Does Capitalism Make You Happy?

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Ever since the birth of the United States of America, the slogan of the the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, has been an integral part of the foundation of capitalism.

In 1776, the “pursuit of happiness” meant the pursuit and accumulation of private property. Everyone—except slaves, Native Americans, and women—had the freedom to “make their own luck.” The United States was a land of plenty, where fertile fields, forests, lakes and mountains were just waiting to be “discovered,” acquired, and developed by industrious and enterprising people.

Since then, there has been a civil war, the markets of the world have been divided and redivided, and all the habitable territory of the United States has been occupied and exploited. The country is now the most advanced and richest capitalist country on earth—but it is by no means the happiest country on earth.

Research into the nature of happiness has gained a lot of popularity over the last few decades. Every month or so, a new article appears which invariably draws the same conclusion: money doesn’t make people happy. So what is the material basis for happiness? Why does money make or not make people happy? Why is this an important topic for Marxists?

Is there a material basis for happiness?

In the recent past, coinciding with capitalism’s increasing inability to take humanity forward and improve conditions for the working class, people have begun to question the assumption that money will make you happy. As we have explained in detail elsewhere, despite being the richest country on earth, it is only a very small percentage of the U.S. population that owns the majority of the wealth of the country. Upwards social mobility is statistically almost nonexistent, and the much-glorified “trickle down economy” is only expressed by more and more people “trickling down” into poverty.

Thus, you cannot blame people for reaching the conclusion that if you spend your life working 40–50 hours a week trying to make ends meet with the aim of a well-paid career or trying to get rich, you probably end up even more unhappy than if you had spent more time with your family and friends. In fact, the Japanese have a word that literally means “death by overwork,” karoshi, and overwork has been called a disease of the 21st century.

A recent article in The Guardian reported a survey of what dying people regret the most when looking back at their lives. The two most common regrets were: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me” and “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” These statements are sad but clear evidence that doing what society expects you to do—i.e. be a good worker and make as much money as possible—is not all that matters in life, whether people actually reach their career and wealth goals or not.

It is generally accepted that nobody would be happy if all they had in life was money, but this is a very one-sided and superficial way of looking at life and human well-being. Many right-wingers would thereby argue that since happiness and well-being cannot be bought with money, poor people should not waste time trying to change and improve their conditions—instead they should just stop complaining and look at the bright side of life—and “choose” to be happy.

How to measure happiness

Psychiatrists, psychologists and neurologists all agree that a person’s mood, though changing from time to time, tends to fluctuate around the same general level. This general level is different from person to person, and it can change dramatically due to changes in the person’s life.

Over the last 20 years, “happiness research” has gained popularity in the world of neurology. Before then, the science of the mind was more focused on mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, etc.

The media and scientists have always given us a very deterministic view of the interrelationship between genetics, mental health, and social environment. The view being put forward at present is that a person’s mental health is 50 percent genetically predisposed, 40 percent intentional, and 10 percent circumstantial. What this means is that half of your mental health is supposedly predetermined, 40 percent depends on “how you choose to live your life,” and 10 percent is determined by material wealth. This has led the dominant happiness researchers of the day to push the idea that money and wealth don’t matter—you simply need to change your behavior and make your life more meaningful if you want to be happy.

The conclusion from this research re-enforces both genetic determinism and the notion that individuals have absolute power to make themselves happy regardless of their circumstances. But what is most noteworthy in this research is that it shows that factors previously ignored, do in fact play a much bigger role in human well-being than previously thought.

These factors are: being part of a community; the feeling that you are contributing to something meaningful; close human relations to friends and family; contributing to other people’s well-being; exercise; and social life in general.

Genetics and behavior

The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, had the aim of mapping all the genes in the human body. One of their big conclusions was that genes change over time, that they turn on and off in accordance with and in response to changes in their environment. Thus, there is no scientific basis for genetic determinism. This means that though many people may have the potential for some sort of mental or physical disorder, it doesn’t mean that the potential will become actual.

