Consumption and Happiness

Amherst professor teaches students to think about the link between the two and argues learning about it is as important as basic financial literacy.
February 26, 2009

Hoping to use the unstable landscape of a recession as a timely ground for learning, some colleges have begun either requiring or seriously suggesting that their students take courses in basic financial literacy.

One Amherst College professor, however, is teaching a course this semester that takes his students a giant philosophical step further. Instead of teaching them to balance their checkbooks or maintain a monthly budget, he wants them to understand the nuanced and prudent link between their economic consumption and their personal happiness.

Daniel P. Barbezat’s “Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness” is not your average economics course. There are, of course, the requisite reading assignments, lengthy papers and regularly scheduled quizzes. It is likely, however, that few economics students expected mandatory weekly meditation-like exercises led by a Buddhist instructor at the college’s chapel.

“I have them do an exercise where I ask them to be aware and sit in a sense of satisfaction” Barbezat said, adding that he would then ask them to rate this sensation on a fixed scale. “After a time, I then ask them to the sit in a sense of happiness. Afterwards, I had them jot down the things they noted. What they report is a large difference between their satisfaction and happiness.”

There are a number of lessons to learn from this admittedly “unorthodox” exercise, he said. For example, he noted that a number of his students are often surprised that they can enter his class and generate a sense of happiness, seemingly on command. This is especially important for some students to realize, he said, considering that some associate “going to get a Coke” or consuming something tangible with being happy.

In addition, he argues this exercise can help students relate to sometimes distant and impersonal economic data sets. In surveys of consumption, such data sets will often show a group's self-reported “happiness” or “satisfaction” from having participated in a specific activity, such as purchasing an item. He said this out-of-class exercise helps his students appreciate the definition of these terms and the effects of a surveyor’s questioning on a respondent’s answers.

“During those times outside of class, they’re practicing mindfulness in developing the skill of recognition,” Barbezat said. “It allows them to start becoming more aware of their own preferences and consumption. We don’t have a lot of skills for doing that. As they practice that, they become more aware of what they’re doing when they’re doing it. When responding to, say, budget constraints or consumption in general, they need these awareness skills."

Barbezat insists his course is not about teaching students how or what they should consume but rather about teaching them to become aware of their personal consumption in relation to their happiness. Though he said there is no “mechanical” or direct link between consumption and happiness, there is evidence to suggest that consumption is a significant influence on happiness. For example, those with greater wealth often report greater happiness than those with less wealth. An awareness of this connection between consumption and happiness, he argues, is essential lesson for students alongside general financial literacy.

“Whatever rules Finance 101 gives you – what you can afford and what you can’t afford – probably isn’t going to be sufficient,” Barbezat said. “Sometimes you go into debt and sometimes you don’t. How do you directly apply that rule, and when are you willing to bump up against the edges of it? If these kids have a better sense of where they are personally, then they will be more mindful of their consumption. It’s an interesting moment for them to become aware of this, especially at the outset of their lives.”

The lessons of the course, worthwhile though they may be, aren't necessarily sinking in for the iPhone-generation students who've enrolled. Though, as a number of Barbezat’s students have said, it may simply be too early into the semester to tell whether their consumption habits have been influenced. For some, even the recent economic turmoil has not affected their outlook on and defense of their possessions.

“I don’t think about the things I buy to become happy,” said Nathaniel Hopkins, a junior economics major who is enrolled in the course. “Certainly, technology plays a role in the consumption of my generation. I mean, computers have always bee around for me. In a way, having an iPhone or a computer is more ordinary. Still, I wouldn’t say that spending for spending’s sake is a part of my generation.”

Hopkins also noted that the recession has not significantly altered the way students at the college talk about money. Though some have reported that the discussion of spending and saving habits has become in vogue in this drear economy, he said this was not the case among his friends. Still, he said he is open to discovering if and when his consumption might affect his happiness through his coursework. Barbezat’s students are also required to rate their happiness three times a day. Hopkins said he has noted sometimes that his rating has been higher near moments of consumption, such as eating a meal or receiving a package.

Others in the course echoed the suggestion that their consumption habits were healthy, while still defending their peers against the mistaken preconceptions of others.

“As a general matter, I don’t feel like I have to consume to be happy,” said Charlie Quigg, a senior majoring in law, jurisprudence, and social thought. “But that may be a fair statement about certain members of my generation. Still, is this generation any different than those in the past? It’s hard to say. People’s priorities change. So, to older people, this might be a consumption generation. But, given the changes that have happened in the world, I think that might be overstated.”

Quigg, however, admitted that his position at an institution like Amherst might preclude him from seeing inequalities between personal happiness and consumption. This, he said, was the value of the course.

“I come from a nice place, and Amherst is a very nice area, too,” Quigg said. “I’m surrounded day-to-day by lots of my classmates from New York and Boston who have a private school education. It’s hard to get a sense of, even with the issues that surround us, the disparities between happiness in a place like this. I think during these times – and I act like I’m talking from experience – people have to focus more on what’s important and what makes them happy. Among the general population there’s a commonly held belief that consumption is critical to happiness, and there are lots of hackneyed statements about how that’s not true. It’s just interested to see how economics deals with those types of things.”

Learning lessons about consumption on a personal level are important in any economy, Barbezat said. Still, he believes they hold special merit now and could possibly influence public policy.

“Take a look at what’s being proposed,” Barbezat said of new federal regulations. “There’s a proposal to change the credit markets to preclude people from taking on contracts that may harm them. That implication is that there are a number of people who aren’t rational actors and that there is another group of people who know better who, through imposition, will make the others better. We live in an opulent world. The question for some is, does consumption make you happy or doesn’t it, when the answer is much more nuanced. We’d better really take care.”

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