The economics of joy

Monday, April 1, 2019 - 6:34pm

.

Illustration by Lauren Kuzee

For the past few months, my column has covered hefty topics such as Facebook data breaches, Blackberry’s pivotal strategy and Bud Light’s false advertising. This week, I am switching things up and digging into the economics of something worth far more than the multibillion dollar bottom lines of corporations: joy.

It’s been a while since many of us took Economics 101, but most remember the first fundamental pillar of microeconomics: supply and demand. Demand illustrates how much of a product or service is wanted by consumers at a certain price, and supply represents how much the market can offer. When consumers buy more electric vehicles, the demand for gas decreases. When a drought ruins a strawberry harvest, consumer demand is often higher than the number of strawberries available, and the price of strawberries jumps. But what happens when supply is infinite and the price is $0? An economist’s nightmare and a consumer’s dream, this is a commodity named joy.

***

So, what exactly is joy?

A barista who compliments your haircut. The sun peeking out on a cloudy day. “Congratulations” in the subject line at the top of your inbox. At a university that demands enduring focus and a pervasive culture of “multi-taskers or nothing,” our minds gravitate to things outside of our control in order to find what we call joy. After all, we don’t have time on our calendars to pursue grandiose activities with the sole purpose of comfort.

And the world isn’t wrong when it tells us that there is joy in the little things. But the problem with “the little things,” or even the big things that bring us happiness, is that they are circumstances often out of our control. While I admit to euphoria in the face of a sunny day and an unhesitating grin in exchange for a compliment, I believe there is a sizable concept we miss in our quest for joy: joy in perspective.

But what does economics have to do with it? Take mornings, for example. Many of us wake up to our alarms with two goals in mind: maximize sleep and get to class on time. Every hindrance along the way contributes to our vexation, and our unrelenting focal point is to simply beat the clock. One missed breakfast too many, and we find ourselves confronting what inevitably becomes a bad day.

Welcome to marginal analysis. In economics, marginal analysis examines the benefits of an activity compared to the additional costs incurred of continuing that activity. In the pursuit of joy, positivity can often prove to be the more expensive option compared to pessimism.

When positive, perspective takes on a snowball effect. One positive thought prompts our brains to seek another, and we watch our attitude build on optimism as the snowball runs its course. This illustrates increasing marginal returns. But the hardest part is packing the first snowball, or rather, seeking out our first positive thought. This is an upfront cost to consider in our marginal analysis of joy.

Yet when a perspective is negative, the opposite of the snowball effect occurs: The domino effect. Since negative thoughts are easier to conjure, they reproduce in our brains quicker causing us to seek out complaints  more frequently. Unlike the snowball effect which reaps positive marginal effects as positive thoughts gain momentum, negative thinking occurs quickly and effortlessly — like standing dominoes.

To understand the human tendency to pursue the cheaper, negative perspective, consider common conversation: “It’s finally nice outside.” “My day has been good, can’t complain.” Can’t complain. This is our tainted rendition of positivity — a mere extension of negativity. Because joy comes at a cost measured by the currency of our effort, marginal analysis deems negativity to be cheaper. There is no upfront cost to set the domino effect in motion.

Just as we can’t control positive occurrences, we can’t control their negative counterparts either. Economics shows us that negativity is easier, but one concept trumps any temptation to abandon joy in perspective: opportunity cost.

When we choose joy, we trade in effort to focus on what is going right. We choose celebration and we choose organic energy. We abandon the easy and elect the challenge to reap its subsequent benefits. On hard days, it is a hefty price to pay. Complaint runs in our culture and we aren’t trained to run against the grain. But the fruits of this labor are generous; when we choose optimism, we develop the capability to control the definition of our good and bad days.

At the heart of economics rests the acknowledgement that human behavior can only be modeled into supply and demand graphs to an extent. Ultimately, we are irrational. We make decisions spontaneously and sometimes need a day to relish in gloom. But the value is found in taking the variable cost of positive thought into a long-term consideration. The practice of continually choosing joy will pay higher dividends than continuing our rituals of negativity. The supply of both is perpetually in surplus, but it is up to us to fuel our demand of joy.

In support of Stress Awareness Month, happy April.