The reason why we love efficiency so much is because it is very good at identifying resources that can deliver “more” from finite or fixed amount of input. And the reason why we love “more” is because we believe that it brings us “more” happiness. Basically, we assume some positive correlations among increased efficiency, more output and more happiness. If efficiency-first global economy can deliver more output, it should be able to deliver more happiness. But is it correct?
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 the one that weights 12 grams. Let’s verify if that’s the case.
But why do you buy strawberries to begin with? It’s not really the size that you are after. You chose big ones assuming that they’d 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 open them.
And by the way, they 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 amount 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 diluted to become large, its counterpart is small but condensed.
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-discovered how “real” strawberries tasted.
In order to buy strawberries that could meet our expectation, many of us compared size or volume relative to their price. We almost automatically associated increased size/volume with increased satisfaction, but it turned out that it was not necessarily the case. In today’s efficiency-first economy, “more” in apparent quantity is often diluted while “less” could be condensed and rich. Why does this discrepancy occur?
It boils down to the fundamentals of the design of an economic system. Its goal is to maximize economic output – increase production and achieve “more.” This cannot be mistaken. Then how come “more” coming out of the system isn’t always “more,” and can even turn into “less”? How come such inconsistent results are possible? Obviously it’s because the economy can handle only quantifiable kind of “more.” If you want to leverage an economic system to achieve increased output, the substance has to be expressed in arithmetic units such as weight, horsepower, or throughput. If you expected qualitative, subjective or personal kind of “more” to be delivered from the economy, you knocked the wrong door. That’s exactly what happened with large but diluted strawberries versus their counterparts that were rich in flavor and story yet substantially smaller.
It turns out that the “more delivers happiness” narrative we tried to rely on to achieve happiness was much more complicated than we hoped. However since we didn’t see good alternatives that were handily available, we simply left all the works to our economic system and hoped for the best. It did what it was good at: maximize output of quantifiable products. It did a great job indeed, and increased productivity solved many social/individual problems. Feeling victorious, we thought that quantity could offset/cancel out quality deficiencies, if we made a lot of outputs. So we kept increasing production aggressively, deploying efficiency on every front. It worked. The narrative of “(a lot) more production → more quantity → more quality → more happiness” became the mantra of modern society, and went unchecked for a long time – until it finally started revealing the fundamental discord that the economy couldn’t take care of happiness, and the “less is more” started to surface.
We now need to find out where/when the narrative of “(a lot) more production → more quantity → more quality → more happiness” started derailing. In order to do so, we first need to agree on how we deal with the relationship between production (quantifiable “more” that is in the system) and happiness (qualitative “more” that is external to the system). We cannot strategize how to capture a Big Foot when we don’t even know what exactly it is.
Since economy is a resource management system, it would be reasonable to start our discussion by characterizing happiness as a flip side of the world we live in – an insurmountably resource-constraint place in which you never can get everything you want. First there were resource deficiencies, which caused many sufferings such as hunger, poverty, diseases, solitude, conflicts and so forth. Since they wouldn’t go away even after so much struggle, humans yearned for a state in which they were finally freed from them. Such a state is what people imagined as happiness.
So fundamentally, happiness is the opposite of everything the finite-ness of our world represents. If the reality was starvation, happiness would be the state in which you have more food than you can eat. If the reality was unemployed, happiness would be to have a stable job. If the reality was “less,” happiness would be “more.” It was our natural reaction to make our pursuit for happiness a fight to satisfy the never-ending list of needs and desires caused by resource deficiencies.
When an acclaimed psychologist Abraham Maslow classified human’s needs in a hierarchical structure, he named the most fundamental and basic needs “deficiency needs,” which included physiological ones (food, water or shelter…things needed for survival) and also physiological ones such as sense of security and love. Maslow pointed that these needs had to be met before people become motivated to achieve higher level needs such as self-actualization. It was a long way coming indeed: it took humans tens of thousands of years to overcome basic deficiencies, because people had little else but their body to perform any tasks to increase production for more more than 90% of the entire history. Every single task was backbreaking, yet the yield was far from satisfactory. The majority of population was left in poverty. Higher level needs were so difficult to reach, and happiness seemed far away.
The hardship incurred by resource deficiencies continued for centuries after centuries (and it still persists in many parts of the world). In order to change the situation and make happiness more accessible for a larger society, people had to address unmet needs in a much larger scale, which required a breakthrough to increase productivity. But undaunted people kept working hard, and eventually they successfully invented large industrial machines fired by incredibly powerful fossil fuels. The Industrial Revolution fundamentally transformed production by making it completely external to, and much bigger than humans’ capacity, which was seriously limited in front of overwhelming resource deficiencies. The outcome was mesmerizing. When people were no longer stranded with what their body could perform, they were suddenly talking about performance increase of 300%, 1000% or more. Impossible became possible. As a result, production boomed in every industry and “more” was everywhere.
