It turns out that an economic system is, by design, driven by instinct and selfishness. As efficiency aggressively advances its agenda, “more” is unavoidably turned into “less,” and competition intensifies. It is finally time to “upgrade” our economy into a happiness-generating platform where we can exchange those things we really care about and seek. But how do we do that? We can start it by replacing efficiency with “design.”
Modern designers in the early 20th century embraced the notion of “less is more,” which revealed two sides of the same coin – the Jekyll-and-Hyde like character of “more,” and the surprisingly pure, natural and relatable quality of “less.” Find out how people’s relentless pursuit of economic growth often led to catastrophic results, and how people reacted to them resiliently to re-discover the power of “less.”
We live in the most affluent society in history today. Then why are we feeling so divided, anxious and angry? It’s because our economy has a furious desire to control the entire planet using its lethal weapon: efficiency. It’s time to check if this is bringing us a sustainable happiness, because plenty of information and wisdom tells us that we are now heading towards the next global-scale crisis.
Efficiency is about rewarding winners, which pits all of us against each other in fierce competition and division. But we are not ready to give up on efficiency, believing that it bring us “more,” which automatically bring us happiness. But is this true? Discover the real face of the “more” delivered by the efficiency-first economy, which is actually unable to address people’s higher needs such as love, esteem or self-accomplishment.
In the previous chapter, we reviewed how efficiency emerged as an overpowering factor in the modern economy with its aggressive pursuit for “more,” and how efficiency has done an excellent job producing an unprecedented level of material affluence. However, history repeats itself. Unprecedented economic growth has also inflicted fierce competition and severe divisions among people, companies and countries. Social tension is boiling over rapidly, making our future look uncertain and unstable despite the current “strong” economy.
But even in face of the prevalent competition that makes us anxious and angry, we are not prepared to give up on efficiency, because it does exactly what a resource-constrained world needs: identify resources that can deliver “more” from a finite or fixed amount of input. Without efficiency, we won’t have “more” affluence or economic growth, and we won’t have access to “more” happiness. But exactly what kind of “more” is efficiency delivering to us? Are efficiency-driven products and services delivering enough happiness enough to justify their unpleasant side effects?
Let’s take strawberries as an example. You would assume that two strawberries are always “more” than one strawberry, and a strawberry that weighs 18 grams is “more” than one that weights 12 grams. And “more” strawberries are better and make us happier than “less” strawberries. Let’s verify if that’s the case.
But why buy strawberries to begin with? It’s not really the size that you are after. You chose big ones assuming that they serve your goal better – more filling and delicious strawberries at a lower price. But was your assumption correct? Was there a reasonable correlation between the size/weight and the level of your satisfaction?
For the first goal – to fill your tummy – size and weight look to be the right indicators, because “how filling” is about calories, which is about quantity: 100 grams (33 cal.) of strawberries are more filling than 20 grams (7 cal.). Then what about the second goal? How were size and weight helpful to find tasty strawberries? To find that out, you have to cut them open.
And by the way, size might not have been a good indicator even for the first category, the quantity. It’s very likely that the “efficient” strawberries were grown with good amounts of water to maximize yield with less growing time and tending. If the size increase was achieved simply by increasing water content, you might have experienced “the larger, more diluted (with no virtual calories gain) and less flavorful,” instead of “the larger, the more filling and yummier.”
Now let’s take a look at strawberries of “less” – smaller in size and lesser in weight. In this particular case, they are organic and heirloom strawberries grown by a local farmer. Since they are heirloom, the size looks how strawberries looked decades ago. They are the size at which they can grow best. If you are used to the strawberries sold at grocery stores, they may look awfully small.
But when you cut and eat them, you will realize how much those “small” strawberries can offer. Even before cutting them, you smell a pleasant aroma. The meat is beautifully red inside and out. The flesh is dense but tender, and has delicious juice. Both flavors and nutrients are “maximized.” Such delicious/nutritious strawberries have been produced by devoted farmers who know how to cooperate with the local climate and soil conditions to let strawberries thrive, using only good quality/healthy fertilizers and no chemical pesticides.
If a strawberry from the efficiency-first economy was flavor-diluted to become large, its counterpart is small but condensed with flavor.
In addition to the maximized eating experience, these strawberries have been grown locally and are sold at a farmers’ market in your neighborhood. You can buy directly from the people who grew them, feeling great about supporting the local economy. You may also learn at the farmer’s stand what it means to grow strawberries, the best season to enjoy them, and a tip or two on how to make delicious strawberry jam. And last but not least, you re-discover how “real” strawberries taste.
In order to buy strawberries that meet our expectations, many of us compare size or volume relative to their price. We almost automatically associate increased size/volume with increased satisfaction, but it turns out that it is not necessarily the case. In today’s efficiency-first economy, “more” in apparent quantity is often diluted while “less” can be condensed and rich. It is because quantity and quality are almost always in conflict within an economic system in this resource-constrained world, and a common strategy of a profit-maximizing producer is to leverage efficiency to dilute quality in order to inflate quantity.
Unfortunately, the typical kind of “more” that produced by today’s economy offers only partial satisfaction, because efficiency is all about identifying and rewarding strong winners. Companies are forced to maximize profit, rather than their user’s happiness, even if it is against their will. That is the only way to survive fierce competition.
There is a deeply-rooted reason why competition has become so harsh in our economy, preventing companies from focusing on happiness, rather than profits. In order to understand this perplexing question, we need to revisit the process through which we arrive at a state of happiness. An acclaimed physiologist, Abraham Malsow, summarized this process in his widely-recognized concept of a hierarchy of needs, so let’s take a look at it.
