The Frontal Cortex

Happiness, Wealth and the Amish

The 20th century was the American century, but we got progressively less happy as the years rolled along:

The authors also find that over the last century, Americans, both men and women, have gotten steadily–and hugely–less happy. The difference in happiness of men between men of my generation, born in the 1960s, and my father’s generation, born in the 1920s, is the same as the effect of a tenfold difference in income. In other words, if my father had little money compared to his contemporaries and I have lots of money compared to mine, I can still expect to be less happy. Here, curiously, the European pattern diverges. Happiness falls for the birth years from 1900 to about 1950, and generations born on the continent since World War II have gotten successively happier.

Or, as the authors of this economic study put it, “in the United States the well-being of successive birth-cohorts has gradually fallen through time.” In other words, wealth seems to have an inverse relationship with self-reports of happiness, at least once a certain threshold of income has been reached.

What accounts for the misery of the well-off? Here’s a hypothesis: conspicuous consumption. The 20th century witnessed the birth of rampant consumerism. It began with the Sears-Roebuck catalog and eventually became the defining feature of American life. While I love my local shopping mall as much as the next person, I’m pretty convinced that it doesn’t make me happier. The reason is rooted in a basic property of our dopamine-rich reward neurons. When someone wears a Rolex watch, they don’t make themselves happy–their dopamine neurons have already adapted to the luxury good–but they do manage to raise the expectations of everybody wearing less expensive watches. These people now feel inferior, since their Timex has been devalued by the costlier item. (Such luxury items are known as “positional goods,” since part of their appeal is that they signal your social position. This also makes purchasing luxury goods a zero-sum game, since you can only enjoy them only if others don’t.) Multiply this same psychological phenomenon across a full range of consumer products–from clothes to cars, stereos to shoes–and you can begin to see why people in developed countries are so prone to depression. Not only do their dopamine neurons automatically adapt to their state of wealth, but those same neurons are constantly being bombarded with a new set of expectations. When these expectations aren’t fulfilled–and most people can’t afford a Rolex–our dopamine cells are disappointed, just like monkeys not given juice. We feel the absence of their activity, which makes us sad. As Adam Smith observed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, “Riches leave a man always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow.”

So what’s the solution? Is it possible to step off the hedonic treadmill? The best approach involves silencing our desires, restraining the insatiable appetite of our dopamine neurons. This is what the Amish have done. They have learned to live without modern consumerism. They don’t use cars, reject the Internet, avoid the mall, and prefer a quite permanence to heady growth. The end result is a happiness boom. The Amish turn out to be as satisfied with their lives as members of the Forbes 400. Furthermore, their rates of depression are more than ten fold lower than the rest of the American population. The Amish are content because they have learned to ignore their dopaminergic pleas for more.

Comments

  1. #1 tekel
    March 16, 2007

    They don’t use cars, reject the Internet, avoid the mall, and prefer a quiet permanence to heady growth. The end result is a happiness boom. The Amish turn out to be as satisfied with their lives as members of the Forbes 400.

    Ok, so they’re happy. So what? There’s a lot of research that shows happiness is negatively correlated with intelligence. Perhaps instead of consciously supressing their hedonist urges, the Amish are just disproportionately stupid?

    That can’t possibly be the right answer either. I think that no understanding of “personal happiness” in a social animal like humans is complete without consideration for the societal context the person lives in.

    Amish society rejects the modern way of life. This may be an effective emotional shield, but it’s also very selfish from the cultural perspective. They have withdrawn entirely from the larger social context. They do not contribute in any meaningful way to science, medicine, art, literature, or politics. The most valuable Amish contribution to human well-being that I can think of is that they provide a reliable source of free-range organic chicken.

    So maybe they’re subjectively happy- but only becuase they’re willfully ignorant about the world around them. Their culture actively supresses ambition to effect change, which is more a throwback to peasant society in feudal europe than anything else in the last 500 years of human history.

