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Progress as The Social Production of Happiness

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I – Introduction: Progress and the Nation State in the 20th century

Concepts are cultural artifacts designed in political and historical contexts. The concept of progress expresses implicit assumptions concerning human nature and the role of the state.

The well-being of the ordinary person was a secondary consideration when the nation state was perceived as a sacred entity. National wealth and power were understood as the main objective of societies, while the well-being of individuals was a secondary concern. GDP measures the wealth and the potential power of the nation state without considering the well-being of the average citizen. Thus, from the perspective of the sacred nation state measuring progress solely by GDP made perfect sense.

The nation state changed its role in the second half of the 20th century. Democratic advances inverted the relationship between individuals and the state. Citizens were no longer supposed to sacrifice themselves blindly on behalf of the abstract nation. A historic turning point was the reaction of Americans to the Vietnam War. On the other hand, European political values stressing the social role of states spread around the world. Nowadays it is the state that has to justify its existence to citizens. Thus, well-being indicators became a political need.

Those who favor the use of GDP alone as an indicator of progress sometimes argue that growth, by itself, would necessarily bring general well-being. This conception reflects a most optimistic view of the self-regulating market as justice maker. Historical Brazilian economic figures, for example, show the opposite: economic growth may be associated with the worsening of social indicators.

Common sense infers there is no well-being without a minimum level of wealth to be distributed. This is only partially true because the size of the economy has no direct relationship with the level of welfare. US per capita income is more than fifteen times that of Cuba, but Cuban health and education standards are equal or superior to those of the US, even though for housing, transportation and other sectors Cuban indicators fall far below the world average. What makes the difference is not the isolated GDP size, but political decisions concerning the amount of the budget to be allocated to social expenditure. Increases in GDP do carry weight but are not crucial.

State intervention aiming at well-being became a moral paradigm for 20th-century economic policies despite the state’s retreat of the last two decades. The nation state’s commitment to its citizens has led to the adoption of well-being indicators on housing, food, education, health and other aspects. These indicators are useful not only for international comparisons, but also to orient social policies. Thus, the 20th century saw an advance in the concept of progress as assessed by the commitment of states to the well-being of their people.

However, this is not enough for the 21st-century concept of progress because of the growing awareness that economy and society exist for human happiness.

This paper has the following objectives:

1st_ Demonstrate that happiness is socially produced;

2nd _ Demonstrate that the community, as exemplified throughout this paper by the example of so-called “primitive societies”, is the social unit for the production of happiness;

3rd_ Explore the possibility of the existence of communities as happiness producing units in contemporary complex societies;

4th – Explore the role of economic indicators for wealth, material well being and happiness as well as some consequences of their use.

II – The Social Production of Happiness

Happiness is the new aspect to be added to the concept of progress in the 21st century.

It is far from simple to define happiness because the concept is relative to individuals, cultures and different social positions in different cultures. Asking individuals if they are happy, that is, using a subjective indicator resulting from polls, would provide misleading results due to the unequal perception of happiness between societies and within a given society.

The above problem may be illustrated by the warriors’ concept of happiness which depends on the unhappiness of his enemies. Besides, happiness is easily confused with euphoria. A state of euphoria resulting from the continuous use of drugs or from consumerism - as portrayed by smiling people in advertisements - is not happiness. The addiction of the American population to consumption recalls the Chinese addiction to opium in the 19th century. The hysterical human herd rushing through the doors of department stores on cut-price sales days is a remarkable and unique phenomenon. Usually a short period of intense satisfaction (“a high”) resulting from drugs or from shopping is followed by a period of depression until the next drug shot or the next act of buying. This is not happiness. On the other hand, the widespread use of legally prescribed anti-depressive drugs exposes an unambiguous symptom of collective unhappiness. It operates as a sort of anesthesia for an otherwise unbearable pain.

Happiness is socially produced, that is, it does not arise from the relationship between man and things. It rather depends from the relationship between human beings. The relationship between man and things contributes to happiness only when it intermediates a satisfactory relationship between man and man.

