Home > Economics - General > Towards an economics of unhappiness

Towards an economics of unhappiness

April 12th, 2011

For at least the last decade, there has been a boom in work on the economics of happiness. But following Tolstoy[1], I’ve always wondered why we don’t study the economics of unhappiness instead: after all, there’s so much more data.

For the last year or so, I’ve been planning a paper in which I took off from this point and made the case for unhappiness as a driver of economic activity and particularly of economic change (including ‘growth[2]’). But, as usually happens[3] with my thoughts along these lines, it looks as if someone has beaten me to it.

Chris pointed me to this piece by Stefano Bartolini, which argues that people strive to increase their wealth as a response to the negative externalities generated by positional externalities[4] and the destruction of social capital.

I’ve also been reading a translation of Sedlacek’s Economics of Good and Evil, a surprise hit in the original Czech, which discusses many of the same issues, focusing on the contrast between the economics of the ancients and that of Adam Smith.

I have a more positive take on unhappiness. It’s possible, I think, to want something better than what you have (for many different values of “better”) without being actively miserable. In a world where change, both good and bad, is inevitable, cultivating a position of stoical detachment seems to me to be something of a copout[5}

fn1. Tolstoy had his own economic ideas, which drew (not surprisingly for the time, and for a dissident landowner on Henry George)

fn2. Growth, like GDP is a tremendously unsatisfactory and misleading concept when dealing with complicated economic aggregates, some components increasing and others decreasing. But that’s another post.

fn3. Often by a fair stretch of time, as I’m very slack about reading the literature. I was very pleased with my discovery of Ramsey’s Rule of Saving until I discovered that Ramsey had got there first.

fn4. To translate from the economese, the fact that some social benefits depend more on your relative position than your absolute wealth means that if one person becomes better off, others are worse off.

fn5. Does this useful slang term have an equivalent in formal English? I can’t think of one that isn’t a paraphrase.

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  1. 2 tanners
    April 12th, 2011 at 22:56 | #1

    You should write it anyway. There’s so much unhappiness around, any efficient markets theorist will tell you that proves that there’s enough demand for it to justify the supply 🙂

    BTW a copout is an abdication of responsibility.

  2. SJ
    April 12th, 2011 at 23:08 | #2

    A “copout” is an evasion, i.e. a failure to address the question.

    BTW it’s good to see you using Dan Davies approach to footnotes. 🙂

  3. Scott
    April 13th, 2011 at 07:29 | #3

    I think ‘copout’ is a perfectly respectable word and should not be excluded from the formal English that academics use, even if it is a stretch to imagine Her Magesty using the word.

  4. Ikonoclast
    April 13th, 2011 at 09:54 | #4

    Can I extract the key thoughts of JQ’s post? I get these;

    “(Making) the case for unhappiness as a driver of economic activity and particularly of economic change (including ‘growth[2]’).”

    “I have a more positive take on unhappiness. It’s possible, I think, to want something better than what you have (for many different values of “better”) without being actively miserable.”

    First up I would wonder, are the “economics of unhappiness” a driver for development when poverty is widespread? Secondly, are the “economics of (moderate and immoderate?) happiness” the driver for further development when poverty is overcome?

    Then I would wonder if “happiness” and “unhappiness” are at all objectively measureable or determinable (from the outside view) looking at an individual or group, class or nation. How would one measure “happiness” and “unhappiness” to determine if they correlate with growth and thus appear to be drivers. I guess one can set up a misery index, perhaps considerably more sophisticated than that devised by economist Arthur Okun.

    Overall, I would wonder if the question (Is unhappiness or happiness a driver of development ie change and growth?) has any real meaning. If by “driver” we mean “contributing cause” then I do doubt the question has any meaning except at an abstruse and very speculative level. Classes of people can be miserable for a very long time (the peasants of Russia) without their misery being an effective driver of economic change. Many other contributing drivers, causes and necessary conditions must exist and come into play (within what is a complex system with many feedback loops) before that kind of change happens.

    The question implies a search for causes although it could also imply a search for Laws. Philosophically speaking the two searches are quite different, the search for causes being illusory and the search for Laws being the correct approach. The issue with “causes” is that causes for complex phenomena are numerous, they are chained (in many links of causes of causes and so on ad infinitum) and they may often require many necessary conditions (pre-conditions) to become operative.

    It is doubly appropriate to mention Tolstoy. Tolstoy is vitally interested in the question of “causes” as well as the question of happiness-unhappiness. “War and Peace” has a two part epilogue. Part 1 of the Epilogue is a philosophical essay with no narrative at all. (Part 2 of the Epilogue is standard narrative epilogue.) In this philosophical essay Tolstoy questions, with great success, the standard historians’ tendency to ascribe “causes”, for the most part grossly simplified and quite fallacious causes, for great historical events.

    Economic change (on the large scale) qualifies as a great and continuing historical event. The ascription of a “simple” drivers or causes, especially ones so tenuous as “happiness-unhappiness” seems to be “barking up the wrong tree”. (Is there a single english word for that?)

    I would recommend;

    1. Read “War and Peace” in its entirety or just for now read the Epilogue Part 1 (the philosophical essay). It contains no plot spoilers.

