Bernardo M. Villegas
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Rebalancing Strategy
published: Mar 31, 2017

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The Economics of Human Happiness (Part 2)

          The business manager can actually do a lot more than government officials  in directly promoting human happiness if he is very conscious of creating conditions in the work place that promote human flourishing.  This was very much in my mind when I read an article in the International New York Times on the penultimate day of 2016.  The news feature was headlined “A suicide puts focus on overwork in Japan.”  It reported of a worker in one of the largest advertising agencies in Japan and in the world.  Let me quote from the first paragraphs of this tragic story:  “In the months before she jumped to her death from a company dormitory last Christmas, a young employee at a Japanese advertising agency told friends on Twitter of enduring harassment and grueling long hours on the job.  ‘They’re making me work Saturdays and Sundays again,’ the employee, Matsuri Takahashi, 24, wrote in one post.  “I seriously want to end it all.’ ‘It’s 4 a.m.  My body’s trembling,’ she said in another.  ‘I’m going to die.  I’m so tired.’  Investigation showed later that before her suicide, Ms. Takahashi was putting in more than 100 hours of overtime a month.  I would not be exaggerating if I say that I know many accounting firms, advertising agencies, and other service establishments in this country where workers face the same pressure as Ms. Takahashi.  I hope that this healthy trend towards correlating human happiness with all types of economic indicators will inspire top management of many of these service-oriented enterprises to take a closer look at how much pressure they put on their workers.  They can no longer rationalize inhuman demands with the facile excuse of “meeting deadlines.”  This is especially important considering the fact that the Philippines is a predominantly service-oriented economy.

         This concern for the human happiness of as many people as possible should also be a responsibility of individuals.  Some years back, Carolyn Moynihan, Deputy Editor of MercartorNet, wrote an article entitled “Christmas Cheer.”  She reported on findings of American researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler who came up with empirical evidence that each one of us can spread happiness not only to people close to us but to people two or three times removed from us whom we do not even know.  These two professors specialize in what is known as “social contagion” research.  Using a study of people in a town in Massachusetts (Framingham), they had shown that obesity and quitting smoking are both socially contagious.  Then they analyzed data on the emotional wellbeing of Framingham folk collected since 1983 and found that happiness, too, is contagious.

         The following illustration will help.  A writer who is discontented with drudging away for provincial papers, suddenly has an article published in  the New York Times and starts rejoicing.  His more joyful condition lifts the chances of his wife, his friend living nearby, his sister and next door neighbors of becoming happier also.  The neighbors, friends and siblings are then likely to make their friends happier, and those friends can even pass on the happiness bug to their friends.   As the saying goes, “Laugh and the world laughs with you.”   That is why individuals can make a contribution to increasing Gross National Happiness by trying to always have a cheerful disposition, even if it may require some personal sacrifice.  St. Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei, wrote that one of the greatest sacrifices you can make for the good of others around you is “to smile when you don’t feel like smiling.”  This is not hypocrisy but charity.  There is no reason why we should dampen the environment around us by looking grumpy and morose.  Let me share my own professional secret as an economic forecaster.  I always see the glass as half-filled.  I always try to be an optimist. That is why some people refer to me as a “prophet of boom.”

         Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in Economics and one of America’s leading happiness gurus, has some pieces of advice to those who want to be apostles of cheerfulness and infect others with joy.  He and his colleagues concluded that “engaging leisure and spiritual activities such as visiting friends, exercising, attending church, listening to music…produced more enjoyment than any other group of activities.”  These researchers gently chided Americans for letting so much of their increased leisure time—and potential for happiness—over the last past four decades go down the tube because of the very popular habit of blobbing out in front of the television for hours each day.  In the words of researchers John P Robinson and Steven Martin, “ER and LA Law and Oprah may give you some passing pleasure at the end of what you consider a hard day at the office…or daytime reruns of Baywatch may cheer you up for the space of the program if you are unemployed, but afterward you will be as dissatisfied as ever.”  Cheerful people tend to spend more leisure time on reading, socializing and religious activities.

         As a final point, we should be glad that social scientists are turning their attention to the study of human happiness.  Anyone who has examined his own life should be able to conclude, however, that happiness has a lot to do with living a virtuous life.  Virtue is properly the subject, not of an empirical science, but of the speculative science of philosophy as was proposed centuries ago by the likes of Aristotle and Plato.  That is why Dr. Sison’s “Happiness and Virtue Ethics in Business” is a must reading especially for people in business.  In the Preface to the book, the author refers to the limitations of the ongoing efforts to measure happiness empirically:  “We detect a lack of integration of what would otherwise be valid inputs from economics, psychology, sociology, political science, and so forth. This signals the need for a philosophical approach widely construed, one that looks into the radical principles or causes of human flourishing.  This moves us to revisit Aristotle’s indications of what constitutes happiness for human beings.  We shall integrate data regarding income, pleasure, work, consumption, institutions, and so forth into the different kinds of lifestyles that Aristotle considers in the Nicomachean Ethics.  Thus we discover the pre-eminent role assigned to virtue, in its capacity to weave external and material factors into a life conceived as a meaningful whole.” 

         We have seen in the last few years how inadequate the science of economic has been in explaining what can be considered as predominantly economic phenomena, such as economic growth, mass poverty, unemployment, rising prices, and income and wealth inequality.  Other social sciences had to come to the rescue of economics through multidisciplinary research that involved sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, mathematicians and philosophers.  In fact, a good number of those obtaining the Nobel prize in economics have not been economists.  In fact, there is reason to believe that the phrase “economics of happiness” may be an oxymoron.  Dr. Sison has made a significant contribution to modern happiness studies.  As he wrote at the end of his Preface:  “Although most happiness researchers nowadays knowledge Aristotle’s  pioneering work and even mention his idea of flourishing or eudaimonia in passing, hardly anyone stops to seriously consider the crucial role that virtue plays in attaining it.  This is to some extent understandable, given that the majority of these investigators have been trained, after all, either as welfare economists or as experimental psychologists, and not as philosophers.  But we believe there is much value to be gained by bringing virtue once again to the discussion table when happiness is at stake…..We believe virtue ethics has much to offer in clarifying, if not in outrightly solving many of the difficulties that modern happiness studies currently encounters….”  The book of Dr. Sison was published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press.  For comments, my email address is