However, it is necessary to identify the type of human organization which brings the most pervasive distribution of ongoing happiness. Traditional societies teach important lessons about this subject.

The discussion about the use of GDP or well-being indicators for measuring progress would make no sense at all to most of humanity, because in most places the economy has always been seen as the means to fulfill society’s basic function, that is, to provide a safe environment where people can live in accordance with a culturally defined criterion of happiness. Material well-being is considered as the first obvious step towards happiness, because food, shelter, health and education are universal human needs to be fulfilled by all societies in their own cultural terms.

A big GDP is not a condition for material well-being and much less for happiness. Traditional societies do not have a big GDP but can present fair social conditions. What matters is the destination of the economic surplus. The concept of “surplus” is usually equated with the wealth produced above subsistence level. For the purposes of this paper I will consider as economic surplus the wealth above the level of basic material well-being, that is, the available expendable wealth above what is used on housing, food, health and education.

Surplus is redistributed In Karl Marx’s “simple reproduction”, when economy and society do not go through a permanent structural process of change. Karl Polanyi identified “redistribution” as one of the central forces in non-market economies. In tribal and peasant societies, surplus is redistributed in fiestas and in other rituals. In European pre-market societies alms and donations fulfilled the redistributive function. In some cases the surplus is destroyed in the act of raising the status of its previous owners – the classic instance is the potlatch ritual of the North-Western American Coast Indians. In other circumstances, the surplus is sterilized, as in the building of great pyramids or cathedrals. The Catholic Church has been an important surplus sterilizer by accumulating real estate. In Marx’s “amplified reproduction”, accumulation becomes investment and there arises an endless spiral of reinvestment, economic growth, wealth and poverty.

Simple reproduction economies characterized by a low average income – several don’t even have a currency to measure their income – may present optimum well-being levels. Studies on the Xingu River tribal Indians of the Brazilian Amazon, among whom I have lived, have shown that under normal conditions there was no hunger and very few native diseases. Nutrition levels are still higher than those in wealthy industrial Brazilian cities. Male daily labor averaged two and half hours and the remaining time was used for conviviality, music, dances and handcrafts. There is nothing more misleading than the stereotyped image of the “starving primitive man”, despite the fact that now and then hunger may occur due to natural disasters.

In traditional tribal and peasant societies there are no hospitals, schools or universities, but there are efficient mechanisms for health care and education. Health professionals are amongst the first specialists to appear in the social division of labor, but all adults know treatments and medicines, such as plants and roots. Learning is normally by imitation, as among the Upper Xingu Indians, where the boy has the same bow and arrows for fishing as his father. The size of the equipment varies according to the age of the fishermen and the size of the fish.

The social environment of traditional kinship-based societies in peace with other societies and in balance with nature offers conditions of psychological protection that are rarely found in complex contemporary societies. It is possible to link the idea of happiness with the notion of “peace” as the “tranquility of order” following Saint Augustine’s celebrated definition (3). From a sociological viewpoint, “the tranquility of order” means the continuous exchange of affection and solidarity . It implies living in a society where people know what to expect from life in accordance with a cycle that flows from the protection of children to respect for elders. It presupposes a childhood, adulthood and old age passed in serenity, and if there is an interruption of the cycle due to premature death, there will be an assurance that others will care for the living. Social roles are well defined in the same way as time and space references such as the village creek, the territory and the seasons. The “tranquility of order” means that people and things must be in the right place at the right moment of their lives as prescribed by their culture. Human life cycles follow those involving the natural and agricultural year and associated rituals.

Traditional societies commonly feature extended kinship unities that are greater than the nuclear family made up of father, mother and children. Although individuals do know who their biological mother and their social father (frequently the probable biological father) are, a large group of women are called by the term for “mother” and a large group of men are called by the term for “father”. It is not out of the question to suppose that in these small-scale communities, kinship terminologies reflect and affect concrete social relationships. Then classificatory parents do love, protect and feed the children they call “sons” and “daughters”. There is always a “mother” or a “father” around to care for the children as there is always an adult “son” or “daughter” to care for an aged parent.

