The modern human history is studded with technological advancements and economic growth. But, does this overall betterment in standards and conditions of living made human beings a happier lot? The answer is “no”. Surveys after surveys have pointed that beyond basic necessities, more affluence does not translate into more well-being. In this context, it is important to inquire into the true nature of happiness and grooming people toward longing for more enduring and sustainable values.
What ails humanity at present and what are the remedies?
David R. Myers, a renowned social psychologist offers a theory of human happiness that emphasizes the significance of the sociological aspects of people’s lifestyles. Myers also points how “materialism” and “consumerist culture” can never provide lasting peace for its pursuers. Myers asserts that material affluence can at best give a temporary surge of happiness. What would give lasting happiness are the following – loving close relationships, adherence to a religious faith, a positive outlook, a stress-free work environment, etc. In effect, a low consumption, non-materialistic way of life could fetch more happiness for the individual and the group. The theory is backed by plenty of statistic. Several surveys have shown that married people are happier than those who are single; more church-goers find inner harmony than non-believers; those involved in community activities find more satisfaction than the rest (Yang, Kleinman, et al., 2007).
Does material affluence translate into well-being?
It is important to recognize the current prevalence of misery and distress across the globe. Statistics show that the financially well-off are only marginally happier than their poorer compatriots. It means that additional wealth that is not essential for survival provides disproportionately low value. The recent decades had seen an increase in the cases of depression and suicide. While societies are getting more affluent, the distribution of wealth remains highly uneven. For example, the gap between the rich and poorer sections of society is wider than ever before. The percentage of people living in poverty had not changed much. Life-threatening epidemics such as malaria and AIDS are rampant in the third world. Teenage suicide rates are at an all time high. Violent crimes have not abated despite legislation to curb them. A large chunk of humanity does not even have access to basic amenities like clean water, electricity and telephone facility. All of the above conditions paint a dark and discouraging picture of the present human condition. But all is not lost. Social Psychology, which takes into consideration both the individual and the community in all its analyses, had made some insightful discoveries about human nature. If these valuable insights would be understood and respected by people, a better tomorrow is possible (Heslin, Vandewalle, et al., 2006).
The principle of Sustainable Development:
In this regard David Myers presents his case for a sustainable model of happiness. He asserts that people can achieve more elevated experiences of happiness by making a few fundamental changes to their general outlook on life. First of all, longing for consumer merchandise need be replaced by a longing to belong in a community. This sense of being part of a larger community will give a feeling of safety and comfort for the individual. Also, it helps the individual in strengthening his/her identity. Secondly, striving, finding and cherishing close intimate relationships can provide the highest inner harmony. These relationships can manifest as friendships or marriage. Thirdly – contributing energy and time toward a cause higher than one’s self. For example, volunteering for charitable works, following religious instructions sincerely, helping those in need, etc can all be highly rewarding activities. Not only does it give the individual an opportunity to socialize, but it also presents him/her with valuable experiences and insights about fellow human beings (Myers 1982).
A useful Corollary:
An interesting corollary to the Sustainability theory is the Value-Belief-Norm theory of support for social movements. The theory states that
“Individuals, who accept a movement’s basic values, believe that valued objects are threatened, and believe that their actions can help restore those values experience an obligation (personal norm) for pro-movement action that creates a predisposition to provide support; the particular type of support that results are dependent on the individual’s capabilities and constraints.” (Stern, Dietz, et al., 1999)
Implications of the Value-Belief-Norm theory:
The Value-Belief-Norm theory, in combination with the Sustainable happiness theory of Myers, offers a theoretical framework for activists, supporters and others. One particular issue that had raised a lot of concern of late is environmental degradation. Widespread air pollution, rapid deforestation, etc have resulted in the phenomenon of Global Warming. The average temperatures of all regions in the world are on a steady ascent. If this trend were to continue, planet earth could face severe environmental catastrophes. The only thing that could avert such an eventuality is collective human action. A widespread change in the human consciousness is called for. In this regard, empirical findings put forward by the Value-Belief-Norm theory are very useful. It is learnt that people will have to take responsibility toward their own environment. Being passive consumers of various commodities without making any active contribution toward sustaining the environmental conditions is going to spell doom for humanity. By making it the collective duty of the human community to secure a safer and cleaner environment for its progeny, the Value-Belief-Norm theory makes it clear that the overall well-being of our and other life-forms must be earned through prudence and discipline (Stern, Dietz, et al., 1999)
The decadent nature of human behaviour at present:
Another aspect of the contemporary society that attracts criticism is the growing selfishness of individuals. As human societies become more urbanized, the basic human connection is being lost. Work hours have been increasing steadily across the industrial nations. This had resulted in lesser time with family leading to ever greater number of divorces. People have been placing their careers and distant economic prospects ahead of their relationships. This has been the bane of modern civilization. Amid all this gloom, a few important findings in human social psychology have given scope for a turnaround in humanity’s fortunes (Burgess 2006).
The move toward Sustainable systems:
As Vaclav Havel had proclaimed, a radical change in human-consciousness is the need of the hour. And this change should be centred on the word “sustainability”. All processes of commerce, from procurement till consumption and disposal have to be seen in the long term perspective. If business corporations would concern themselves only with achieving their targets for the next quarter, humanity will suffer. Corporations will have to sacrifice some of its profits for the greater common good. It makes economic sense too. Any system that does not take the long term view into account is inherently a deficient one. Thus corporations will do their business prospects no harm by adopting sustainable methods of revenue generations, although this may not fetch immediate rewards (Myers 1982).
For a world that is increasingly departing from its higher values, Social Psychology offers a few remedies. The changes need be made at both the individual and the collective levels. Every individual has it in him/her to be an activist. Every one can find their cause and help make progress. The change any particular individual will make could be small in and of itself, but when such endeavours are reciprocated by his fellow inhabitants, the overall effect could be significant. At the level of institutions– business, educational or political – a systemic change is required. The mechanisms by which business enterprises derive their profits have to be reviewed. The true purpose of education should be toward enlightening the pupils and not to make them obedient servants of the consumerist culture (Burgess 2006). And government policies should not centre on securing victories in elections but in improving the conditions of the deprived majority. In short, all these proposed changes will bestow the human species with a more satisfying and fulfilling life. It is a life that is rich in love and tenderness; a life that will be a journey toward self-discovery and self-actualization; a life full of hope and happiness.
Myers, David G., (December 1982), “The Inflated Self”, The Christian Century, p.1216-1230.
Stern, Dietz, Abel, Guagnano, and Kalof, (1999), “A Value-Belief-Norm Theory of Support for Social Movements: The Case of Environmentalism”, Human Ecology Review, Vol. 6, No. 2.
Myers, David G, (2003), THE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY OF SUSTAINABILITY, WORLD FUTURES, 59: 201–211, 2003, Taylor & Francis.
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