    2. Read up on the latest developments in Biophysical Economics (Thermoeconomics). Biophysical Economics promises a quantitive approach to understanding the economy. The rider of course is that Biophysical Economics does not claim to be a replacement for the current economics of any or all schools. It does not claim to be able to say anything about the many political, social and psyhcological determinants of economic beahviour. It does however show promise for becoming a new branch of economics able to provide another set of quantitative comparisons of great practical use. It also shows great promise for dealing with issues related to limits to growth, unsustainable and sustainable economic practices, assessing natural capital depletion and costing (and management of) negative externalities issues.

    In a word, Biophysical Economics promises to be a much more practical anmd fruitful field of investigation.

  5. Ikonoclast
    April 13th, 2011 at 10:04 | #5

    PLOT SPOILER ALERT! Its actully Part 2 not Part 1 of the Epilogue that is the philosophical essay. My apologies!

  6. jrbarch
    April 13th, 2011 at 10:43 | #6

    Dear John,

    In 5 min. of reading I think I covered the economics of happiness (and its absence unhappiness) fairly well here:


    Let’s get to the coalface: it took people a long time to work out where the rain came from; that the earth wasn’t flat; that the sun and planets do not orbit the earth; the universe is expanding and matter is synonymous with energy. I am setting up this discovery analogy seriously and deliberately here.

    Here in Aus. there are in my perusal, only three economists who do not practice 100% ‘flat-earth economics’: Bill Mitchell, Steve Keen and yourself. Bill is way out in front; Steve is a little dazzled by the light reflecting off his suit of armour and can’t quite see the vertical horizon; you seem to sit around and mutter little snippets of wisdom about just about anything that passes your desktop and are perhaps are a little bored?

    Well, here’s the real challenge!

    In terms of economics, human beings have always represented value with something tangible, but for the first time in human history, since 1971, sane governments are constitutionally enabled to create as many ‘credits’ (currency) as they like. The NEW potential they have to benefit the people of their country is now constrained only by real resources – and not a monetary system tied to something. These governments are also responsible for their country’s Law. This should have been a paradigm change in economics and governance on this planet, of profound significance and far-reaching effect on human welfare!

    HPM creation does not cause inflation when there is spare capacity in the economy. There is no logical reason why government should fund itself through bond sales (MMT shoots down all of the current excuses perfectly).

    I am not saying you should do anything other than appraise MMT with your eyes wide open; and be true to your own thought processes.

    The current fixation in the world on debt is obsessive and harmful (pathology) and should be turned around to embrace and celebrate the privilege made available through fiat currency to progress human welfare.

    I think your book and Steve’s work are fine, but why falter at the edge of a flat earth when you could travel on?

    Respectfully and cheers …

  7. Ikonoclast
    April 13th, 2011 at 12:33 | #7


    I would concur with all that you say in the above post. I haven’t read your link in full yet.

    Yes, I think MMT theory as advanced by CofFEE deserves a guernsy and needs to be in play and dominant in the main game at the top. It’s a tragedy that it isn’t.

    Yes, I concur that Bill Mitchell, Steve Keen and John Quiggin represent the most (maybe the only) progressive and intellectually substantial economists in Australia (to the best of my knowledge anyway). Each perhaps has their blind spot which would be more than ameliorated and compenasated by teaming the three up to together in some way. If you can name the top Australian Biophysical Economist, I would him or her to the pantheon quite frankly.

    If only a Federal Government (it would have to be Green or Labor returning to its proper traditions) would appoint the above four personages to an economic advisory panel with a view to properly and fully reforming Australia’s economy and dealing with AGW and LTG. It would be my Economic Dream Team for sure.

    (I know I beard and bait JQ on certain issues but I still respect him greatly.)

  8. Peter T
    April 13th, 2011 at 12:48 | #8

    I notice that Bartolini does not define “growth”. He seems to mean something like “growth in production and consumption of traded goods and services”. I thought it a peculiar omission.

  9. may
    April 13th, 2011 at 13:24 | #9

    being a not academically economically educated.

    a person who likes their job is easier to get along with and takes pride in what they do.

    if i need a service or good that i have to pay for,i seek out that kind of person.

    grumpy unhappy people some times stuff things up just for the hell of it.

    it can be very annoying.

  10. may
    April 13th, 2011 at 13:25 | #10

    and expensive.

  11. Donald Oats
    April 13th, 2011 at 16:16 | #11

    Well, the stoic approach is an adroit but misguided one, and muttering “copout” is fine, as far as it goes. However, the stoic detachment from life might only be a detachment from economic life; it is possible to flourish and live the good life without engaging in “keeping up with the Jones’s” as a driver of change. Keeping up with the Jones’s is the doctrine of relativity, something the Stoics identified as envy, in this context. What if instead, someone indulges their desires to produce great art, and yet fails to keep up with the Jones’s; perhaps they have what it takes to affect inner contentment, no?

    The notion of happiness as an extended state of being is itself a meretricious one; how many happy people do you know, in the sense that they are permanently and indefatigably-to-a-fault happy? I would argue that such a person doesn’t really exist outside of philosophy debates, and furthermore, are they not affecting a distorted perversion of Stoic attitude by being happy independently of the external environment viz-a-viz their happiness is a constant of nature, not affected by nature?

    Perhaps the entire Western concept of happiness as something attainable permanently, something to be sort after, a life-long aspiration – or unhappiness, if you prefer – is a failed comprehension of what happiness actually is? For example, is an implacably happy person – in the above sense – able to yell at the kids, be upset at a sudden death in the family, to feel some compassion and sympathy for others in distress? Or are these events admissible intrusions upon an otherwise immutable state of bliss? I’d say that this notion of happiness/unhappiness is in need of repair, or at least of refinement.

