Friday, May 9, 2014

The economics of happiness

Shomu Banerjee has learned lessons in how to lead a contented life through encounters with all kinds of people, from an Indian road worker he sat next to on a bus to a Nobel Laureate in economics who was his graduate school advisor.

What can economics, "the dismal science,” teach us about happiness?

Plenty, says Shomu Banerjee. A senior lecturer and applied microeconomic theorist at Emory, Banerjee was a presenter for the university’s recent Good Life Speaker Series.

“Happiness is related to our perspective, the way we choose to look at things,” he said in his talk. “And the definition of economics in this day and age is the study of choice: How do people choose things, how do they make decisions.”

He recalled an experience he had while walking on the Emory campus, when he noticed a woman in her early 30s standing at a bus stop and crying. “She had tears flowing from her eyes and there were all these people standing around and nobody was saying anything to her,” Banerjee said. “I said, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ And she said, ‘No, it’s okay, thank you very much.’ And then she said, ‘You know, one day I’m going to look at this and laugh.’ So I said, ‘If you already know you’re going to look at this and laugh one day, why not start right now?’ And she did actually start laughing at that point.”

Once your basic needs are met, such as food, water and shelter, happiness becomes more about choice and perspective, and finding ways to create meaning in your everyday life, Banerjee said.

Banerjee, who was born in England, described his family as “pretty poor.” He grew up in Pakistan, Madagascar and Turkey, with occasional stints in India, before moving to the United States at 21.

The Crab Nebula is the remnant of a supernova recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054, located 6,500 light years from Earth with a diameter of 11 light years. “It’s massive,” says Banerjee. “When you look at it, you realize how ephemeral our lives are and how we really shouldn’t agonize over the small, irrelevant things in life.”

“When I came to the United States, the thing that I wasn’t ready for was what a cold place this was in terms of relationships, relative to what I’d been exposed to,” he recalled.

Outside of primary relationships, he said, many people seem to consider their relationships as transactional, like the market environment that imbues so much of society. He urged students to go beyond the transactional and take the time to notice others and empathize with them.

Banerjee recalled a story from his college years in India. He had boarded a bus with no empty seats. He stood next to a seated man who was obviously a road worker. “Road workers worked with their hands and wore turbans to carry baskets of dirt. Their fingernails would be caked with mud,” Banerjee said. “Maybe this man saw the tired look on my face. He scoots up on his seat, makes a little space and says, ‘Sit down here.’”

The man had been sweating and was covered in grime from a day of labor in the hot sun. Banerjee hesitated. He politely declined the man’s offer to squeeze in next to him, giving the excuse that he didn’t want to crowd him.

“The man told me, ‘If there is space in your heart, then there is space here,’” Banerjee said. “Now this came from a man who is probably totally illiterate. I went into automatic mode and sat down. I wasn’t even thinking. This is what I mean by empathy. These things do make a difference in the quality of our lives, but we tend to forget how to relate to others.”

Watch the video of the talk by Shomu Banerjee:

Another key to happiness is choosing not to compare one’s self to others, Banerjee said. He told a story from his graduate school years: “I had a wonderful PhD advisor, Leonid Hurwicz, a Polish-American economist who won the Nobel Prize in 2007. He was Jewish, part of his family died in the Holocaust, but he never talked about those things, ever. Except this one time.”

When a faculty member came up for tenure, and Hurwicz was asked to rank the candidate next to other luminaries in the field, he told Banerjee: “How can I compare people, and say that this person is as good as A or not as good as B? I cannot do that. And more than that, I refuse to do it, because that was the kind of madness that the Nazis were engaged in.”

Banerjee encouraged students to choose to do things that they love, rather than search for direction by browsing the marketplace. “That’s appropriate for grocery shopping,” he said, “but for living I think it’s far more important to ask, ‘Who am I? What lights me up? What motivates me? Rather than just go from classroom to classroom or major to major, shopping.”

He also advised them to make a list of simple activities that nurture their spirits and to do these things from time to time. He recalled feeling overwhelmed when he was a graduate student working on his thesis, and how he would escape that feeling by sitting beneath a tree to feed the campus squirrels.

“The challenge was getting them to actually eat out of my hand,” he said. “For those 10 to 12 moments that I was trying to feed the squirrels, I was really enjoying this inter-species interaction. I was in the moment. I was not thinking about, ‘If I don’t get my thesis I’ll have to go back to India with my tail between my legs.’”

Banerjee still makes time for activities to nurture his spirit. “Last year, around Thanksgiving, my daughter and I climbed Stone Mountain early in the morning,” he said. “We went up in the dark and watched the sun rise. It kept me going for months. It really filled me with joy. I don’t know why. Maybe it connected me with my human ancestors who looked at the sun and didn’t know what it was and were totally amazed. But I was equally amazed in the 21st century. It’s the beginning of a day, so much promise, all those things that make me feel happy.”

Many students who come to him for advice do not have a strong calling, Banerjee said. One of the hardest decisions they have to make is what to do with themselves.

He offered a quote by the late Howard Thurman, an African-American civil rights leader, who said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Photo credits: Top,; center, NASA; bottom, Wikipedia

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