. It is far from clear what he means by this concept, although leading with the “self” serves as a warning signal. Maslow does not find that self-actualization is best achieved by finding meaning in or serving anything greater than self. Any and all forms of self-expression seem equally valued. As implied by its name, self-actualization is highly individualistic and reflects Maslow’s premise that the self is “sovereign and inviolable” and entitled to “his or her own tastes, opinions, values, etc.”52 That is, self-actualization refers to an individual need for fulfillment.53 The particular form self-actualization takes varies greatly from person to person. In some individuals, “it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions.”54 Indeed, some have characterized Maslow’s self-actualization as “healthy narcissism.”55
Contributions to Sustainability and Social Justice
If postmodern societies could develop a culture of moderation where everyone could attain sufficient income to secure basic creature needs and cultivate nonmaterialistic values, that culture would provide one obvious and one less obvious additional major contribution to higher levels of contentment as well as less alienation and populism.
Obviously, a good life that moderates material consumption and fosters nonmaterialistic pursuits is much less taxing on the environment than is consumerism. Practices centering on transcendental, nonmaterialistic values usually require relatively few resources, fossil fuels, or other sources of energy. Social activities (such as spending more time with children) demand time and personal energy but not large material or financial outlays (often those who spend large amounts of money on their kids’ toys or entertainment bond less with them than those whose relations are less mediated by objects). The same holds for cultural and spiritual activities such as prayer, meditation, enjoying and making music, art, sports, and adult education. True, consumerism has turned many of these pursuits into expensive endeavors. However, one can break out of this mentality and find that it is possible to engage in most nonmaterialistic activities quite profoundly using a moderate number of goods and services. One does not need designer clothes to enjoy the sunset or shoes with fancy labels to benefit from a hike. In short, the transcendental society is much more sustainable than consumeristic capitalism.
Much less obvious are the ways a culture of moderation serves social justice. Social justice demands fair distribution of material resources among different social groups. This entails reallocation of wealth from those disproportionally endowed to those who are underprivileged. A major reason such reallocation of wealth has been surprisingly limited in free societies is that the wealthy also tend to be politically powerful. Promoting social justice by organizing those with less, and forcing those in power to yield, has had limited success in democratic countries and led to massive bloodshed in others. If, however, those wielding power would embrace a culture of moderation, they would be much more ready to share their assets. This thesis is supported by the behavior of middle-class people committed to the values of giving and attending to the least among us—values prescribed by many religions and by left liberalism. This important thesis requires a whole distinct study and is included here merely to mention a major side benefit of the new culture, rather than document it.
There are three major sources of nonmaterialistic contentment that provide for a life reaching beyond the self. While all are compatible with the Maslowian hierarchy of human needs, they also add a new dimension or requirement to the way these needs are to be understood and pursued. Because these sources of contentment are very familiar, they are only briefly listed below.
The Contentment of Mutuality
Spending time with those with whom one shares bonds of affinity—children, spouses, friends, members of one’s community—has often been shown to make people content.56 Indeed, approval by intimate others is a main source of affection and esteem, Maslow’s second layer of human needs. However, social relations are about more than making the ego happy. These relationships are based on mutuality, in which two people “give” and “receive” in one and the same act. Those who engage in lasting, meaningful, and effective relationships find them to be a major source of mutual enrichment, which can be achieved with very little expenditure or material costs. (Note that much of the literature contrasts ego-centered activities with altruistic ones.57 Much more attention should be paid to mutuality, because it is much more common and more stable than altruism.)
Both introverts and extroverts report feeling happier when they are with other people.58 Derek Bok writes that “several researchers have concluded that human relationships and connections of all kinds contribute more to happiness than anything else.”59 Conversely, people who are socially isolated are less happy than those who have strong social relationships. As one study put it, “Adults who feel socially isolated are also characterized by higher levels of anxiety, negative mood, dejection, hostility, fear of negative evaluation, and perceived stress, and by lower levels of optimism, happiness, and life satisfaction.”60 Research shows that married people are happier than those who are single, divorced, widowed, separated, or cohabiting.61 In addition, the presence of close friendships can have nearly as strong an impact on contentment as a successful marriage.62
Contentment from Community Involvement
Researchers who examined the effect of community involvement (as opposed to merely socializing with friends or family) also found a strong correlation with happiness. One study, which evaluated survey data from forty-nine countries, noted that membership in nonchurch organizations has a significant positive correlation with happiness.63 Bok notes, “Some researchers have found that merely attending monthly club meetings or volunteering once a month is associated with a change in well-being equivalent to a doubling of income.”64 Other studies have observed that individuals who devote substantial amounts of time to volunteer work have greater life satisfaction than all others.65
Political participation, too, can yield the fruits of bonding and meaningful activities. As one scholar notes, using the terms of an economist, “Citizens do not only gain utility from the outcome of the political process and its material consequences but also from the democratic process itself.”66 This is particularly true when the political culture and processes are perceived as fair and, thus, even those whose preferred candidates are defeated feel that they had their day in court.67 Also, research shows that adolescents who have a greater commitment to society or pursue some meaningful social cause are more content than their less engaged peers.68 (This promotion of community involvement is reminiscent of Robert Putnam’s notion of social capital, i.e., the sort of close community bonds he suggests ward off a variety of social ills.)69
Some scholars have been more critical of community involvement. Pierre Bourdieu suggests that the social capital associated with communal bonds is possessed not by the community but by individuals who then deploy it in social struggles with others in their community.70 Thus, where Putnam might prize a social club like the Elks for cultivating social stability and trust, Bourdieu might see a small in-group whose members seek to outmaneuver communal competitors.