    Scurrying off now, skulking away to compare my wretched material concerns against the neighbour’s much more extensive collection of motorised contraptions…

  12. Ernestine Gross
    April 13th, 2011 at 19:23 | #12

    ‘The economics of happiness’ and ‘the economics of unhappiness’ is a point where I lose interest in economics. What next? The ‘economics of religious beliefs’?

  13. Alice
    April 13th, 2011 at 19:26 | #13

    @Donald Oats
    Ha ha Don – damn the neighbours contraptions (they really dont matter) – you know I think the only thing that can sometimes bring us close to what real happiness is – I know its not ideal – its a near death experience. I had one of those and vaguely recall thinking before I passed out and became semi delirious was

    “oh my god – Ive been working too hard and my boy is only eight years old” Then I thought in my delirium “Im going to be completely honest about what I really think…about life, politics, equity, justice, fairness…because you only get one life to do or say the right thing no matter how much other people may think you odd / left / radical or nuts”.

    I mean who really cares about labels?. At the end of the day you get to die with your own conscience lying right next to you and its too late to change anything when you are dying…and hopefully you havent been lying your whole life away!

    My two cents worth. Hope its not too depressing a thought.

  14. Alice
    April 13th, 2011 at 19:36 | #14

    @Ernestine Gross
    I agree Ernestine re “the economics of happiness”. Ill leave that to other social scientists thanks. If it was the economics of reducing the ridiculously rising inequality so that more people can be happy thats an entirely different matter and that is economics.

  15. Ernestine Gross
    April 13th, 2011 at 20:21 | #15


    “If it was the economics of reducing the ridiculously rising inequality so that more people can be happy thats an entirely different matter and that is economics.”

    That is not what I had in mind.

  16. Alice
    April 13th, 2011 at 20:35 | #16

    @Ernestine Gross
    Well Im not quite sure what you did have in mind Ernestine and I dont mean to be disrespectful (I have a lot of respect for your contributions given you clearly have suoerior command of the mathematical side of economics than I do) but I think reduction of the gross inequalities in the income and wealth distributions we see in many nations, should be at the top of the economic agenda, given its path…and economic welfare is supposed to be maximised in this science and should reflect in current policy.

    For whom is economic welfare to be maximised I ask? I thought it was supposed to be for the majority.

  17. plaasmatron
    April 13th, 2011 at 20:41 | #17

    In terms of possessions, which ultimately relates to economics, happiness can be summed up as

    “it’s not what you (think you) have, it’s what you (think you) are going to get”

    Since physical gratification is currently dominant over spiritual gratification, this could be a starting hypothesis for your paper JQ.

  18. Jill Rush
    April 14th, 2011 at 01:41 | #18

    Anthropologists have a long history of studying the relative impact of wealth and status on happiness. In essence Anthropology posits that a poor person in a wealthy society will be unhappier than a rich person in a poor society because of the standing within that society even if the poor person in the wealthier society is in relative terms richer than the rich person in a poor society. Sorry no easy reference to hand.

  19. Donald Oats
    April 14th, 2011 at 08:54 | #19

    @Jill Rush
    Too true. I’ve had cause fairly recently to reflect upon precisely that point. Illness makes many once enjoyable experiences not worth the bother, or even too painful to proceed. Cycling as a major pasttime is one thing that is no longer possible, although I can ride a short distance if absolutely essential. Playing guitar is another difficult; I never seem to be able to suffer enough basic practice to get to the “barely excrutiating” stage, at least for third party listeners; this too is due to a combination of mental fatigue and pain.

    So, the point is that if a psychiatrist looks at that and says well, just don’t do the painful or mentally fatiguing things, they would be ignoring some of the (dare I say it) happiness that activities such as the above do bring me. Something has been lost. Yet if I engage in the though experiment of transplanting my support network, home environment and what-have-you to outback GodDamnIstan, where people work sunrise to sunset for a rice grain and a shiny coin a day, I would be thinking “Streuth, life is pretty good (for me)!” Since noone else would be bothering themselves with guitars and mountainbikes, they being too busy avoiding military coups and drug lords, the vultures and the mountain lions, I’d be KING!

    Drop me back in western society again, and woosh! wouldn’t the residual happiness fade like a most-loved t-shirt’s artwork. Once beyond the most elementary necessities of life, happiness is achieved in part by relativity, namely status affected by possessions and skilfullness relative to others; in part by instrinsic value, namely our own rating of the value of achieving a certain proficiency (skill) or acquiring a certain object (eg a pet cat or dog etc).

  20. Alice
    April 14th, 2011 at 08:58 | #20

    @Jill Rush
    The gap between the poor person and the rich person can become relatively larger (or smaller) over time in either the rich country or the poor country, so that sort of study makes no comment about the gap and how changes in it can affect peoples happiness.


  21. Ikonoclast
    April 14th, 2011 at 09:43 | #21

    Happiness is over-rated. A more important state of mind and capacity to cultivate (for overall well-being) is absorbtion; the ability to become fully absorbed and immersed in something whether it be work, play, hobby or exercise. The state of occupation and absorbtion stills that carping, internal dialogue of negative judgements and negative comparisons by which we stir up discontent in ourselves.