As we reviewed in the previous chapter, our progress in the last couple of centuries have been just singular. Thomas Edison, who is remembered as the father of modern invention that significantly improved billions of people’s lives, started working in 1856 at the age of 12. Only a century later, almost no kids in advanced countries had to work at that age. Today many more countries enjoy democracy compared to Edison’s era, and people can freely seek their dreams – higher needs in Maslow’s hierarchy such as higher education, recognition and success – without worrying about physiological deficiencies.
It was definitely a big win achieved by the power of economy supported by technology. Our narrative of “(a lot) more production → more quantity → more quality → more happiness” was proven to be effective. Excited and encouraged, we accelerated our pursuit for even more production to feel happier. Economic growth – higher GDP – became the requisite for national welfare, and sales increase (and every quarter! shareholders say) became a requirement for a “good” company. Voters vehemently demanded political leaders to grow economy, and the Wall Street passionately cheered profit-maximizing companies. Today many support never-ending economic growth, claiming that increased GDP means more, better jobs. As far as they keep creating good jobs, you should be able to secure one, and you can acquire what you need with your paychecks and feel proud and satisfied, because you are the winner in this competitive society. That’s how you achieve happiness. “A lot more” production,” not just moderately more production, quickly became our obsession. Today, you are denied as if you are a loser if you cannot achieve your (often unrealistically high) economic targets. If you work for a for-profit company, you must have done at least a couple of “why-the-heck-am-I-doing-this” kind of assignments for your panicking boss, just to pretend that your team achieved the quota even when it didn’t happen in reality.
In such an environment, it no longer matters whether or not your customers are asking for more products to feel satisfied. Output needs to be increased at any time regardless of how much demand there is, and if there is less demand for your product, alas, it’s your fault. You need to exploit new niche so that you can keep selling, even when such sales doesn’t make anyone happy.
Do you see a deviation in our narrative? Instead of “(a lot) more production → more quantity → more quality → more happiness”, we are now in an endless loop of “a lot more production → a lot more sales → even more production for higher sales targets.” Curiously, when aggressive pursuit for increased production radicalized the goal of the economic system, it “siloed” itself from happiness, rather than making the two closer. Chapter 1 of the narrative clearly ends when economic growth increases jobs, with a climax of increased dispensable income. Chapter 2 is about using that money (or other means) to acquire quantity or quality of things that make you happy. Two chapters no longer flow as a coherent story; they are independent to each other, simply glued by money.
Then who was the mastermind in distancing happiness from production? It was efficiency, the water and fertilizer that aggressively grew what modern technology sprouted. By leveraging its inhumane, harsh character, efficiency tried to divide what was increased by technology into two piles: one for efficient, and the other for inefficient. The separation process was strict; in order to increase productivity precisely efficiently, it dissociated happiness from it so that it won’t negatively affect the outcomes. In actual terms, it meant decoupling of consumption from production. Efficiency let producers monopolize production process using state-of-the-art technology and all kinds of concentrated resources, and labelled the rest as “consumers,” as if they were only good at consuming. It was a thorough job. Today producers do their own things behind the closed door, and consumers are left behind, having no idea how things are made. They almost never converge except at the point of sales, and rarely strengthen their relationships afterwards. As a result, the act of production (“produce more”) and act of enjoying the results of production (happiness) ended up facing off, rather than being united, as if the two sides are opposing parties with conflicting interests. If we let efficiency take care of the system, it will keep separating the act of creating happiness and enjoying it because it’s an economic victory, which is everything efficiency cares about.
Then how would things look like if the act of creating the source of happiness and enjoying it were united? We just turn our clock back about a hundred years (or less), when many people still had to use their own hands to grow food they ate or to build their own house. Yes, we are talking about the era of inefficiency.
In the era of inefficiency, work was mostly manual, backbreaking yet the results were moderate at best. But the flip side of the trouble was that people were a producer and a consumer at the same time. You grow, you eat. You build, you live in it. You owned the consistent acts of produce – use – enjoy. Even though such “happiness” might have been small and nothing spectacular per our standard today, at least it was tangible, embraceable and most importantly, belonged to you. The acts and processes were INSIDE yourself. It is this sense of ownership and reality associated with producing and using something, which escaped us as efficiency divided the economic system. The consequences were surprisingly serious. Look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What sits at the summit of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is self-actualization. The most precious excitement is the feeling of “I did it!” However, it was exactly what efficiency stole from us.
