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Yoga for economists, Part 1: why thinking like an economist causes unhappiness

Sounds like a stretch? Hear me out.

We face a global mental health crisis. Economists, even those studying happiness and well-being, are far from contributing solutions. Perhaps the field is too young to expect that? I think it’s worse. A look back at the thousands of years of study of human well-being in the Eastern traditions suggests that we economists may be causing a chunk of the problem by the way we think – and the way we confidently teach generations of students is “the right way” to think, not only about economics but about our private lives as well.

The proof is by example. First, the foundation of well-being in yogic philosophy is a precept to not harm other beings.[1] By stark contrast, in mainstream economics, whether individuals should “rationally” impose externalities on others is a question of whether the behavior is legal and whether the externality is priced.[2] To a yogi – or a Buddhist, for that matter – it is clear that maintaining mental balance on such a shaky foundation is close to impossible. They believe that the first person getting harmed by an unwholesome action is the actor himself.

As a second example, in economics, we work hard to try and think in counterfactuals and in opportunity costs: “If I don’t read this article, what else could I do with my time?” “If I quit my job, how much could I make in another?” “Who else could I date instead if I left my partner?” This way of thinking goes squarely against the basic insight of the Eastern traditions that happiness lies in practicing friendly acceptance and appreciation of the experience of the present moment, and practicing gratitude for what one has.[3] Avoiding the present moment’s experience by distracting oneself with pleasant or unpleasant counterfactual future or past scenarios is the direct cause of suffering, in that view.

The more advanced teachings from your favorite “economic principles” class make matters worse. For example, anecdotally, deliberations about whether a non-degenerate set[4] of potential romantic partners are complements or substitutes are not generally conducive to harmonious relationships either.

Suffice to say, according to the Eastern view, it would be absurd to expect that thinking like an economist would lead to a peaceful and happy mind, or even just allow for one. Instead, the ways of thinking that lead to economic success are rather obviously quite at odds with the ways of thinking that lead to mental well-being. To be clear: this is not a matter of whether thinking like an economist is the right way of thinking or not, but a question of what the different kinds of thinking are useful for. Perhaps we should caveat our teachings accordingly.

So what do I conclude? Perhaps this: one doesn’t have to bend over backwards to believe that connecting “moral sentiments” with “economics” was a good idea — and might be an idea worth reviving.

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility.

Lisa Kramer and Tony Cookson contributed puns. All remaining deviations of taste and errors of fact and logic remain my own.

[1]  There are obvious similarities to Christian and other Western religious traditions. The difference may be in the goals that the Western and Eastern traditions attempt to attain with their moral prescriptions; well-being is the explicit aim of Yoga.

[2]  Of course, some (perhaps more enlightened) economists have proposed including altruism in our descriptions of human behavior; see the end of this post for an early example. These approaches aren’t usually featured prominently in mainstream economics classes, however. Indeed, the author of that early example is better known for a later book that emphasizes the power of markets rather than of moral sentiments.

[3]  Various Western religions also encourage the practice of gratitude, of course. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why religious people are happier than those not engaging in religious practices.

[4] For the interested reader, I should state more precisely: I mean a set with cardinality greater than one.

Lisa Kramer and Tony Cookson contributed puns. All remaining deviations of taste, and all errors of fact and logic remain my own.

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