    Donald Oats’ train of thought also rang a few bells for me. I hate cooking but have to do most of it these days as I am now the house-spouse. The other day as I was preparing a curry and dicing the onions, I realised something. In my discontent, the internal dialogue was “I don’t know how any one can enjoy cooking.” By the slow cumbrous way I was cutting, every slice of the knife was effectively reinforcing this message “I hate cooking, I hate cooking”.

    The clear answer is to speed up the dull mechanical actions as much as possible. That is why good cooks dice so fast. It not only speeds up preparation time, it gets to the point where the rapid mechanical actions of cooking become almost unconsciously executed (though still paradoxically requiring a kind of absorbtion in the task to avoid accidents like a slice of finger in the curry).

    By making the mechanical aspect rapid, unconscious and efficient, the good cook can move up into that zone where they are enjoying the creativity of cooking, the tastes and the company of meals. I think this is true for all work, art and craft disciplines. The purely mechanical aspects of the discipline require us to drill ourselves until it all becomes automatic and easy at that level.

    Where this gets us on the “economic happiness” topic I am not sure. Freud (whose patently unscientific work I reject in many ways) still made a few good observations. One of the best is “There is neurotic misery in the world and then there is real misery”. Again, the absence of real misery and real pain brings a greater improvement than movement from boredom or lacklustre-ness to “happiness” We also ought to look at how much of advertising is intended to make people discontented unless they get something more. Avoiding as many advertising messages as you can helps. Or if you can’t always avoid them, disparage and ridicule them mericlessly.

    Perhaps in economics “happiness” and “unhappiness” have slightly different and more technical meanings than they do in common parlance; more related to attempts to measure misery by a (pseudo?) quantitiative misery index. Any economist wish to enlighten us on this?

  22. Jim Birch
    April 14th, 2011 at 11:01 | #22

    @Ernestine Gross
    You don’t have to wait. The “economics” of religious belief is an active area of research/discussion in the evolutionary human biology area. One of the key concepts in biology is the organism’s/clan’s/species’ energy budget relative to it’s competitors. The propensity for religious belief – which may entail significant energy expenditure – requires in a tot up of the costs and benefits to reach an evolutionary explanation. From a different direction, Identity Economics etc address the same questions of why human behaviours deviate from simple (or simplistic) economics. IIRC they didn’t have a chapter on religion but that was probably not due to a lack of interest and ideas but more likely to avoid getting shot at.

  23. may
    April 14th, 2011 at 12:36 | #23

    or its not what what (you think) you want its what (you think) others have?


    possessions are only a part of the picture, as any one who has had a good chuck out of “stuff” or been appalled at how much they have accumulated when moving house knows.

  24. TF42
    April 14th, 2011 at 13:18 | #24

    Why is happiness important as an area of study for economics? To the extent that a focus on the best ‘monetary’ outcomes fails to deliver the ‘best’ overall outcome. For example, illness has been shown to seriously reduce happiness (or equivalently increase unhappiness). Therefore in allocating money between, say, health and education, health would receive more when happiness was considered, over the allocation based on ‘monetary’ outcomes.

    Or from another point of view, 100 years ago, economics paid little enough attention to the environmental outcomes of decisions, and today people ask “Could they not foresee that the environment would have a value when we had sufficient food and water?”. Would not the profession be equally as culpable by ignoring the increasing divergence between the monetary measures of growth and what makes the human condition better overall?

  25. Ernestine Gross
    April 14th, 2011 at 20:37 | #25


    I concur with your first paragraph and your onion cutting example later on rings true to me.

    Unfortunately, some contemporary introductory economics texts still convey a different idea. They distinguishing between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’, writing as if it would be an empirical fact (of the same quality as water always running downhill) that ‘work’ results in disutility (something undesirable, making people ‘unhappy’, and carried out only to get an income to buy things which are desirable – make them happy(?)) while ‘leisure’ is shear pleasure (‘happiness’, ‘desirable’). This mindset seems to underly the hierarchies of ‘managers’ in contemporary life who are paid for watching others doing work … causing more ‘unhappiness'(?)

    Imagine the possible changes in income distribution if introductory economics would start off with a formlisation of your idea, namely: “A more important state of mind and capacity to cultivate (for overall well-being) is absorbtion; the ability to become fully absorbed and immersed in something whether it be work, play, hobby or exercise.” (I focus on introductory economics texts because these texts are used in BA(Business) type degrees.)

  26. Ernestine Gross
    April 14th, 2011 at 20:46 | #26

    @Jim Birch

    1. Are you referring to the application of game theoretic models in evolutionary biology?

    2. As you say, the important work concerned with the formation of preferences (eg ‘identity’) provides a stark contrast to simplistic economics (ie the dreaded introductory econ texts, particularly those who measure ‘utility’ in money terms).

  27. Ernestine Gross
    April 14th, 2011 at 20:51 | #27


    1. You also seem to have a bone to pick with Economic Rationalism.

    2. Unfortunately, much of economics which hits the TV screen may not be considered to be of the professional variety. Once again, it looks like a problem with the introductory economics texts.

  28. Ernestine Gross
    April 14th, 2011 at 20:54 | #28

    Now for a nice and fully developed theory of unhappiness. Define unhappiness as ‘non-satiated preferences’. Then all theoretical models which have a Walras Equilibrium as a solution concept and the proof rests on the assumption of non-satiation qualifies as a theory of unhappiness.