These organizational forms are very efficient at setting up social protection networks. In the Indian village where I lived this was evident, as it is in most traditional communities around the world. For this reason, following the ideas of Arensberg and Kimball (1967) (4), I have worked on the hypothesis that the basic unit of human organization is not the family (nuclear or extended) but a group involving two sexes and three generations, a community usually larger than the family. It is a first condition for happiness to belong to a group that supplies a permanent exchange of reciprocal care. The community fulfills this function. Thus the community is the elementary social unit for the production of happiness.

The solidarity found among members of tribal and peasant societies contrasts with the loneliness of our urban populations. In the US, for example, there is a radical opposition between generations. Young men are supposed to leave home and elders are segregated in institutions sometimes called “nursing homes”. In parts of Europe, family values still survive, but the individualization process is growing fast. The average member of today’s western society lives in fear of the future, of threats of unemployment and hunger. He lacks a permanent reference group to provide the support that all human beings need, not only in crisis situations but in everyday life. The very notion of “life crisis” is characteristic of western contemporary culture.

Nevertheless, efficiency in the production of happiness by traditional societies does not mean that economic growth should be considered an evil. Even if economic growth (as measured by increases in GDP) brings unhappiness, it remains an absolute need because a worldwide market economy is inevitable and traditional communities cannot live in isolation.

The contrast between traditional society and culture and the new world born from the industrial revolution was studied by Karl Polanyi in his 1944 masterpiece “The Great Transformation” (5) . For Polanyi the consideration of land, labor and money as commodities - in the way expressed by economics since the eighteenth century – threatens not only human happiness but nature and even the survival of the human being, as the wars of the 20th century have shown (6). The transformation of land, labor and money into bought and sold “fictitious commodities” characterizes a highly artificial system. After the Industrial Revolution, for the first time in history, the importance of the economy would prevail over society’s solidarity values.

In Polanyi’s model, the main function of the state is the protection of individuals against the consequences of the transformation of land, labor and money into commodities. The present economic crisis dramatizes the need for state protection against unregulated currency; today, social policies are considered necessary to protect labor; and there is consensus nowadays that state action should protect nature and ensure a secure food supply.

Besides, states may protect people against other states. Stronger states may be highly predatory, as we Latin Americans bitterly know. Polanyi explains 20th- century European wars by the state’s fear that their populations would be treated in the same way as the colonial people of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Thus economic growth is desirable to strengthen national power in order to protect a country’s resources for the use of its own people. The bigger a national economy and the faster its growth rate, the better its resistance against external menaces. Colonialism is related to weak pseudo-states. Stateless or pseudo-state nations may watch the death of their entire populations or disappear as viable political unities.

III - Conclusions: Evaluating Progress in the 21st Century

Evaluation of progress must consider three main aspects:

1st - economic growth: sizeable and developed economies set the conditions for states to protect their people against the market and against other states. GDP is the way to measure the size and strength of the economy and the putative power of the state, despite the fact that state power has been frequently applied to oppress people. However, the worst condition is that of the colonial stateless or pseudo-state countries;

2nd - material well-being: measured by social indicators. It is the basic and evident objective for all economies. Human development indexes (especially in their newer versions) represent a fair way to combine the assessment of income and social well-being indicators;

3rd – happiness: time allocation is the key to building a quantitative cross-cultural methodology for measuring happiness. Experience drawn from traditional societies teaches us that happiness depends on the daily amount of time allocated to sociability and to creative activities. The more time allocated to non-creative repetitive tasks, the higher the level of unhappiness. Conversely, the greater the “leisure” time allocated to creative communitarian activities, the higher the happiness level. Creative work such as arts and crafts may be individually performed but must always be recognized and valued by a surrounding community. Besides, the daily amount of time spent on exchanging personal information and feelings in community networks is essential for happiness. The intensity and frequency of routine collective activities like parties and rituals is another happiness indicator.

