Don't work, be happy – economist

  • 24/03/2013

A Massey University economist is questioning our quixotic obsession with economic growth, saying it doesn't make us happier and is environmentally unsustainable.

Professor Christoph Schumacher is holding a public lecture on Wednesday called 'Why Aristotle would own a surfboard', where he will talk about the Classical Greek philosopher's prescription for happiness, and how modern society has got it so wrong.

Speaking on Firstline this morning, Prof Schumacher said economic growth is worthless unless it improves our lives in some way.

"Economic growth just means we become very, very busy… We need to realise that it's not actually making us happy."

In fact, Prof Schumacher says his research shows a link between GDP growth and unhappiness.

"Our GDP figures are good at the moment, we are growing, but we are paying a price because every hour we spend at work is an hour less we spend with family, with friends, with leisure time, relaxing and so on," he says.

Prof Schumacher says the famous 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes predicted increases in productivity and efficiency would lead to a 15-hour work week, but instead the opposite has happened.

"Technology was supposed to make our life easier. I mean, Keynes, the great economist, predicted that we would only be working 15 hours a week because technology would make our lives so much easier it will demand less of us.

"But it seems that because we always want the new items out there – things become obsolete so quickly – we now spend more time at work just to acquire these new technologies."

Unless this extra wealth is put to good use, Prof Schumacher says it's meaningless.

"Maybe we need to realise that, like Aristotle said, we need to use this to enjoy our lives. Maybe we need to realise that we are working more than ever before, in the recent past – is it worth it?

"Research on happiness shows we should maybe spend more time with the people we like and enjoy to be with, relax a little bit more, maybe work less and just spend time doing the things we enjoy – which might not cost money."

On the Massey University website, he says New Zealand's credit card debt is one of the highest per capita in the OECD.

"My favourite quote comes from British ecological economist Tim Jackson: 'Our problem is we are persuaded to buy things we don't need, with money we don't have, to make impressions that won't last, on people we don't care about.' That's it in a nutshell."

The other problem is that most of the new wealth created by economic growth goes to people who don't need it.

"We have a moral obligation to share more because we really don't share very well. Under our current economic system we generate more wealth, but it goes into the same pockets."

The lecture, to be held at the Sir Neil Waters Lecture Theatre at Massey's Albany campus, starts at 6:30pm on Wednesday.

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