Happiness, Gratitude, SRI and the Part Timer.

Bigger isn't better?  Not exactly a novel concept for sustainability or SRI cognoscenti going back at least as far as John Stuart Mill.   Right now governments around the world are using some old fashioned cures to make sure the economy has a pulse: cheap money plus government spending.  Probably a necessary step given unemployment rates, but recession, by definition, is negative growth and curing it means the goal of the state is a return to growth.  Unless something else changes, that “growth is good” mentality looks like a return to a consumer spending oriented US economy supported by easy credit, an export driven manufacturing economy in China that's supported by an artificially cheap currency and unsustainable trade imbalances, same old same old unsustainable growth around the globe.  At some point, when that  fragile recovery looks like it's off life support, do we say enough growth for growth's sake, let's all just  figure out how to be happy.  Derek Bok's new book the Politics's of Happiness, summarizes concerns on the methodology and accuracy of happiness research, but is willing to overlook them and come up with  prescriptions for government action that look to happiness, not growth, as a goal.  Many of Bok's prescriptions don't seem to need  much research support – promote equality, marriage, family, public health, but the concept of using happiness research to shape policy raises some interesting possibilities.
Most happiness research is survey based, so we are not directly measuring whether Event 1 or Condition 2 makes Subject A happy, instead we are finding out whether A thinks he is happy, often long after the fact.  Gratitude research is generally conducted using daily journals (including control groups that keep different types of journals).   There is already evidence that recognizing and recording gratitude frequently in a gratitude diary makes the subjects happier than just keeping a normal diary, and actually expressing gratitude to someone who has provided a benefit makes the subjects happier still.  Think of the policy implications – we can make people happier just by providing a “sign and return” thank you note with each social security payment and unemployment check. 

With some continuing reservations on the current state of happiness research, let's recall another area that was hot on the economics blogs for a while – guided choice.  The nanny state where everyone wins, because the citizen has the final word.  You remember, the classic example was change the default option on everyone's 401(k) away from 100% employer stock.   Now, take our tools (happiness -not growth – as goal, gratitude and guided choice) and apply them.  Consider the humble part time job: frequently available at McDonald's and Walmart; sometimes used by employers as a means to reduce the number of benefit eligible full-time employees.  If you are a professional in your late fifties looking to cut back your hours and maybe keep working  past age 65, if you are a parent in your thirties who wants to keep a front-burner career but still spend more time at home – you too can get a part time job – at McDonald's or Walmart.

Those would-be professional part-timers might be happier if they could work part time in their field.  With more professional level part time jobs, the economy could provide more jobs with less growth.  How do employers react?   Slowly.  At some point, shortages of professionals in some job categories might motivate employer change on this issue, but for now it's often unwelcome.  The employer is still worried about the cost of benefits (if four of my lawyers cut back to thirty-hours a week, I need to hire another, but they will all qualify for benefits.)  The employer likes having employees who will work nights and weekends on no notice.  Can government help to change this?  Maybe.  Any anti-recession tax credit for creating new jobs could include some part time jobs (at least 25 hours/week and at least $800/wk salary, we don't necessarily want to encourage more part timers instead of full timers at Walmart).  If health care became a government function rather than an employer function most other benefits could be scaled to accommodate part-time without major issues.  We can change the system so the employer is never forced to retain professional level part timers, but it's less painful.

OK, we used our part time professional example to find happiness without growth by guiding, but not compelling,  the employer's choice, but what happened to gratitude?  The newly minted part time professionals didn't seem to thank anyone, which would have made them even happier.  Hmmm.  Attention new part time professionals, glad that your phasing into your golden years with an income or thrilled to be home with your kids more often?  Your thank yous may be directed to the undersigned.  Cash will be accepted, but please use a security envelope.  All funds received will be utilized in a socially responsible manner.   It might not be SRI, but I will send you a thank you note.


Photo Credit:  Sabrina Campagna