As I see it,71 smaller communities are best integrated into more encompassing communities—families into neighborhoods, neighborhoods into regional communities, and these into national, and, best, supranational ones.72 The more encompassing loyalties help mitigate the tendency of smaller communities to maximize their well-being at the expense of others. When such loyalties are absent, the correct move is to add commitments to the more encompassing communities rather than give up on the rich fruits of the smaller ones.
Transcendental (Religious, Spiritual, and Intellectual) Pursuits
Extensive evidence indicates that people who consider themselves religious, express a belief in God, or regularly attend religious services are more content than those who do not. According to one study, agreement with the statement “God is important in my life” was associated with a gain of 3.5 points on a 100-point scale of happiness.73 (For comparison, unemployment is associated with a 6-point drop on the same scale.) Other studies show that those with a deep religious faith are healthier, live longer, and have lower rates of divorce, crime, and suicide.74 Robert Putnam and David Campbell reported that “a common finding [of happiness researchers] is that religiosity is among the closest correlates of life satisfaction, at least as strong as income.”75 They found that the difference in happiness between a person who goes to church once a week and someone who does not attend church was “slightly larger than the difference between someone who earns $10,000 a year and his demographic twin who earns $100,000 a year.”76
There is some debate as to whether the effect of religiosity on happiness is attributable to participation in religious activities (attending church services, involvement with a religious community) or religious belief. Layard characterizes the correlation between belief in God and life satisfaction as “one of the most robust findings of happiness research,”77 whereas Putnam and Campbell argue, “The religious edge in life satisfaction has less to do with faith itself than with communities of faith.”78 Whoever is correct, one still learns that religious life is positively correlated with happiness.
There seems to be less research on transcendental activities other than religious pursuits. However, the existing evidence indicates that participation in activities of profound meaning to the individual is associated with happiness. For example, “two studies that examined groups that chose to change their lifestyle to achieve personal values such as ‘environmental friendliness’ and ‘voluntary simplicity’ found that both experienced higher levels of well-being.”79 A study used survey data from more than five hundred subscribers of a back-to-the-land magazine to measure participants’ sense of well-being and determine whether they lived up to their sustainability values. The researchers found that those who were able to put their values into practice (live in a sustainable, ecologically friendly manner) were more satisfied with their lives than those who did not.80
Much like social activities, volunteering, and political action, transcendental activities also provide nonconsumerist sources of contentment. Although some can be isolating and self-centered, many also serve community building.
The patriotic movement must ask which economic system will best serve the renewed national purpose. Most nations act as if they consider the affluent life as the good life that the national government should help promote. However, it is far from clear that all nations can find a high growth pathway or, even if they could, whether a world in which ever-more billions of people each consume ever more is sustainable. Most importantly, this chapter shows that even if such consumption were possible, ever-higher income and material consumption do not provide for ever-higher levels of contentment. Instead, the patriotic movement ought to favor an economy that ensures that everyone has their basic needs well met. Once this has been achieved, people will limit their further consumption and use the freed time and resources to gain contentment from other sources. Namely, contentment will be derived from sources that are neither labor- nor capital-intensive, ones that are sustainable and more amenable to redistribution. These include cultivating intimate relations, public service (e.g., volunteering), and transcendental activities.
I started this book by pointing out that moral dialogues are needed for the moral agenda of the patriotic movement to percolate up, not to be dictated down. I provide several topics that such dialogues will have to cover if the patriotic movement is to provide a solid foundation for liberal democracy, such as the proper level and kind of trade and immigration, and the need to balance individual rights and the common good. At the top of the list of these topics is the question, What values should we gear the economy to serve?
More generally, the patriotic movement needs to achieve more than merely reuniting us by reinforcing the national community to contain—but not suppress!—differences. It must figure out what we are all seeking to accomplish together, above and beyond our varying personal and subgroup pursuits, and what kind of future we envision for the nation—aside from what we labor to gain for our families, local communities, and various identity groups. It is not enough to stress that we are, all of us, in this boat together and should be sure to keep it afloat. We would do best to concern ourselves with where it is destined to sail and how it has to be reconstructed to travel to wherever we are seeking to reach.