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If I Knew Then What I Know Now…

February 12, 2010

I have recently begun to read “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert.  I picked it up at a bookstore in Union Square as I was looking for something new in my life that didn’t require too much commitment.  I was intrigued by its self-description as an attempt to explain why people are unhappy rather than how one can find happiness.  The majority of self-help “Make the Life of Your Dreams” books, with requisite chapters on how to become rich and fabulous, tend to be a little too positive, heavily marketed and full of fairy dust for my taste.  As I am only a handful of pages into “Stumbling on Happiness” I am in no position to review the book, but do find the initial premise an interesting meditation on many levels, from interpersonal to international. 

The idea is that one of the reasons we are not “happy”, or content with our current states of affairs, is that we are poor judges of the person or people we will become.  We can not accurately predict what will make us happy in the future.  People spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, making decisions and working for our future selves.  Most of us sacrifice on a daily basis the things that we want in order to reap some future reward.  We incur our opportunity costs and participate in self-denial.  The only problem is we are acting in order to achieve what we want right now, not what the person that we will evolve into will want.  I write this blog in the hopes that my voice will one day be heard by those who work and make decisions in the field of international development.  But that is what I actually want right now.  In ten years it is possible I could care less.  The self is not static, we are constantly changing and so do the things we desire in life. 

I think this idiosyncrasy of brain function makes for an interesting exercise.  Think about development.  Take a second and think about a developing country you are familiar with and have visited (and if you have not visited one you need to get out more).  Now think about it as a developed country.  What does it look like?  For me, I see some of the same colors and textures but more order to the physical structures.  Buildings are made of stronger materials and have more a “planned” aesthetic.  Electronic devices such as cell phones and computers are ubiquitous.  There are permanent medical clinics in all towns and villages and most people have access to them.  Roads are paved and cars are not just second hand cars from other richer nations.  People complain about work because most people can relate to having a job and it consuming a majority of their days.  I see the developing country becoming more concerned about the environment and quality of life as the majority of basic needs are met for its citizens.  So basically, I see it as I perceive current developed countries.  I think those in the development field, no matter if you are from the North or South, commonly fall into this modality.  We imagine and work towards a developing country’s future to shape it into what will be a developed country’s past.  Rostow studied the past, created his growth model and it became the future of development efforts.  Then we learned growth did not deliver all that we wanted as we lived with the past’s instructions for the future and found the results lacking.

Ideally we all wish we could see 10, 20 or even 100 years into the future and plan accordingly.  We could all be so much more successful because we would know who we will be, what we will want and what capacity we will have to get those things.  Just imagine a developing nation’s poverty reduction strategy paper if the authors knew what technologies would be available to them, what exchange rates would be and whether or not violent conflict would arise in their future.  It would be a harmonious intersection of our fates with our efforts.  But, alas, of course we cannot predict the future and this is why we resort to imagining it as a glorified present which it will never be.  We are presently working towards a future of the past. 

So what is the lesson to be learned, how does this mental exercise help us?  I think it gives a little insight as to why the international development field has found success in creating a “healthy and happy” world so fleeting.  How we personally define these constructs and what is required to achieve them is always in flux.  So the pragmatic question is how do we account and build our models to change as quickly and fluidly as the world around them?  Good question, let me finish the book and get back to you on that one.

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