Matters of Inertia

Spinning with inertia's stubborn forceThe title of a book excerpt from Mother JonesWhy Having More No Longer Makes Us Happy—might suggest a tale of modern life in America, but as it turns out, the scale is larger than that. Really, it's a story about inertia, as the final paragraph makes clear.

We've gone too far down the road we're traveling. The time has come to search the map, to strike off in new directions. Inertia is a powerful force; marriages and corporations and nations continue in motion until something big diverts them. But in our new world we have much to fear, and also much to desire, and together they can set us on a new, more promising course.

Not that it would be a good idea to simply drop to the bottom of the article, and leave it at that. There are a number of interesting points—beyond the trajectory of planetary ruin scenario—contained in this tale of economic progress at the expense of all else. Isolationism, for example, and not just from our neighbors.

As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, "Major builders and top architects are walling people off. They're touting one-person 'Internet alcoves,' locked-door 'away rooms,' and his-and-her offices on opposite ends of the house. The new floor plans offer so much seclusion, they're 'good for the dysfunctional family,' says Gopal Ahluwahlia, director of research for the National Association of Home Builders."

What, one might ask, might be the ultimate goal of this isolation? To be left alone with one's toys, perhaps.

No wonder the show that changed television more than any other in the past decade was Survivor, where the goal is to end up alone on the island, to manipulate and scheme until everyone is banished and leaves you by yourself with your money.

But this apparent desire to be left alone isn't without its consequences, not the least of which may be one's health . . .

Check this out: When researchers at Carnegie Mellon (somewhat disgustingly) dropped samples of cold virus directly into subjects' nostrils, those with rich social networks were four times less likely to get sick. An economy that produces only individualism undermines us in the most basic ways.

. . . not to mention our sense of identity.

Here's another statistic worth keeping in mind: Consumers have 10 times as many conversations at farmers' markets as they do at supermarkets -- an order of magnitude difference. By itself, that's hardly life-changing, but it points at something that could be: living in an economy where you are participant as well as consumer, where you have a sense of who's in your universe and how it fits together.

How did this happen, the author asks. How did we screw up?

The answer is pretty obvious -- we kept doing something past the point that it worked. Since happiness had increased with income in the past, we assumed it would inevitably do so in the future. We make these kinds of mistakes regularly: Two beers made me feel good, so ten will make me feel five times better. But this case was particularly extreme -- in part because as a species, we've spent so much time simply trying to survive.

Inertia, as the author suggests, is indeed a powerful force. It's all too easy to coast along on it, even after it's become apparent that the course will ultimately take us onto the rocks.


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