Finding Adam Smith – again

If it weren’t for the terrible loss of our loved ones, the Covid19 pandemic would be the first-ever global opportunity to put a value on the statement that human wellbeing increases through consumption. This was one of the fundamental presumptions behind the economic growth models, which, through globalization, turned into a central force behind different forms of governance. However, it’s just a presumption. There is no evidence that buying more makes us happier. On the contrary, compulsive consumption conflicts with our nature and our biology. Happiness is a subjective experience and, as such, cannot be measured universally. It is an individual experience influenced by multiple constantly changing factors and strongly affected by character, personality, and circumstances.

The idea of pursuing happiness through consumption has been skillfully used in marketing to stimulate people to buy new stuff continually. Therefore, the experience of happiness through consumption is closer to pleasure than to the wellbeing. As Robert Sapolsky describes it, this behavior inevitably leads to anxiety and emptiness amid the effects of habituation. It does so because ‘nothing is ever as good as the first time’. ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice’. The first time we taste, see, smell, touch, or hear something new, it gets registered in our senses, pointing the strongest (both negative and positive) impression. But next time we taste, see, smell, touch, or hear that same thing, our senses will not register a double impression.

On the contrary, the intensity will decrease. Our brain has got habituated. We are not getting the reward that we have expected. Hence, the feeling of emptiness starts taking over. The stronger it gets, the more frustrated we get.

In nature, the balance of effort and pleasure will get established through motion, adventure, and the thrill of the uncertainty. Frustration is an evolutionary response to not finding pleasure. It aims to boost us with adrenaline. To give us the kick in the butt and make us react. This way not finding a delicious meal that we were hoping to find after a long, dangerous, and energy-consuming quest will result in a kick that will make us keep on searching. The other alternative is to stay put and curse our luck, destiny, gods, society, etc. In nature, the second alternative means certain death; hence it is rarely chosen. In human nature, however, it is quite often a choice of ‘action’.

That is one of the tradeoffs of living in society. Under the presumption that ‘society will take care of it,’ we sacrifice part of our freedom and capability. The good thing is that society does take care of many of the problems we otherwise couldn’t take care of on our own. The bad thing is that society often provides artificial responses to the artificially created needs.

In the consumer society, pleasures are often artificially created. As such, they may be many times stronger than the natural ones and according to Sapolsky “the unnaturally strong explosions of synthetic experience and sensation and pleasure evoke unnaturally strong degrees of habituation”. In other words, “the more we consume the hungrier we get”.

Consumer society makes us confuse the hamster wheel for a roller coaster, and, according to Mariano Rojas, it all began when “economics abandoned its interest in happiness in order to focus on the study of choice”. At some point, we took the wrong turn, and the illusion of freedom of choice has multiplied artificial needs. But there was another way. The paradox is that the other way was proposed from the beginning by the same man whose ideas hold the foundations of capitalism.

Two industrial revolutions have been carried out often quoting Adam Smith’s relation between the individual pursuit of self-interest and the good of society. However, the discourse often ignored that “wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquility of mind than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys”, as Smith defined it. If the reading of Adam Smith hasn’t been guided by self-interest, economy, society, and most importantly, the Earth’s carrying capacity would look very different today. 

Filling the void with things is unsustainable, both from the psychological health and from the ecological perspective. One way to ease the tension that arises from the pressures of consumer society is developing inner mechanisms of defense. Mindfulness is one of such mechanisms. Although it should not be considered a panacea to the global and social and environmental challenges, it may be viewed as support towards expanding the individual potential for a collective transition towards a sustainable future. 

“Mindful awareness of our interdependence with nature not only helps us to regain our lost, ecologically embedded identity but also helps us to behave more sustainably”, as my dear professor Christina Wamsler wrote. As such, it should be used towards integrating into our ecological self the perception of our deeper identity that includes all life on Earth, as Arne Naess had described the purpose of deep ecology. At the same time, it provides guidance towards encouraging some universally cherished pro-environmental behaviors such as compassion and gratitude.

By promoting the sense of wellbeing and countering insecurity, through fostering the feeling of trust, gratitude shifts focus from what’s missing to what’s there, which is opposite to what advertising is doing. At the same time, gratitude leads to greater happiness levels and, according to Harvard Medical School (2010), helps people “feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships”. On the other hand, “learning to feel compassion for the suffering of ourselves and others leads us to feel compassion for the suffering of the planet” (Andres Edwards). Through compassion, we can ‘deepen our sense of belonging to the world’, discover our ‘deeper identity’ (Joanna Macy). Together they have the potential to bridge the gap between what we want and what we can do (Robert Kegan) and fill the void with meaning and purpose, instead of doing it with things and consumer goods.

I am not aware of any global study being conducted to measure human wellbeing during the Covid19 pandemic. But from the global responses given by people during the pandemic, it is obvious that compassion and gratitude are values that are much higher regarded than the ability to accumulate wealth. Perhaps at the end of this dark tunnel, we get to find Adam Smith in a completely different light and make our governments understand that “All constitutions of government are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end.” Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

The best way the individual pursuit of self-interest can contribute to the good of society is through understanding that ‘The richest man is not he who has the most, but he who needs the least.’ That is where the Sustainable Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations ought to begin.

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