Millennium Post

Twix progress and pursuit of happiness

Registering an impressive economic growth and technological progress, it throws up the question whether progress has elongated the journey towards happiness

'Good Morning Mumbai' chants RJ Jahnvi (Bollywood actress Vidya Balan) in her unique style to her radio audience in the iconic Raju Hirani film 'Lage Raho Munnabhai'. After the chant comes a long poetic message essentially themed on the perils of a hyper-urban life, that has taken away the charm of yesteryears. Here are a couple of sentences that will resonate with many of us, "Serial ke kirdaro ka sara haal ha maloom, par maa ka haal poochne ki fursat kaha ha; mobile, landline sab ki bharmaar ha, magar jigri dost tak pohoche aise taar kaha ha" (One is updated with all characters in their favourite television series, but is too busy to have a relaxed conversation with their mother; One is flooded with internet and telecommunication technology but is still distant from the closest friends). In his own way, Raju Hirani does capture the essence of the side effects of so-called 'economic growth and technological progress'. Don't get me wrong, I am no Luddite who is dismissing the gains of all technological and economic progress that has done so much good to humankind. I am only trying to analyse the un-quantifiable side effects of the new normal and share some insights from this evolution.

Progress and utility maximisation

If we take a step back and analyse the scale and speed of economic and technological progress we have made, it is breathtaking. From using a human messenger to facebook messenger, and from horsebacks to hatchbacks, we have come a long way. At the click of a button, one can connect with anyone and order almost anything. With enhanced economic resources, luxuries of yesterday have become necessities of today - think telephones, air travel, internet, etc. When I talk progress, I am not restricting myself to the 21st century but willing to go way back in time. However, I am confining myself to individual desires and not social needs. The individual desire to accumulate monetary and non-monetary resources to maximise one's utility lies at the heart of my analysis.

What is maximising utility? Let me explain. All individuals work towards gathering resources to maximise their individual utilities. For instance, one strives to earn more money to enjoy a better lifestyle and quality of life. Those with scooters aim for cars, those with smaller houses aim for bigger ones, and so on. As this process has evolved over the centuries, it has done a lot of good, both for individuals and society - in the short and long term. For instance, it has helped advance medical sciences and improved lifetimes. It has made people more aware so that they can take more informed decisions. Although, one change that seems to be visible is that individual preferences and priorities have evolved. The composition of utility has changed for most people - it has expanded its scope and is expanding as we speak. In an era of slow technological and economic progress, the number of items that were enough for utility maximisation was much less. A good house with a car was more or less sufficient for one to feel that life is good. Now, a lot more is needed. A good house, a car, an annual vacation, expensive phone, and the list goes on. The examples I have given are relevant for the middle-class but change the objects and their sizes, and it applies to all classes.

In play: Maslow's Hierarchy and Prisoner's Dilemma

Abraham Maslow articulated the idea of a hierarchy of needs. From Wikipedia: "Maslow's hierarchy of needs is used to study how humans intrinsically partake in behavioural motivation. Maslow used the terms "physiological", "safety", "belonging and love", "social needs" or "esteem", and "self-actualisation" to describe the pattern through which human motivations generally move [from former to latter]. This means that for motivation to occur at the next level, each level must be satisfied within the individual themselves. Each of these individual levels contains a certain amount of internal sensation that must be met for an individual to complete their hierarchy." Now I think that Maslow's theory is still relevant, however, the movement from one level to the other has slowed as economic and technological progress has speeded up. This means that the journey towards 'self-actualisation' has become much longer.

With this inference, I have a prediction to make that as humans continue to scale new heights of technology and accumulate economic wealth like never before, the journey towards 'self-actualisation' or 'fulfilment' or more simply 'happiness' will become longer and many more people (in comparison to the past) will be unable to complete it. Why do I say so? Because I see a clear case of prisoner's dilemma in action. For those who aren't well versed with the term, here's a quick snapshot from Investopedia - "The prisoner's dilemma is a paradox in decision analysis in which two individuals acting in their own self-interests do not produce the optimal outcome. The typical prisoner's dilemma is set up in such a way that both parties choose to protect themselves at the expense of the other participant. As a result, both participants find themselves in a worse state than if they had cooperated with each other in the decision-making process."

Now let's think about economic and material progress in a prisoner's dilemma context. The dominant strategy for any individual in the society is to work hard and gather material gains. An individual with a house wants a bigger one, with one car wants two cars, and so on. This is irrespective of what society does. No one will stop as material gains offer clear tangible benefits - not just in terms of luxuries, but also the affordability of basic needs such as healthcare and education. Now, as we discussed earlier that due to economic and technological progress, the scope of things required for an individual to get satisfaction has expanded, hence, an individual will keep working towards them. When all individuals do so, the outcome is sub-optimal i.e., overall happiness levels in the society are much lower. Hence, economic and technological progress has started a self-propelling cycle, while inadvertently elongating the journey towards happiness and fulfilment.

Other side effects of progress and what lies ahead

The other side effect of this phenomenon is that people have become busier for their own selves. This is a natural by-product because there are so many more 'things to do' to satisfy one's individual needs before someone gets happiness and moves on to satisfy one's social needs. Thus, utility from taking exams and attending office meetings have taken over family get-togethers and community relationships. Moreover, accomplishments that were supposed to end in themselves have been transformed into tools that support the cause of further accumulating material gains. Take, for example, the purchase of a car. A car at one time was a luxury reserved for the rich and aspiration to buy it was in itself enough to drive people to work towards it. Buying a car meant buying happiness. People did work and many ended up buying a car but now it is a necessity for many, and no longer serves as a source of happiness. So, a car now becomes a tool to let's say buy a fancier car, and the cycle goes on for almost all material items.

While there are multiple ways that can help break the prisoner's dilemma aka the inverse relationship between progress and the journey for happiness, given the complexities in our world, I doubt if there's any silver bullet. A future with even faster economic growth and technological progress lies ahead of us. Yes, it will solve many problems and make lives better on so many noble and quantifiable parameters but it will also increase the distance for individuals to reach the ultimate goal of happiness and fulfilment.

(The author is Young Professional, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, New Delhi. Views expressed are strictly personal)

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