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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Consolation for hard times, March 4, 2009
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This review is from: The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950 (Paperback)
The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950
Caught in the current economic crisis your sense of well-being may be on a downturn. But then again, maybe not, provided you can still pay for the basics in life (food, shelter, health care, and the like). Avner Offer explains why.

Subjective well being (SWB) is a psychological notion, representing how satisfied we are with ourselves and our situation in life, how happy we are. There are various controversies about it among social scientists, but numerous surveys have been conducted to measure it, over many years and across many nations.

One of the things social scientists try to do with the SWB data is to ascertain the factors that drive it up or down. How do wealth and income, for example, affect SWB?

Offer draws on the findings of a wide swath of this research to report a number of interesting conclusions. He pulls together the empirical case against the idea that more is always better. We are on a "hedonic treadmill" - as our income goes up our aspirations rise as well, with no progress in our sense of subjective well-being. Cross-national levels of satisfaction are not obviously dependent on national wealth, although at the very bottom the poor certainly suffer. Non-market factors such as the family, human relations in the workplace, and other forms of attachment are better correlates to SWB in economically developed societies.

As affluence has risen our capacity for self-control and prudence has declined, Offer suggests. People exercise "myopic choice" -- rewards arrive faster than the development of capacities for self-control. Thus, "The rewards of affluence produce the disorders of affluence," he says. For example, mental disorder increases with affluence (for nations as a whole).

Given his interpretation of the data, Offer believes that a more equal distribution of wealth and income, both across nations and internally within particular societies, would enhance subjective well being. In part, this observation rests on the shape of the income and status curve: at the top it takes a big change in income to produce an increase in status; at the bottom it takes very little. And one's sense of status is very much a determinant of well-being. Although economic growth improves the quality of life in poor countries, "That does not constitute an argument for further enriching the rich in the most affluent ones," Offer contends.

There is a great deal more rich detail in The Challenge of Affluence than I have indicated here. It a book filled with charts, graphs, and tables of the sort that will be familiar to economists, sociologists, and psychologists. The academic character of it may deter the general reader, however. It should not, for the themes Offer covers are of importance to all of us.

He concludes that our "well-being depends primarily on how (and how well) we understand ourselves. Well-being is more than having more. It is a balance between our own needs, and those of others, on whose goodwill and approbation our own well-being depends." In hard times such as these that may be small consolation, but we will take what we can get.
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Location: Portland, OR USA

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