It would not make sense to ask individual Indians and peasants, nor indeed recent urban immigrants around the world - which may encompass most of the population of several countries – about their subjective level of well being. The social unit to be consulted may be a legitimate community leader that speaks in its name or some type of entity like an “elder’s’ council” or other similar body that represents the community. The point to be stressed is that the culturally acknowledged social unit is not, in such cases, the individual but the community that comprises smaller units such as the family.

In order to foster happiness, society must guarantee the right to diversity and to multiple identities (7) . Identities define community membership. Communities are both associations and happiness production units. Therefore, the right to free association, that is, the right to join or create communities, is one of the requisites for happiness.

Racism limits the right to free association and to arranging communities freely. Forced ethnic identities build marginal stigmatized communities. Ethnicity and cultural identity must be considered as a primary value, but race or religious communities forcibly imposed on individuals represent an aggression against the right of free association. For such a reason the Latin American tradition of miscegenation and cultural syncretism must be considered as a great advantage. Besides, happiness in contemporary society implies the liberty to change identities and, by consequence, communities’ affiliations.

Traditional society and culture survive in Latin America in small rural Indian, peasant and Indian-peasant communities. In the cities, traditional kinship communities and cultures survive adapted to the new environment. In several cases extended kinship groups have evolved into church-based symbolic kinship communities of “brothers and sisters in Christ”. The recent boom in non-Catholic church congregations all over Latin America expresses a peculiar form of community organization in the region.

Community members share a set of values and beliefs that keep them together. For this reason, religion may be an essential ideological resource for setting up non-kinship communities, as it is for the cohesion of traditional kinship-based communities.

State institutions were well known by Andean, Mexican and Central American indigenous people long before the Europeans arrived. State and community were complementary. The contradiction between state and community appears when the state does not play its protective role.

Originally, most American Indian societies were constituted by land-owning communities. Land guarantee and support for traditional economies featuring an adequate food supply and a well balanced relationship with nature must be considered as a qualitative way to assess collective happiness. Land-owning may be a primary condition to preserve particular cultures, identities and communities. A combination of state-protected community-based traditional rural production systems with a dynamic entrepreneurial sector can be a virtuous target for progress. Some countries have successfully applied their own version of such an arrangement.

Since progress is identified with an increase in general happiness, communities deserve particular attention because they are the human organizational units that continuously provide care, affection and peace, representing the tranquility of order for their participant individuals.


1- Paper presented at the "Encuentro de Investigadores Lationamericanos - La Medición del Progreso de las Sociedades y el Bienestar de sus Habitantes."

2 - I am grateful to Susan Casement Moreira for her competent revision of this paper.

3 -Saint Augustine’s definition of peace is the following (The City of God, XIX, 13, pg 690): “The peace of the body then consists in the duly proportioned arrangement of its parts. The peace of the irrational soul is the harmonious repose of the appetites, and that of the rational soul the harmony of knowledge and action. The peace of body and soul is the well-ordered and harmonious life and health of the living creature. Peace between man and God is the well-ordered obedience of faith to eternal law. Peace between man and man is well-ordered concord. Domestic peace is the well-ordered concord between those of the family who rule and those who obey. Civil peace is a similar concord among the citizens. The peace of the celestial city is the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God. The peace of all things is the tranquility of order. Order is the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place.” Saint Augustine, 1950, The City of God. New York: Modern Library (Marcus D. D. Dods - transl.)

4 - Arensberg, Conrad and Kimball, Solon T. 1967- Culture and Community. Columbia University Press.

5  Polanyi, Karl. 2001- The Great Transformation. New York: Beacon Press.

6 - Land was not seen as a commodity in itself, but as nature exploited by men. Labor was, simply, understood as daily human activity and money was considered nothing other than a tool to make transactions easy.

7 - On Multiple Identities see Amartya Sen – 2006. Identity and Violence. Norton & Co, London and New York.

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