After some thinking, I have found the cause of unhappiness. It is nuclear weapons. The economics and psychology behind my finding is simple. The reason for your not figuring it out is also related to the reason why we are unhappy.
People have long noted that money does not make us happy. This is true, and should have been obvious to anyone who has conceptual understanding of the human mind. The human mind has a finite capacity for happiness. Just because you possess more material wealth than your parents, you are no happier than they, because, after all, you inherited your mind and consequently the capacity for happiness from them. Besides, it is well-known that your mind obtains satisfaction by comparing itself with what it had yesterday, and what others have today, not with what your parents had a generation ago. This fact combined with the laws of diminishing margin return and diminishing marginal utility are adequate to explain why we are unhappy. The law of diminishing marginal return ensures that our economic growth slows down as our economy grows, and the law of diminishing marginal utility means that every percentage point of growth gives me less additional happiness than the last one gave me.
I have not expounded anything new so far. Many philosophers, psychologists and economists have figured this out. But having discovered this, they then make the mistake of assuming that money does not matter. That is nonsense. We are happy when we are getting rich, not when we are rich. I am happy now that I have a house with a bedroom window that opens out to greenery, but that is only because I spent my childhood in a Maharashtra Housing Board house that opened out to other people’s windows. The problem is that my son will grow up used to such relative affluence. That will not make him happy and so he will join a religious cult in search of happiness. What can be done to avoid such an eventuality?
One idea that I thought of is to slow down economic growth to a crawl, so that people can savour every moment of it. Unfortunately, this is unworkable. People will get bored of slow growth and soon rebel. Besides, this will only postpone the problem, not solve it.
I had gotten thus far in my ruminations and was getting no further, when enlightenment struck me in the checkout counter of Shop Rite here in New Jersey, where I am currently located. The medium for the enlightenment was the cover of the latest edition of “Cosmopolitan”, which promised that the reader would find inside “8 sex positions we have never told you before about!”
It occurred to me that this was impossible, given the laws of Physics. Cosmopolitan has been introducing supposedly new sex positions in every one of its issues. The human body’s skeletal structure puts certain limits on how many degrees of freedom it has. Assuming sex between two people, it is easy to calculate the upper limit on how many sex positions there can be. It is reasonably certain that the there have been more issues of the Cosmopolitan than this theoretical upper limit. The Cosmopolitan, I reflected, has fallen victim to the same malaise that afflicts society as it tries to squeeze out the last vestiges of interest from readers who are saturated with information.
I concluded that in today’s society, life was difficult for moderately intelligent people. In the past, they’d read books by more intelligent people and interpret them for others. But now with easy access to information, everyone has access to information, interpretations of information, interpretations of interpretations of information, ad nauseum. So the moderately intelligent economist, not finding a job explaining basic economics to people, is often engaged in the supremely pointless task of discovering “Islamic banking”, which is basically an exercise in finding new words for interest, or “Socialism with a market face” which is basically an exercise in finding new words for profit-making, etc.”
The same crisis affects the moderately talented novelist who has to find an aspect of the human condition unexplored before, the moderately talented artiste who has to find a dance routine not danced before and the moderately talented comedian who has to find a joke not made before.
The culprit in all these cases, I mused as I paid for my groceries (and completely forgot to pick up a case of orange juice, thereby losing 2 dollars – 90 rupees!) was society’s ready access to information. If society could periodically lose its store of knowledge, then it would make life better for a large number of people as they rediscovered essential philosophical truths, invented the same sex positions once again and explored the same aspects of the human condition once again.
I then realised that I had the key to human happiness, viz periodic destruction.
The long period of relative peace that we are enjoying now is unnatural. If society were periodically destroyed by war, pestilence and famine, then the period between those disasters would be spent in rebuilding society. The daily struggle for existence would make people aware of the value of acquiring and building wealth. Having watched the death of their brothers, men would realise the importance of family and would be closer to their fellow men. They could afford the joys of a large family, in fact they’d need to have large families because when the next wave of destruction comes, most of their children would be killed and only a few would remain to carry on the family name. Great art could be written, because it is only in times of suffering that meaningful art is written. Great discoveries would be remade and great sex can be had, but then I repeat myself.
Now the perceptive and the moderately intelligent among you might have an obvious question. You might say that while people might be at their happiest in the interval between waves of destruction, would not the periods of destruction be times of great unhappiness? Would a netting out not occur, leaving us no happier than before?
No. That would not be true. Remember that it is much easier to destroy than to build, which is another way of saying that the period of recovery would be inevitably longer than the period of destruction. When the plague comes, or a war happens, people are very unhappy of course, but then they quickly adjust to their new condition, and they reconcile themselves to the long, but immensely fulfilling task of rebuilding from the debris of their previous world.
This then is the recipe to happiness. What prevents us from achieving it? A moment’s thought tells us that the culprit has to be nuclear weapons. While it is clear that economic progress will inevitably cure us of famine and plague, there is no reason why it should have caused an end to wars. Wars are fought with other humans who also have access to the fruits of progress, so in theory we could have fought wars for ever, and wars would have brought famine and plague back with them. These three horsemen would together take us back to the paradise where there was a world waiting to be rebuilt, and a whole ocean of knowledge to be rediscovered.
Unfortunately, one awful invention came about to bring an untimely end to the endless cycle of human happiness and, by causing a pestilential peace, has left us in a state of uneasy unhappiness, and that is the nuclear bomb. I don’t need to tell you how it has made war unthinkable – you know the deal. You will hear the spiel from many “peace activists” who will simultaneously warn us that we shouldn’t fight each other because nuclear weapons have made war too awful to contemplate, and in the next breath call for an abolition of nuclear weapons, without realising that they are in fact contradicting themselves. But I call for the abolition of nuclear weapons for a truly justifiable purpose – the advancement of human happiness by periodic destruction of society.
This then is my contribution to happiness research. Many economists are trying to come up with a measure for happiness, so that they can improve upon the GDP as a measure of how well we are doing. They do not realise that what they are faced with is not a measurement problem, but a conceptual and philosophical problem: What is happiness? I hope that by shedding light on this tricky subject, I have advanced the cause of the human race, and I also hope that the next great wave of destruction will erase this knowledge from our consciousness, to be rediscovered by my happy intellectual descendants.