    Amish happiness is akin to American inaction on the genocide in Darfur- the ignorance is systemic, self-serving, and internally consistent. As long as CNN and ABC and the NYT don’t run a story about it, the WSJ doesn’t have to say anything either. From the inside- everything is rosy. Darfur? Where’s that? If there was something going on, I’d surely read about it in the paper. And who needs cars anyway… Viewed in the larger context of world affiars, this kind of conscious isolationism is irresponsible, if not morally reprehensible.

    If the price of happiness is disregard for the Renaissance and everything that has happened since, I’m more than willing to sacrifice my short-term current happiness for the chance that my uncontrolled ambition might some day allow me make the world a better place for the rest of us.

  2. #2 sans
    March 17, 2007

    Jonah,

    Love your blog – great stuff.

    While I agree on some points with this post, I have to say, as someone who lives and works in the heart of Amish country, Pennsylvania (Lancaster/Reading/Harrisburg area) that some Amish aren’t quite rejecting the modern as much as you’d like to think. While they might not own many modern items, try being a neighbor to them and you’ll find that they visit daily to borrow your phone to make a call, or ask to borrow your car, use your toaster, etc… That’s not exactly a wholesale rejection of modern life if you simply won’t purchase things, but make reasons to use them when you can.

    Also, there is variation between groups of Amish, some are more strict while some are allowed to actually have some modern conveniences. I’d be interested in seeing which groups were used in any studies and whether the more progressive Amish are happier or the more conservative.

    I think that yes, the Amish may be happier people but I am not quite sure that they truly as a goup surpass any other group’s happiness and not so sure it’s because of a lack of consumerism.

    Of course, this is just my anecdotal evidence from living/working near them for so long, but thought I’d chip in with it.

  3. #3 Terry
    March 17, 2007

    wow, someone doesn’t like the Amish…

    Anyway, I’m part way into the book
    “Happiness: Lessons From a New Science”
    by Richard Layard

    It’s pretty interesting so far, basically
    Layard looks at the research from various
    fields, including psychology, neuroscience,
    sociology, etc.

    Also, over the years I’ve known a few people
    who were very intelligent and also unhappy,
    and they’ve *all* mentioned the idea that
    only less intelligent people tend to be happy.
    But I’ve never come across any actual studies
    that support that idea.

  4. #4 tekel
    March 17, 2007

    you want proof? I’ll give you proof.

    But I think you misread my argument. I don’t ‘hate’ the Amish. I just think it’s disingenuous to rate their emotional state on the same scale as the one used by larger society, since they’ve so clearly withdrawn from society by their own choice of action.

    If I lived alone on an island with no knowledge of the outside world, I’d probably be happier than I am now. Especially if the island was somewhere tropical, and had good surfing. But a study that proves “People who live on tropical islands and surf every day without a care in the world are happier than single mothers who live in downtown Philadelphia” has about the same investigative value as telling you that Amish (in general) are happier than other Americans (in general).

    And ha, that’s a good post about Amish coming over to use your phone! Nobody likes a mooch.

  5. #5 BRC
    March 17, 2007

    wow, tekel, i’d be hard-pressed to find so ignorant a veiw elsewhere on these blogs, and that includes the scores of possibilities in all the rampant atheism-materialism-god debates. the amish are far from stupid. and they are far more clever about technological values than most of us. their use of the neighbor’s phone is the end point of a long community-wide evaluation about how technological artifacts either promote or oppose their guiding community values. they are not anti-technology. they are simply not bandwagon techies. they question it’s purpose, and put it’s use to the test. they also don’t reject modern life — they reject blind faith in a narrow technical worldview. thus, you will find them using cars, phones, and the like. but you won’t find them defining their communities by those things, as most of the rest of us do.

  6. #6 BRC
    March 17, 2007

    (by the way, I apologize for being so sharp above — there was no need to be that snide with tekel. i just got frustrated that such a view was still being lobbed onto the world. skip the first sentence, and i’d feel better. brc.)

  7. #7 Gindy
    March 18, 2007

    The happy Amish are also HUGELY into puppy mills.

