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July 30, 2004

Gratitude journals and Loewenstein's challenge

Bryan Caplan of Marginal Revolution has a fascinating response to what he calls "Loewenstein's challenge."

Loewenstein is a leading researcher in economics and psychology. His challenge is to explain why anyone who cares about human happiness wouldn't also advocate the redistribution of wealth. Basically, the data confirm the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. Once people are relatively comfortable, increases in wealth don't necessarily increase their happiness. Whereas even small increases in wealth can dramatically increase the well being of those who are desperately poor. So, one would expect a certain amount of redistribution to increase overall happiness.

Caplan thinks that the answer to Loewenstein's challenge lies in the psychology of gratitude:

Several interesting experiments (like this one) ask subjects to keep a "gratitude journal." Main idea: Every day, write down things you are grateful for. Depending on the experiment, control groups either do nothing, or keep an "ingratitude" diary, or write down a random childhood memory. The main finding is that keeping a gratitude journal makes people happier than the other treatments.

He goes on to argue that redistributive economics may undermine happiness by fostering ingratitude. He claims that redistributive economic policies encourage people to think about how they're being screwed instead why they ought to be thankful.

A few points:

i) Do people in steeply progressive tax systems think about their own misfortune more than people who live in regressive tax systems? This is an empirical question. If so, Caplan has answered Loewenstein--provided that negative effects of griping outweigh the positive effects of redistribution.
ii) Maybe the transition from a regressive to a progressive tax system requires a shift in focus from gratitude to ingratitude. People who don't yet realize they are being screwed may have to confront this fact in order to generate the political will to change the tax system. If so then Loewenstein might have to take those transition costs into account.
iii) Caplan argues that redistributive policies will create "a lifestyle of ingratitude" because nobody will ever be satisfied, no matter how much redistribution there is. Again, that's an empirical question. If we encourage everyone to count their blessings, as Caplan suggests, we may find an optimal level of redistribution that minimizes resentment and increases gratitude. Maybe in that "zone" the poor will have more blessings to count and the rich will be too grateful to resent the redistribution.
iv) It's the wealthy who forget to count their blessings under our current regressive tax system. Instead of being grateful for their relative prosperity, many consume themselves with ingratitude at their insufficiently small tax cuts (think, Club for Growth). These ungrateful wretches waste their precious time going to boring meetings and prayer breakfasts to lobby for even bigger tax cuts instead of enjoying themselves with the money they have. For these tough cases, the solution seems to be a mixture of Loewenstein and Johnny Cash (cf. "Satisfied Mind"). If rational people like the members of The Club learn that more money doesn't necessarily translate into more happiness, they may be less emotionally attached to their surplus wealth and less concerned about progressive taxation.


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I've read that eskimos have 47 words for "snow"; & that there are 6 ways of expressing gratitude in Mandarin Chinese, all of which imply resentment. As a monolingual dylantaunte, I'm not likely to ever know, for sure. It makes sense, though, that ingratitude is more fun because the focus is on oneself, while gratitude requires that one be aware of a position of inferiority vis å vis the bestower. It is more 'blessed' to give than to receive; but I think that the 'blessing' may exist as recognition of one's behavior. So, there's not much in the 'strokes' dept for the rich being willing to move toward a more progressive tax situation, unless the rich person sees some area of the socio-cultural landscape that will appear to change to their liking, and/or there's some notoriety attached to their actions (eg Bill Gates, Sr. championing higher taxes on the wealthy). Generally, the poor will have to take their 'blessing' in improvements to infrastructure and social programs (eg WIC, public restrooms, libraries, parks, playgrounds, etc), not cash... well, OK, the EIC provides a little cash, maybe.
As one whose response to the Military-industrial complex's grip upon the national cash flow was to vow never to make enough to pay income taxes again (and have only blown it 3 times since 1971) until the Pentagon budget reaches 15% or less of the height of the VietNam war, I've learned to be grateful for the quality of gov't agencies while focusing on self-sufficiency skills, rather than earning income. My feeling is that Caplan is dead wrong in his first "empirical" assumption. People in the U.S. are so uptight about the costs of medical insurance (& other medical costs) that it makes people ill-AND very envious of the folks across the border. We would actually breathe a collective sigh of relief here if all medical costs were 'fee for services' (unless one works for an insurer, I guess)- And it would be much cheaper, nationally. You'd think that a nation that's taught to envy the most expensive (car, whatever- fill in the blank) would be proud to have the most expensive medical system ever- but no. The only insurance that makes sense, from an efficiency standpoint, would be a 'non-profit' system. Re "a lifestyle of ingratitude" is NOT the same as "Resentment." Ingratitude is a selfish pleasure. Resentment is often an unflattering comparison which may lead to self-analysis. Not the same thing. Caplan's point about people never being satisfied, well, we're all encouraged to do better, make more $$$, get ahead- and that, in itself, is often debilitating, emotionally, for the poor & middle class. But of course it's also the heart of the Engine of Progress- since that's what keeps it going, from the incursion of debt to the constant struggle for the trappings of success. Your resentment may make you a better person; but it won't set you free... ^..^ though I wasn't aware of it at the jennifer aniston time: I was, some years back, even MORE buy cellular service hypercritical of my own writing and composing online photo sharing than I am now, and regrettably during order avril lavigne that time I threw away a lot of material dish network which I could've done something with angelina jolie now. I had a real block around lyrics online banking for songs I was writing, in particular. health insurance salerampage.comnm

There are just simply too many selfish self-centred and blighted people in the West, particularly in the U.S. and Canada. If there was a more feasible equitable distribution of wealth and KNOWLEDGE, everyone would be far more content and happy, there would be less war, 'terror' and sadness. And no one would have to fear for their not-so-great lives as much because everyone would more or less be on the same page. So when, for example, a young black man rises from the ashes from which he came, he would not have to worry or take into the account the intense persecution that follows. And everyone could share more benefitially in his success. Because his success becomes the success of the community, probably similar to that found in a small African village. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope it helps make you and in turn the world a better place.

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