  29. Ikonoclast
    April 15th, 2011 at 11:13 | #29

    What if I am unhappy with equilibrium economic theory? 😉

  30. Ikonoclast
    April 15th, 2011 at 11:26 | #30

    I may have been guilty of a spelling error. That makes me unhappy too.

    “Although it’s “absorbed” and “absorbing,” the correct spelling of the noun is “absorption.” …

    Source: http://www.wsu.edu/ absorption Meaning(s)

    (1) (chemistry) a process in which one substance permeates another; a fluid permeates or is dissolved by a liquid or solid
    (2) (physics) the process in which incident radiated energy is retained without reflection or transmission on passing through a medium
    (3) the social process of absorbing one cultural group into harmony with another
    (4) the process of absorbing nutrients into the body after digestion
    (5) complete attention; intense mental effort
    (6) the mental state of being preoccupied by something”

    – pasted from beedictionary.com/common-errors

    What reason there is for changing the “b” to “p” I don’t know. It doesn’t really assist pronunciation although the “b” perhaps changes naturally into a “p” if one says it quickly. But so much of English spelling is not phonetic anyway so why make an exception in this case?

  31. may
    April 15th, 2011 at 12:33 | #31

    dear Ernestine,
    i am not unhappy to be utterly clueless in relation to comment 28.
    Love, May.

    but am extremely unhappy with the obscene american style political visciousness being directed at Wilkie.

  32. Freelander
    April 15th, 2011 at 13:31 | #32


    Harvesting money from addicts could qualify as part of the economics of unhappiness. Given that estimates are that up to forty per cent of gambling revenue coming from so-called problem gamblers, and problem gamblers often progress to the point of deceit and crime, stealing from family, friends and employers, and often resort to embezzlement to feed those harvesting them, maybe we should not be surprised if those willingly and knowingly harvesting them are willing to smear someone who is threatening their revenue.

    Maybe it is a sign of their greed that they are only willing to spend a mere $20 million of their loot to attack Wilkie and the government over the proposed legislation? Viscous smears may prove so much more cost effective.

    Pokie machines are with good reason called the crack cocaine of gambling. The machines are purposefully designed to addict the susceptible user. And as devices designed to create gambling addicts they have been particularly effective.

  33. gerard
    April 15th, 2011 at 14:41 | #33

    So soon as the possession of property becomes the basis of popular esteem, therefore, it becomes also a requisite to the complacency which we call self-respect. In any community where goods are held in severalty it is necessary, in order to his own peace of mind, that an individual should possess as large a portion of goods as others with whom he is accustomed to class himself; and it is extremely gratifying to possess something more than others. But as fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth; and this in turn gives rise to a new standard of sufficiency and a new pecuniary classification of one’s self as compared with one’s neighbours. So far as concerns the present question, the end sought by accumulation is to rank high in comparison with the rest of the community in point of pecuniary strength. So long as the comparison is distinctly unfavourable to himself, the normal, average individual will live in chronic dissatisfaction with his present lot; and when he has reached what may be called the normal pecuniary standard of the community, or of his class in the community, this chronic dissatisfaction will give place to a restless straining to place a wider and ever-widening pecuniary interval between himself and this average standard. The invidious comparison can never become so favourable to the individual making it that he would not gladly rate himself still higher relatively to his competitors in the struggle for pecuniary reputability.

  34. Donald Oats
    April 15th, 2011 at 16:32 | #34

    What you are calling absorption is sometimes referred to as “becoming lost in the moment”, ie in a good way. Sometimes in the HR human work literature it is referred to as “flow”. It is probably an element of each metaphorically-laden idea; certainly, once practice reaches proficiency enough to move to the next level, it is certainly possible to “go Zen” and enjoy the overall experience (eg playing a piece of music with enough competence that it sounds correct to the ear, in reference to some favourite artistic take on it). Cooking where the dicing and slicing feels like all that cooking is about; that is a sure sign of blocking onceself from what Ikonoclast has called “absorption”, and I emphasizie that the blocking is mainly in the brain, not in the tools employed necessarily.

    As someone who has lived with chronic pain for approximately 13 years now, the experience of going Zen on something isn’t a regularly occurring thing – pain intrudes and obstructs, so much of the battle as it were, is in denying pain or in some manner going around it. Of course, the broad literature doesn’t explain how to do that day in, day out, or how to deal with the mental fatigue that hits more quickly as a consequence. There is only so much a brain – my brain – can manage with the resources at its disposal.

    Ah, my brain picked up a notch and I now remember another name for absorption: it is the concept of “openness”, as per Daniel Nettle’s book on “Personality”; he examines the hypothesised five dimensions of personality, and gives what I believe is a fair and balanced critique. Certainly an interesting take on it. Anyway, openness as defined by this theory is the ability to be open to new experience, especially spiritual, sensual, at-one type of experience. It isn’t about being open to new ideas, not as that expression is usually understood, at any rate. Other, earlier labels for openess were “intellect”, and “cultivation” – as in a cultivated individual – so it should be no surprise to find the artistic, creative souls rating fairly high in this category. On the other hand, since this is a personality trait, it isn’t something that is expected to change much during the course of one’s adult life; ironic, really, for a factor labelled as “openness” to new ideas! Psychology is many things, but consistent isn’t one of them 🙂 A particularly interesting characteristic captured by this “openness” factor is the capacity for an individual to be norm-defying, to hold on and practise beliefs that might be considered beyond societal acceptability or on the outer in some way, like atheism, perhaps…but I digress. Clearly being too high on the openness measure mightn’t be a good thing, especially if it isn’t counterbalanced by some other personality factors to some degree.