    Google it for more:
    http://www.pixiedustpapillons.com/amish_puppy_mills.html
    http://www.wkyc.com/news/news_fullstory.asp?id=35435
    http://www.columbusdogconnection.com/PuppyMillArticles.htm
    http://www.charityadvantage.com/njcapsa/TheAmishConnection.asp

    If this is what makes them so GD happy, to hell with them all.
    You should see how horribly they treat their other animals. A living creature is nothing more than a soy bean or ear of corn to those people.

  8. #8 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 18, 2007
  9. #9 Paddy
    March 18, 2007

    Well, if happiness is being defined as not being aware of things that will make you unhappy, then I guess there should be a LOT of happy people around, especially those that watch Jerry Springer. Right?

    Personally I think the Amish have it all worked out – why not use your neighbour’s telephone, if they have one? Why is this “cheating”? It’s like saying it’s “cheating” to ask a friend to install your broadband because you haven’t bothered to learn how to do it yourself. And I would definitely borrow a neighbour’s horse, should I happen to need some ploughing done…

  10. #10 Terry
    March 20, 2007

    According to the book “Happiness: Lessons From
    a New Science” there are 7 very important factors
    that affect happiness. The most important one
    is family relationships.

    Layard (the author) doesn’t mention the Amish, but
    it seems to me that since the Amish aren’t watching
    TV, that they have up to an extra 4 hours a day to
    dedicate to cultivating their relationships with
    family and friends. Most Americans, on the other
    hand are spending that time cultivating their
    “television relationships” and thus neglecting
    their actual relationships.

    http://education.independent.co.uk/news/article355421.ece

    Also the Amish aren’t comparing themselves with
    the endless parade of beautiful people on TV.

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20010701-000023.html

    http://www.ivanhoe.com/channels/p_channelstory.cfm?storyid=11103

  11. #11 mich
    March 20, 2007

    A bit too late to join in here, but it seemed that low expectation was the key to life satisfaction. The same was said about Danish people too. (http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/01/08/news/danes.php)

  12. #12 Scott
    March 25, 2007

    I think people were progressively becoming distracted by other drivers in society too. It is only now that they are starting to get back to thinking about happiness.

  13. #13 Claudiano Araujo
    April 3, 2007

    I find this happiness topic very interesting. Down here in Brazil the most “happy” people are reported to be the ones who live in the most poor areas of the country. These people have at least a few thing in common with the Amish: very strong sense of community, sense of inter-dependency (they do depend on each other for almost everything), strong family ties and involvement with church based activities. It appears to me that the codes of living of the Amish tend to force all of this caracteristics to be present into their communities and lives.

  14. #14 peace
    February 16, 2009

    well in response to the first blogger..tekel..i think that we should keep an open mind….your opinion may are not harming any one in doing that,and they have made a contribution to this world..reminding us that truly we don’t need all the things we think we do…we could be living with a lot less….i think that every one has a purpose in this world..maybe not as much as finding a cure to cancer..but every one makes an impact whether you see it or not…and you shouldn’t make a judgement on them just because your so absorbed in this world…and “making a difference” when you could truly be making a difference by accepting those that are opposing to your personal norms….and just respecting them for what they live for and the reasons behind it..i am not amish..but i do respect them and how they want to live a more simpler..calm life..whast wrong with that?

  15. #15 peace
    February 16, 2009

    sorry theres a few errors in my above posting….hope you can still understand it…

  16. American psychologist and author, Dr. John Harvey, observes that “when we loosen the grip of negative emotions, emotions such as contentment, happiness, and joy begin to permeate our experience of life.” As a psychologist, I do support his observation. Ironic to the theme of “Happiness, Wealth and the Amish,” I recommend neurotherapy as a method of “loosening the grip of negative emotions.” Neurotherapy relies upon simple technology to alleviate stress. You can sample it for FREE at: http://www.ThePsychologist.com/virtuallightandsound.htm

  17. SPeak of the bowling alley, wouldnt it be nice to see it reemerge back into its glorious self again? I used to like to bowl occasionally.