The way efficiency took away acts of self-actualization such as tinkering, creating or producing from people was very wise. It whispered: “you are too inefficient to make anything, so don’t even try. Why bother wasting your precious energy when we can take care of everything for you? Just sit back and enjoy what we sell to you.” It was so music-to-early that we started relying on goods and services that were just a click away, waiting to perform unwanted/tedious tasks on behalf of us and fill our desire for attention and recognition. And as a matter of fact, they were so well-designed to solve our problems from small to large, physical to psychological, that we ended up confusing the means to achieve happiness and the happiness itself. Even when we lost the sense of ownership and self-achievement in the pursuit for happiness, modern products were so compelling that we almost believed that happiness was now available for delivery if we clicked “order.”
So here we are now in a big pitfall. Instead of feeling content and full, we are becoming restless and anxious as we go after relentless economic growth and products that look more, bigger or cooler. Why? Because the kind of satisfaction delivered by efficiency-first system is literally efficient. It’s designed to be short-lived so that you feel the urge to buy another soon – diluted strawberries are diluted for good reasons. The excitement you felt when you bought them is supposed to start diminishing quickly so that you will start thinking about when/how you replenish it. But your problem won’t even be solved when you buy another “efficient” products that are “diluted” or “inflated” in their own way. You will simply find yourself in the same situation again. The heavier you rely on efficiency-first economy/products to feel happy, the more entrapped you are in a classic “lather, rinse, repeat” cycle of ever-diminishing satisfaction. It is a draining and stressful process.
When humans had very little help to improve productivity, they lived in the “less is less” economy, if you will, because most people had to live under severe resource deficiencies that hampered them from satisfying higher level needs to arrive at happiness. But people were indomitable and kept making progress on every front, pushing ancient civilizations to the Classical era, and to the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. They slowly but steadily turned “less” into “more,” unleashing every power they had – physical, cognitive and intellectual. People’s efforts produced big fruits during the Industrial Revolution, which gave humans access to very forceful power sources hat were completely outside their body. The outcome was outrageous: productivity grew exponentially in a matter of decades, to the point where we almost believed that “more is more” was finally a reality, and happiness was within reach.
Overjoyed, we increased our dependence on the economic growth to feel happier. But unfortunately, it turned out that “more is more” was an unsustainable/unattainable goal on this insurmountably resource-constrained planet. The only thing the economy could do was to accelerate what it was good at: increase quantifiable production by heavily relying on efficiency, which did great job maximizing the outcome from limited resources. But in order to achieve the goal, it ruthlessly divided everything on earth into an efficiency pile and inefficiency one. As a result, people’s power was diminished in front of ever-advancing technology and forceful energy sources, producers and consumers were separated, and happiness was further distanced from the economic system. When this happened, “more” turned into “less.” Happiness became grander and fancier thanks to the affluence the economy brought, but at the same time, it became external to us and more elusive.
Although we don’t have to go back to the era of inefficiency, or the world of “less is less,” we definitely need to fix the problem that turned “more” into “less,” because it’s causing fissures in our society, and making happiness difficult to access especially if you are not one of the handful winners.
But how do we do that? There is nothing complicated; actually we just simplify the complexity of this society that’s making many people antsy. Forget about new strategies or apps that claim to make your life even smarter. Just listen to your inherent power, regardless of what you have.
If you look back our history, humans have been making progress facing, adapting to and overcoming threats, constraints and challenges posed by nature for tens of thousands of years. It is obvious that we already have tremendous ability to solve even daunting problems and “self-actualize.” Such amazing power is called resilience. It was our resilience that has been generating “more” from “less” throughout the history. But unfortunately, the Industrial Revolution irreversibly changed the dynamics: modern technology started dominating the world and quickly diminished our abilities using “efficiency” as a forceful standard.
What technology achieved for us was amazing and fascinating, but it didn’t have to be equal to diminishing our own abilities and externalizing happiness from ourselves. There should be a way for efficiency such as technology, and “inefficiency,” such as our resilience and happiness, to co-exist within a system. That is what the “Less is more” economy is all about. Instead of relying on diluted or hollow “more” manufactured by inhumane processes, we can now start relying on our own potential again, instead of rejecting/denying it as inefficient. You will soon realize that it has much more power than efficiency to make you feel happier. The real face of “less” is our own potential, that could be boundless if it’s unleashed to its fullest.