    At last, the conclusion: if we are but a bundle of five values on five personality dimensions, then our collective propensitive to certain group behaviours of the kind ultimately measured in the GDP and other economic indicators is something economics had better capture as an element of theory. Economic theory had better take notice of modern theory/theories of personality of the individual. Perhaps that has been missing from mainstream economics precisely because the notion of personality has in the past been so difficult to reduce to a set of weights, something that may be a reliable measure of human propensity to certain actions over others, when confronted with a particular economic environment. For example, individuals have wildly different perspectives concerning spend-or-save decisions, yet we (nearly) all have the same underlying nonlinear warping of future tense conceptualised in our noggins, and this goes to the heart of time-ordering of wants, desires, etc. Perhaps some weighting of personality factors may explain the distribution of behaviours of individuals and their spend/save decision-making, for instance.

  35. Alice
    April 15th, 2011 at 18:20 | #35

    Im pretty unhappy with a few things…higher education persists with completely erroneous microeconomic theory in standard microeconomic textbooks (when students actually want economic history, economic philosophy and macroeconomics ie generally something interesting to study in first year), economic department heads often persist in rewarding those peddling Fama and econometric voodoo and unreadable indeciperable pull the other leg papers,

    but most of all Im unhappy with economic policies and ideas (as well as a legal and political system) that are standing idle in the face of (or aiding and abetting) fraud on a monumental scale inside global financial institutions and presiding over governments increasingly directing support to a privileged few who dont need it.

    Strange the things that make people unhappy but I dont think any of my concerns would pass first base for a study on unhappiness by anyone.

    I guess I should just watch more TV and read more Murdoch to learn what I should really be unhappy about and you can bet that is some material deprivation like not having the latest sitcom kitchen in my house.

  36. Ernestine Gross
    April 15th, 2011 at 20:43 | #36

    Ikonoclast :What if I am unhappy with equilibrium economic theory?

    I suppose you could get absorbed, in the sense of (5) in finding out why. (smiley)

  37. paul walter
    April 15th, 2011 at 23:45 | #37

    I get it. If I’m miserable enough, actively enough, I get rich!

  38. Alice
    April 16th, 2011 at 07:46 | #38

    @paul walter
    Paul – now that sounds like a much more interesting topic

    “the economics of miserable activity”

  39. paul walter
    April 16th, 2011 at 12:25 | #39

    No more miserable b…..d than me, Alice. To me some of above ties in with an idea of the “economics of excess” or repressive tolerance, perhaps. Subtle demoralisation.

  40. David Fitzpatrick
    April 16th, 2011 at 14:53 | #40

    What is the economic reason for forcing people on disability support pensions onto the street?

  41. Freelander
    April 16th, 2011 at 15:19 | #41

    @David Fitzpatrick

    The existing chronic undersupply of public begging?

  42. Alice
    April 16th, 2011 at 18:28 | #42

    @David Fitzpatrick
    Hmm let me guess? the assumption that there is equality of opportunity on the street?

    This “equality of opportunity” term is utter garbage. Its meaningless because what it really means is “if there is equality of opportunity we dont have to worry about inequality and redistribution” and for every 1000 plus persons with a disability who cannot seize his opportunities there will be some able bodied prat millionaire who says “I was born and raised in the street in poverty but I made the most of my opportunities.”

    Its a convenient do nothing approach to the welfare safety net which is or rather was the sign of a civilised mixed economy society.
    The economic reason for the current “equality of opportunity” is the now right wing Federal labor.

  43. Freelander
    April 16th, 2011 at 18:45 | #43


    We have climbed the ladder built through the long struggles of our predecessors and held firm by our erstwhile comrades, and now, having reached the top, we’ll kick it away.
    The mantra of modern Labor.

  44. Alice
    April 16th, 2011 at 18:46 | #44

    oops cross fertilisation of ideas from other posts (Julias woeful mean neolib monologues) to this “the economics of happiness” which Im sure hasnt been examined by survey of the disabled on the streets. First it was pass the problems of the disabled on to their carers, now its both the disabled and carers on the street.

    If it looks like Indonesia and smells like Indonesia, Indonesia isnt far away except they have millions in their population and we are a new small colony relatively so anyone who says we cant afford a bit more happiness and security for our people and our disabled and their carers is just plain lying and that includes Gillard and Abbott.

    Where do our taxes go?. They dont get spent on the people who need it so it must be on spin and salaries and BS committees and tenders and trips abroad.

    They disgust me. They do not know how to run an effective public service (either liberal at federal level or labor). It really wasnt always this way in Australia. We simply have dysfunctional children in charge now.

    I dont know what voters can do about it but we shouldnt have to fight so hard at the polls , which we have been doing, for a sense of public duty to prevail.

  45. David Fitzpatrick
    April 16th, 2011 at 19:00 | #45

    I am serious. What is the reason? What is an economy? What is its purpose? Is it simply to inflict misery and premature death on the defenseless? Would it be a science otherwise? Would we notice it otherwise? Medicine is a science of preventing death. Economics is a science of preventing economics.

