The Next Big Thing: Happiness

McMansions and SUVs didn't make our lives better. Losing them just might.

Psychologists and other social scientists (most economists excepted) have learned a lot in the last few decades about what makes us happy. They have taught us that, in affluent societies, money doesn't buy as much happiness as people think. Indeed, for people living above subsistence, it may buy very little.

They have also taught us what affects well-being more than money: close relations with family, friends, and community; meaningful work; security (financial, job, and health); and democracy.

Before the financial crisis, nothing was stopping us from pursuing these things that make life worth living. But, consistent with a substantial body of research showing that we generally don’t know what's good for us, when the money was flowing we substituted risk for security. We sacrificed time with friends and family to spend more time at work accumulating wealth and more time after work figuring out how to spend it. The short-term temptations were just too hard to resist.

But now, everyone's belt has tightened. Financial necessity may give us the opportunity to discover that time spent with loved ones is much more satisfying than time spent with your 76-inch HDTV. Once the crisis lifts, we may not be tempted to go back to living the way we did before, if that's even an option for those millions who are now losing their jobs, homes, and retirement accounts.

If this silver lining does appear, it may bring another benefit in its wake. It might change the way society and policymakers assess well-being. It may become apparent that equating social welfare with GDP is not just inadequate, but more importantly, misleading. It might lead us to develop a gross national well-being measure that will supplement, or even replace, GDP as our principal yardstick of social welfare and social progress. Then, maybe we'll discover that we were never so well off in the first place.


The Next Big Thing: Anger Management

Big Brother is coming. So what are we going to do about it?

Technology’s trumpet does not always herald a bright new dawn.

Already, our technologically empowered society tracks some “undesirables” at all times. Now, imagine a world in which every newborn baby immediately has a little capsule implanted under his or her armpit. Inside are monitors, tiny amounts of hormones, a wireless transmitter, and a receiver. The device is powered by a battery like the one inside your watch. Surgical replacement of the capsule every five years is mandatory, strictly enforced, and, because it is very cheap, paid for by the state.

From birth on, no moment in a person’s life will go unmonitored. At each street corner, at the entrance to each home, perhaps even inside each room and under each bed, there will be a metal box, tamper-proof and solid enough to prevent burglary. Each box will contain a receiver and a transmitter linked to a central computer. Every time a person passes near the box, an electronic report will go out. It will run somewhat as follows: “The level of the anger hormone carried in the bloodstream of No. KJ-090679883 is a little elevated. Inject 21 milligrams of the relevant antidote into his bloodstream to prevent him from turning violent.”

All this will be done automatically, within seconds. At the same time, a record of the event will be sent to central headquarters. There, physicians in white coats will be busy looking for even better methods to prevent the rest of the population from harming others, themselves, or the environment.

Most of the elements for such a system, such as hormone treatments to stop sex offenders from repeating their crimes and “antidepressants” capable of turning people into zombies, already exist. And with all types of violence rising as global GDP falls, the rest are almost certain to become available in the very near future. Such methods will certainly appeal to mayors who want to keep crime under control, peaceniks who want to eliminate war in all its forms, and feminists who are always complaining of the bad things men are doing to women. The question is, are we prepared to pay the price?