Though there are illnesses that are thought to be largely hereditary, it still has not been explained why and how the hereditary illness becomes actual in some individuals and not in others. Researchers have spent a lot of energy on behavioral genetics—though no one has yet tied schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression to a single gene. What we do know is that scientists cannot predict whether these illnesses will become active, or when, and if they do, what it is that triggers them. It is also unlikely that a “schizophrenia” or “bipolar” gene will be isolated, as these illnesses are likely brought about by a complex of genetic and environmental causes.

The “nature vs. nurture” debate still continues, but it is futile to divide the question into “either/or.” Studies by the Center of the Developing Child at Harvard University, and others researching brain and behavioral development in children, have shown that while the brain is still in its early development, the conditions in which the child grows up matter immensely. Exposure to mistreatment, unstable parents, environmental deprivation, etc., not only affects the child mentally, but also physically changes the way the child’s brain develops.

Brain scans of two 3-year old children show a horrifying and extreme difference in the brain’s size and development, depending on their upbringing and environment during childhood. This also lays the basis for the child’s future physical and behavioral development.

Brain Development

The brain continues to change all through a person’s life. In children in particular, the genetic expression is clearly influenced by the child’s circumstances. Thus, it is not really possible, at least not based on the current research, to determine the degree to which genes affect mental health. This is a big flaw in the argument that environment accounts for just 10 percent of a person’s happiness. Neither genes nor humans exist in a vacuum, and by saying that 50 percent of a human’s happiness is determined by genes, the researchers forget to mention or even consider how the genes themselves have been affected and changed by circumstances.

What does this mean?

This means that material circumstances play a far more important role in everybody’s well-being than is currently acknowledged. Statistics show that mental, physical, and verbal abuse, absent parents, malnourishment, homelessness, and general chaos and instability are far more likely in low-income families. Children from low-income families—whether the parents are abusive or caring—have less access to quality education and health care, healthy food, and educational support, simply because their parents cannot afford it. Genetically predisposed or not, coming from a background where your basic needs are not covered, and where the material wealth and circumstances are not adequate, you are much more likely to end up with a mental illness or behavioral disorder—with little or no help or treatment.

If you come from a family with plenty of money for food, housing, education, etc., and yet your parents are stressed and often absent because they are working all the time, the way you relate to other people will be fundamentally different than if you come from a family with happy parents with the time and energy to take care of their children. In other words, if you come from a loving family with a certain material wealth, then any genetic predisposition is less likely to be triggered. If it does, then you will have access to good quality treatment and your chances of being a productive member of society will be high.

In addition, it must be noted that under capitalism, the family dynamic you grow up in is largely due to chance: biologically speaking, no one is rich or poor, or has “good” or “bad” parents. But the social and family structures that exist under capitalism put an inordinate amount of pressure on the individual family to try to address the needs of raising a new generation, instead of approaching child-rearing and education, with all its ups and downs, socially.

What are basic needs?

Most researchers agree that as long as you have your “basic needs” covered, your material wealth doesn’t play a decisive role in your general happiness. Some researchers have tried to pinpoint where material wealth stops to matter in a person’s level of happiness. Some argue that the poverty level is the dividing line—others assert that any annual income over $75,000 doesn’t further increase your happiness.

Basic human needs in modern day America and throughout the world include access to food, housing, health care, education, transportation, and a social life. In order to cover these needs, you need economic resources, as none of these things are free. Not only do these things cost money, their quality tends to rise with the price.

In the U.S. today, most workers who buy a house don’t actually own it themselves—it is owned by a bank. Most working-class families are not able to pay for good quality childcare or send their children to a good university. Most working-class families cannot afford to buy organic food or even healthy food that doesn’t contain noxious hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics. And most working-class families face bankruptcy if any member of the family becomes seriously ill.