  46. Alice
    April 16th, 2011 at 19:07 | #46

    Freelander – I dont know about you but I was boomer child 1957 born. I got all my dental needs free until about ten if I recall. The buses I travelled on from what was then an outlying Sydney suburb were cheap and public. When I disboarded I got on publicly provided trains but there were at least three human beings on each station (one ticket collector and two guards making sure there was no trouble). I always felt safe and didnt rely on a CCTV camera. I often saw guards on trains. Once on board there was often a ticket inspector and you would be fined without a ticket. Most children went to public or catholic schools and only the children of the elite went to private schools which did not rely on government subsidies.

    My parking wasnt charged everywhere I went when later I learned to drive. I wasnt charged exorbitant preclusive ampounts (to early drivers – which many parents are now paying and stating the child is a second regular driver) for my car insurance.

    I recall regular daily home visits by the district nurses to the elderly in our street that couldnt look after themselves, for free. I recall nursing homes available to the elderly and sick without requiring the sale of their own houses first.

    I recall the disabled and the mentally ill being cared for, without burdening excessively their carers or forcing them on to the street. I recall children from dysfunctional homes living in an orphanage and happily attending our local school and not being sent back to live with dangerous parents.

    I recall lots of things to me that made our society civilised and I see lots of things today that are making it uncivilised.

    I dont understand the empty phrases like equality of opportunity when everywhere I look in these times I see public services that actually helped the nation and its citizens for many many decades, being stripped or abandoned.

    How can I have any respect for those who do this?

  47. David Fitzpatrick
    April 16th, 2011 at 19:19 | #47

    Look I don’t think orphanages and mental hospitals were wonderful either. But in those days there were no modern treatments for psychosis whereas these days we can virtually prevent it altogether but are unwilling to provide the pittance needed to do this. And in the meantime we are threatening disabled people who can barely survive on what they have into total penury. In the nineteen sixties we did the best with what we had to make people happy. Nowadays we do our best to kill people.

  48. David Fitzpatrick
    April 16th, 2011 at 19:29 | #48

    No seriously that is what we are doing. We are forcing people into life-long life-shortening mental and physical illness. We are cutting short their lives. Our media is dominated by people who incite murder and our governments dominated by paid killers. We call this whole process the politics of liberal democracy. It is the politics of mass murder and the economics of hyenas.

  49. Alice
    April 16th, 2011 at 19:36 | #49

    @David Fitzpatrick
    Orphanages and mental hospitals werent ideal either but this isnt a baby or the bathwater argument. At the risk of sounding politically incorrect the local orphanage near my school was a St Barnados home. It was run by women (nuns from recollection from my small mind) and I never heard of any scandals.

    Sure they may not have spared the cane or the ruler but that was par for the course. Neither did teachers or the headmaster. Make of my comment what you will but I am sure women make better carers of children and perhaps of the mentally ill as well, were it not for the physical strength needed at times with the latter.

    Is a public hospital facility (mental home or childrens home) better than the street is the question you should be asking?. To my view and in myu experience as a nurse in casualty and general wards for eight years in my early career, the former was infintely preferable to the street and self autonomy for the mentally ill in many, if not most cases, even given its failings. In the street they suffer exploitation of the cruellest kinds imaginable.

    That is not to say that I agree with any form of permanent incarceration without the patients wishes eg in a mental hospital. This is a very grey area but there is a need for choice which neither the disabled, their carers or the mentally ill, or children in dysfunctional families have right now, often being simply left to their own devices or ignored or not followed up in situations that would shock any decent minded person.

  50. David Fitzpatrick
    April 16th, 2011 at 19:45 | #50

    This is what Marx said would happen. The workers would be immiserated. This was the whole thrust of economy, it economized on people’s lives. The answer was to economize on accumulation, which is just another form of waste as we constantly see, so that people grew themselves in mastery as investment in happiness grew apace with capacity for happiness.

  51. David Fitzpatrick
    April 16th, 2011 at 19:50 | #51

    alice God you sound like nurse Ratched.

  52. Alice
    April 16th, 2011 at 19:51 | #52

    @David Fitzpatrick
    This immiseration is the current choice of both Australian political parties David. We, in Australia are nowhere near the point of Karl Marx’s mass immiseration of workers due to oppressive production, even if many other nations are much closer.

    This immiseration of Australian people is solely the fault of our feeble governments and their feeble policy choices, and I make no distinction between either Labor or Liberal because there is no distinction to make.

  53. Alice
    April 16th, 2011 at 19:57 | #53

    @David Fitzpatrick
    Touche David. Who was it that was disbled or mentally ill and on the street you were actually concerned about?

  54. David Fitzpatrick
    April 16th, 2011 at 20:06 | #54

    no just allergic to sub-clinical paranoiacs. where’d you study economics by the way?

  55. Alice
    April 16th, 2011 at 20:08 | #55

    @David Fitzpatrick
    Sorry David…. Im allergic to supra clinical fakes. I hadnt realised your concern was sub optimal.

  56. Donald Oats
    April 16th, 2011 at 20:36 | #56

    You nailed the colours of “equality of opportunity” to the mast well and truly, Alice! Good take on it. [Amazing how prescient “1984” was, when it came to “Doublespeak”.]

