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Water likely does nothing to make a fish consciously happy – but take that water away from him and you’ll witness a most miserable mackerel.  Here’s a letter to the New York Times:

Roger Cohen writes that “British research has suggested that money itself does not confer happiness, although wealthier people tend to be happier; that employment is critical to self-esteem; that women tend to be happier than men; and that people need something beyond the material for fulfillment” (“The Happynomics of Life,” March 13).

No doubt.  It’s too long a leap, though, from these (unsurprising) facts to Mr. Cohen’s conclusion that we would be just as happy living in an economy that is less materially productive, but that has more leisure, than the economy that we live in now.

Economist Dwight Lee, who studies happiness research deeply, speculates realistically on “what conditions would prevail if no one possessed the ambition to work hard to achieve an illusory … happiness.  In such a world, everyone would choose to occupy the slow lane.”  While it’s true that we’d spend more time enjoying our families and friends, this “easy life would not be nearly as attractive”* as Mr. Cohen and other denizens of today’s world imagine it would be.

One example: the reduction in medical research would cause mortality to rise.  It’s not at all clear that a salesman who lives in a more leisurely world but whose child dies of pneumonia would be just as happy as a hard-driving salesman living in today’s world in which physicians, researchers, and profit-grubbing pharma executives – motivated by personal ambition – stress themselves out and work long hours to supply the medical care that relieves parents of the constant worry that diseases such as pneumonia and influenza will kill their kids.  Likewise for many other features of our daily lives that we take for granted but that we enjoy only because of the ambitious striving that capitalist incentives promote – features whose disappearance from our lives would make us most unhappy.

Donald J. Boudreaux

* Dwight R. Lee, “Who Says Money Cannot Buy Happiness?The Independent Review, Vol. 10, Winter 2005, pp. 385-400; the quotations in the letter are from page 388.


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