In other words, even the most basic human needs are not covered for the majority of Americans. This means that most people spend the vast majority of their time trying to cover these needs. We live in a world where most people spend all their time and energy on paying bills, at the cost of their own physical and mental health and social relations.

The country of Denmark has for years been at the top of the list of “happiest countries on earth.” Many researchers link the happiness to the free access to healthcare and education and good public transportation. The documentary “Happy” highlights the fact that in Denmark, a big percentage of the population, at least compared to the rest of the world, live in social collectives. In these collectives, people live in separate houses but eat together every night, take turns cooking once a week every 3 or 4 months, there is always someone to talk to, and the children always have someone to look after them.

The movie argues that if you don’t have to worry about buying groceries and cooking every night, or don’t have to pay a babysitter every time you leave the house, then you will be more happy. In other words, you have more time to relax and for a social life, and to develop relationships with your family and friends, without worrying about everyday trivialities. In addition, as pointed out above, people generally feel happier when they contribute to other people’s well-being and feel that they belong to a community.

But even in Denmark, people are increasingly unhappy. Inflation, unemployment, rising transportation and childcare costs, and austerity in general are beginning to be felt there too. The Scandinavian welfare system is a good example of what is possible even under capitalism, but it also shows that when capitalism is in crisis, the welfare of the people is the first thing to be cut. Any social gains won by the working class through struggle are not safe as long as capitalism continues.

Are people in the U.S. happy?

It is hard to quantify happiness precisely, but by looking at its opposite—depression—we can get some idea of the general happiness of the American population. The CDC conducted a big survey of depression levels among Americans between 2006 and 2008. According to the survey, 1 in 10 American adults reported depression. As subsets of the population, 11.7–12.9 percent of Hispanics and blacks were depressed. 17.4 percent of those who hadn’t finished their high school education were depressed, as compared to 6.7 percent among those with some college education.

American depression

6.6 percent of the people who were employed were depressed, compared to 21.5 percent of the unemployed. 39.3 percent of those who are unable to work at all were depressed. Finally, 8 percent of people with health insurance were depressed, compared to 15.2 percent of the people without health insurance.

These numbers are mostly from before the economic crisis, and show very clearly that people having attained a lower level of education, non-whites, the unemployed, and those unable to work tend to be far more depressed than the rest of the population.

Another reflection of this is the dramatic rise in suicides over the last decade: it is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. About a million people attempt suicide every year, and 90 percent of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder. The suicide rate among war veterans has always been much higher than in the rest of the population. An estimated 22 war veterans commit suicide every day.

These numbers are disturbing to say the least. It is a clear proof that an increasing number of people are not only unhappy—they are desperate and have no hope for the future.

As we have seen, the root cause of much unhappiness is the lack of access to basic needs. The economic crisis has only exacerbated this. The percentage of the U.S. population living below the poverty level has risen for four years in a row. In 2011, the poverty level was at 15 percent, which means that 46.2 million people lived in poverty. There are no signs that these numbers will decrease in the years of austerity that await us.

Can money buy you happiness?

From the above we can draw the conclusion that it is not mere money that makes people happy—it is what money can provide you. What makes people happy is not having to worry about their jobs and safety, and having access to quality housing, healthcare, food, and education. The research shows that people want to be part of society, but that the constant struggle just to pay the bills alienates them from society, quite literally because they don’t have time to socialize and develop meaningful relationships with friends and family. This is why one of the main demands of Marxists is for a dramatic reduction of the workweek.

The research also shows that people feel better if they are part of a community, and when they feel they have power over the decisions that affect their lives. Under socialism, workers would be connected to each other in far-reaching, real-world social networks, and would participate directly in democratically planning the economy.

Without the historically obsolete and parasitic capitalist class, the surplus wealth created by society could be spent on ensuring everyone’s basic needs are covered, allowing everybody more time to spend on things they find meaningful. As Engels said, socialism will represent humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. Only in a socialist society would life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness be a right, not only in the abstract and for the few, but for everybody.

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