Wednesday, November 13, 2002


It may be as important to us as happiness.

After talking about happiness on Life Matters earlier this year, this week I returned to the subject and asked in the phrase made famous by Peggy Lee: is that all there is?

Our other big need appears to be meaning in what we do. We get it by having an identity and being true to that identity, or at least that is the persuasive argument made by two academics from the University of Connecticut.

Often the identity comes from religion. How else to explain the actions of people who don't eat or drink anything from dusk to dawn during Ramadan, or of people who don't eat pork without ever having tasted it, or of suicide bombers.

"They only do it in the pursuit of happiness" is an unsatisfying explanation. A better explanation is that most of the time people do such things in pursuit of meaning.

This means that changes in prices are likely to have very little effect on certain sorts of behaviours. I haven't eaten meat since I was 15 or 16 years old. A cut in the price of meat is unlikely to tempt me. A cut in the price of alternative leisure activities is unlikely to tempt a would-be suicide bomber.

And there are more issues raised in the paper. Traditional microeconomic analysis assumes that all our tastes are pretty much the same. (So much for classical economics celebrating the individual) Our behaviour is determined by our income and by relative prices.

The new approach recognises that different people have different tastes, and create different tastes as part of creating an identity. It means that behaviour is determined not only by changes in income and relative prices but also by who we are and who we have decided to be.

If taken on board it'd make economic modelling much more complicated (perhaps unnecessarily so).

But how else can we take seriously the actions of someone who won't eat or even drink water from dawn to dusk?

Worth a read.