Malsow observed that human needs began with basic ones such as food, water and safety, and gradually elevated to higher needs. Basic needs are “deficiency” needs, induced by the inalienable fact that the resources on this planet are finite and there have never been, and never will be, enough of anything to satisfy everyone. For 99% of human history, the majority of people struggled to address deficiency needs, yet their hands were tied in front of the power of nature. All they could do was to mobilize/train their physical abilities and senses as much as they could in order to harvest everything that came within their reach. The desperate hunger for “more” is woven into our DNA, and the command to “go grab it” in order to increase our odds of survival has been imprinted in our instinct forever.
According to Maslow, it was only after deficiency needs were met when people had some leeway to start chasing higher needs, such as love, recognition, social success, and then ultimately, a deep sense of accomplishment. These needs are “philosophical,” if you will, unique only to humans. We imagine “happiness” as a state in which we address both deficiency and philosophical needs. Both must be fulfilled.
From the figure, it almost looks like you start from basic needs and keep climbing the step-by-step in order to achieve the most profound happiness. However, there are actually fundamental differences between deficiency needs and higher needs. Rather than continuous, they can be in conflict: whereas the first ones were caused by material “less-ness” resulting in physical danger, the latter were caused by cognitive “less-ness” resulting in emotional danger. Psychical danger is about your own survival to which your instincts respond. Emotional danger is about your relational/social survival to which your conscience responds. Selfishness (go grab it before anyone else can) helps address deficiency needs and increases your own odds of survival, but selflessness becomes the key in increase the collective welfare of the community to which you belong. Confusingly enough, we are inherently torn between a desire to surpass others, and an aspiration to take care of each other. This is one of the reasons why happiness is so elusive.
|Type||Deficiency needs||Philosophical needs|
|Objective||Individual survival||Collective survival|
|Major means||Material (resource) acquisition||Empathy|
So where does an economic system fit in? Since it was created in response to peoples’ desperate desire to alleviate resource scarcity, it inherently belongs to the world of deficiency needs. Even after thousands of years of improvements and advancement, our current system still reflects the characteristics of deficiency needs. Immediate goal? To ensure nothing but the survival of yourself (or your company). It’s totally legitimate to defeat your competitors to achieve your goal – their loss is your gain. What drives the system? Your instinct to go after and take over as many resources as possible before anyone else can. Go grab it now, and put a “proprietary” label on it so that no one else could access it!
In his recent best-seller, The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, brand strategy guru Scott Galloway at New York University’s Stern School of Business writes that “instinct is a powerful chaperone, always watching and whispering in your ear, telling what you must do to survive…Instinct, coupled with a profit motive, makes for excess. And the worst economic system, except for all the rest – capitalism – is specifically designed to maximize the equation.”
If happiness was a state in which deficiency and philosophical needs were met simultaneously, our economy and its pursuit for “more” can take care of only half of our needs. From the get-go, it was a crying for the moon to try to let an instinct-selfishness-competition driven system to also become sharing, caring and loving so that it could handle our philosophical needs as well. As a consequence, despite our expectation, today our markets are full of large but diluted/empty products, and competition has become so intense as if we are all engaged in an all-out, global fight.
When humans had few means to improve productivity, they lived in a world full of deficiencies – or the “less is less” economy, if you will. It lasted tens of thousands of years, imprinting an acute desire for “more” on the human instinct. Such instinct motivated people to keep working hard to advance civilizations in order to turn “less” into “more,” slowly, but steadily. Eventually, human efforts produced great benefits during the Industrial Revolution, which gave access to very dominant external power sources. Productivity grew exponentially in a matter of decades, to the point where we almost believed that “more is more” had finally become a reality, and happiness was within reach.
Excited people increased dependence on economic growth, assuming that it would eventually bring them happiness. Although statistics tell us that is what’s been happening in modern society, in reality today consumers are often ripped off and cheated, and the division between rich and the rest is widening. Unfortunately “more is more” is a mission impossible on this resource-constrained planet, and the economy has been driven by a “hands off it’s mine” mentality. The adamant pursuit for “more,” that refuses to admit the fact that it’s on an instinct-selfishness-competition driven system, can only turn “more” into “less.”
This is where we are today, a place where historic material affluence and surprisingly crude anxiety, frustration and anger are in collision.
It’s time to finally accept the real face of our economic system. It is very true that it has worked very well to address deficiency needs, freeing so many people from poverty and oppression. However, it’s just not designed to address our higher needs. When our needs started aspiring to higher needs, the system needed to be upgraded also. Expanding and accelerating the status quo is not an upgrade. That’s where we became confused.
We now need to start asking a new question. Instead of the vague and the clichéd “can we keep our economy growing?” we should ask: “can we transform our economy from instinct-selfishness-competition driven system to a platform that can leverage a consciousness-empathy-sharing mindset, so that it can start supporting people’s higher needs?”
It is what the “Less is more” economy is all about.
The “Less is more” economy is not so much about material less-ness. It’s rather a realization that the pursuit for “more,” especially the material “more,” can address our happiness only partially. It’s also a commitment to sincerely explore alternatives to efficiency, which had been veering the current system in a direction where many people (or non-winners) are denied the full-fledged happiness of self-esteem and self-actualization.
In the next chapter, we will discuss what can replace efficiency so that the economic system can help us pursue our own happiness more flexibly and resiliently.