Happy peasants or frustrated achievers?

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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.”


Ryan Hahn

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