  57. Donald Oats
    April 16th, 2011 at 20:49 | #57

    Actually you raise a very serious point: a side effect of de-institutionalisation (aside from the bastardisation of yet another English word, that is) is to leave acutely mentally ill, eg suffering a psychosis now, without any means of getting protective assistance and with no guarantees of medical assistance either. Afterall, if an Emergency Department at a local hospital is all that is available, how the Hell do these people get there? Once there, the care is often limited to the purely medical and revolves around freeing up their bed as soon as feasible, rather than about holding the patient in “custody” until the psychosis fades and a proper assessment can be done. The more old ward psychiatrist has to make a judgement call not only about the patient before them, but also about the bed they are taking up – not that the Dr would ever say that out loud. It is an insane system for all concerned.

  58. Donald Oats
    April 16th, 2011 at 20:52 | #58

    @Donald Oats
    Oops. Second last sentence should start with “The poor old…” Damn brain made me do it…

  59. Jill Rush
    April 16th, 2011 at 20:54 | #59

    Happiness is probably anti capitalist. One of the reasons that Indian people were imported into Fiji to do the work was because in the local economy there was time for fishing and gardening and weaving and creating a good life but it didn’t require a lot of additional work as people were happy with their way of life. The British hated to see people enjoying themselves when there were fortunes to be made. These unhappy people made yet more people unhappy but also made serious money.

    Any marketer today will say that they try to make people discontented and that the product that is being marketed will answer that dissatisfaction.

    The pokies are interesting to examine in this happiness/unhappiness equation.

  60. Alice
    April 16th, 2011 at 21:13 | #60

    @Donald Oats
    @Donald Oats
    Don – you ask ” if an Emergency Department at a local hospital is all that is available, how the Hell do these people get there?”

    You dont want to know the ugly facts but for the mentally ill (I have a girlffriend still in the font line of mental health which now includes drug addiction problems) it often involves a medical history of multiple admissions, and being collected possessionless from the gutter or elsewhere in whatever condition by an ambo, a couple of days of drugs in hospital and a too hasty dicsharge into the care of relatives if they are lucky enough to have rels who care, with little to no follow up treatment until the next admission. That is the reality for a lot of mental health patients Don.

  61. Alice
    April 16th, 2011 at 21:19 | #61

    @Donald Oats
    It gets even worse. The “poor old ward psychiartrist” is not poor and has been now feted and funded for years by drug companies with overseas trips and conferences to dispense their brand of psychotrphics…talking to the patients is passe these days.

    There are drugs that Im sure make patients talk reasonably to themselves.

  62. Donald Oats
    April 18th, 2011 at 17:45 | #62

    You paint pretty much the picture I thought might apply. If there is one way to become more insane it is to be admitted to hospital as an emergency case, it seems. I was in the Adelaide RAH back in January, and the treatment I received was excellent, no complaints out all about the people. The system is another story though.

    I witnessed the disruption that a single psychologically-impaired individual can cause, while I was there. The patient was presumably psychotic, although it could have been schizophrenia, or even a response to illicit drugs, so the first problem for staff was clearly to identify what the flippin’ heck was going on. Not easy with a non-compliant individual; makes one ask just how she made it to the hospital – was she dropped off, maybe? Once it was established (I know not how) that it wasn’t illicitndrugs, it was psychological – psychosis was what the staff said in earshot, the next question was whether a staff psychiatrist would be available with X hours time. [The “X” is that funny unknown quantity from primary school algebra.]

    I went in and out of consciousness so I didn’t catch the entire drama, but that was just one patient for a short period of time, and they were soaking up plenty of resources. Personally I felt a bit embarrassed about taking up a bed for my own (prescribed) medication reaction, but once admitted into the system it is whoosh to a bed for the battery of tests for the admission profile. I guess that they can’t take any chances, but it does seem awfully expensive to do it this way.

    Sorry to be OT.

  63. Alice
    April 18th, 2011 at 19:14 | #63

    @Donald Oats
    I once let a man in reluctantly past visiting time many years ago in a London ward Don on the basis that his friend “was a dear close friend”.

    The patient was a documented multiple admission serious drunk with the diagnosis PFO (pissed and fello over) with mental problems going back years. Dont be shocked. There is a standard treatment for PFO which involved hourly nerological observations despite his state of sleeping through it.
    Well after what seemed like half an hour behind closed curtains to say hello to his “dear friend” I realised the visitor was also pretty pissed and it was taking him a too long time to rifle through his friends clothing for money…until I called security and had him thrown out.

    Such is life on the wards around the corner from emergency Don.

  64. Alice
    April 18th, 2011 at 19:32 | #64

    @Donald Oats
    Don dont ask me about the two under twenty year olds at North Shore hospital that realised in the 1970s after reading Carlos Castaneda that what was growing in one of their parents backyard, commonly known as angels trumpet, and highly hallucinogenic is also called Datura in Castaneda’s hippy era book.

    So the two youngsters boiled themselves up a cup of tea didnt they?

    Approximately 16 hours later they finally had the sense to realise they were in a hospital emergency department with the staff wondering whether they would every go back to normal. Those two boys managed to cause quite a bit of disruption too and a great deal of concern – it was not known how bad this hallucinogenic was and they may as well have been totally blind on appearances – no response to the normal world – and worse we had no idea at all what it was.

    It took me so long to get them into pyjamas in between their running around. I found one trying to put both his legs into a single pyjama sleeve and telling me he was fine in the odd few seconds of lucidity between major ravings that were indecipherable and incomprehensible and unreachable.

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