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Happy peasants or frustrated achievers?

Ryan Hahn's picture

Is happiness an obstacle to economic progress? Economist Carol Graham asks the question:

“Do we want happy peasants, or frustrated achievers? Do you know what I mean? The frustrated achievers are making progress happen, and progress in the aggregate makes people’s lives better. It’s great that people can adapt to adversity and remain cheerful. But I think it could result in collective tolerance of a very bad equilibrium. If people in Guatemala are more satisfied with their health care than people in Chile, how are they ever going to make their system better without some rude awakening? Their kids are still condemned to shorter life spans and likely to die of preventable diseases. If people are ‘happy’ because they have no alternative vision, should we just say, ‘Fine, they’re happy, so what?’ I’m not comfortable with that.” Graham prefaces a chapter of Happiness Around the World with an epigram from Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen: “The grumbling rich man may well be less happy than the contented peasant, but he does have a higher standard of living than the peasant.”


Submitted by Paula on
There is a distinction to be made between individual contentment (or resignation) and aspirations for children. The results of survey work that I have seen on defining "well-being" often produces different results when respondents are asked about whether they would like their children to have the same life. Similarly, disaggregating results by gender tends to produce a slightly different picture, as women express dissatisfaction with the conditions of their children's health, while professing equanimity with their own health prospects. Finally, there is a classic debate in the academic literature that links well to the overall point. James Scott, "The Moral Economy of the Peasantry" and Popkin's "The Rational Peasant."

Last time I checked, economics was the daughter of moral philosophy. We pursue growth as a path to happiness, not per se. I mean, is she REALLY saying that the State should intervene to make its own citizens miserable so we can have more economic growth? I thought that was marketing's job. Make every woman feel unattractive, every man inadequate, so that they would buy more stuff. If this is policy, I'm out.

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