Profit vs. bliss

Melcher_2I’m in southern California, talking to people in their homes about their homes.  It’s an interesting world and an underdocumented one. 

Some respondents tell me they have "followed their bliss."  As I understand it, this phrase stands for the notion that we are best served when we devote our lives to the cultivation of an enthusiasm.  Prosperity, happiness, satisfaction, all of these will follow if we put first things first. 

I like this idea. I may even have, in a low key way, lived this idea.  But I’m not sure I get this idea. 

This isn’t the way markets are supposed to work, is it?  Don’t we think that the market satisfy our wants and needs because people have responded not to bliss but to opportunity.  The market are responsive precisely because they are driven by self interest, not self expression.  Market, our best form of dynamism, is created by people trying to figure out what we want, not what they want. 

Now, there is a pretty simple answer here.  People will use a decision tree that look like Mazlow’s hierarchy.  If they have no choice, they will take any job on offer, bliss be damned.  The more prosperous their circumstances (private and or public), the more plausible is a self expressive career, instead of a self interested one.  In a wealthy society, filled with wealthy families, it is possible for lots of people to follow their bliss (in proportion to their privilege).

But this still leaves us with a problem.  We are living in society that changes shape, not according to what the consumer wants to buy but what the producer wants to sell.  This is the "long tail" development that Chris Anderson has documented so well.  It is also the "plenitude effect" that some anthropologists have labored to discover.  But these new markets are clearly dispersive in ways that old, opportunity, markets are not.  It’s not clear that they will work the same way to canvas, shape and express public taste and preference.  In fact, the very idea of "emergence," so beloved of economists and complexity theorists, is thrown into question.  Will things emerge…and how? 

Now, it is right to say that I am jumping the gun.  Most people live in opportunity economies, not expressive ones.  (I am put in mind of that old Leno joke: that Jerry Brown did have supporters for his run for California office, but unfortunately most of them were trapped in Biosphere II.)  On the other hand, expressive opportunities are expanding, and it’s not a bad idea to get a leg up on this topic.  I believe that Burning Man is probably a great place to study this topic, and I believe Robert Kozinets at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Business has done important work of this topic.  (References will have to wait till I get home.)

A last point: bliss economies, we might say, were invented by tiny artistic communities.  Follow your own creativity, the world will just have to catch up.  And this is a simple, not very threatening exception to the rule when it is confined to communities as small as this.  But the bliss economy, perhaps especially here in California, has gone wide.  And now it is a larger problem with larger implications.   (On the other hand, this could all be crap.  I am in California and I am having the dickens of a time thinking clearly.)

5 thoughts on “Profit vs. bliss

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  2. Tom Guarriello

    But, doesn’t the Long Tail exist because of bliss pursuit? Lithuanian folk dance afficionados certainly don’t put out CDs because of broad market opportunities but out of passion, no? What Anderson argues, I think, is that Amazon/eBay/the Net make it possible for like-passioned consumers (no matter how small in number) to find and buy those CDs. I’d wager than many of the purported half-million or more people making a living via eBay-connected businesses would describe themselves as finding a way to transform things they enjoy doing (which used to be quaintly called, “hobbies”) into revenue producers. I believe today’s level of plentitude allows for greater convergence between opportunistic and expressive economies.

    But then, I’m from the Bronx, and I always have problems thinking clearly!

  3. Charu

    Grant, just a thought – is it possible to entirely separate bliss and profit (or in this case pure economics) – what I am saying has to do with the way you have conceived of bliss here – a higher order (maybe emotional) need?. take this for instance – “If they have no choice, they will take any job on offer, bliss be damned”. what about an emotionally unsatisfying but well-paying job? That could be bliss for some!

  4. Matt

    “Self-interest, not self-expression”? But Grant…self-expression _is_ an interest. And if enough people care about it enough, markets will inevitably evolve to serve it. As you appear to be finding. There is no contradiction there.

    Charu: If it’s “emotionally unsatisfying” then by definition it isn’t “bliss”. But just because a given vocation would be emotionally unsatisfying to _you_ doesn’t necessarily mean it’d be emotionally unsatisfying to _everybody_. (The inverse is also true…I suspect that the kinds of things which would satisfy you emotionally would drive me very quickly insane. It’s a big world…lots of room for all kinds.)

  5. steve

    It is true that there is nothing in traditional economic theory that rules out producers’ preferences in explaining resource allocation. Adam Smith remarked on the need to pay executioners a wage premium because of the anti-bliss associated with the job (today we call this a “compensating differential”). A lot of the “What Color is Your Parachute” thinking was also based on the idea that you will be more competent doing something you like than something you loathe, so that opprotunity and expression may be correlated.

    It is also true, however, that most specific thinking in economics about real-world problems has been predicated on the belief that the worker’s intrinsic motivations (or “amenity value” or “idiosyncratic preferences” or some other term) are small enough to be safely ignored. Normally, theorists have conceived of producers as motivated by a love of money and an aversion to effort and risk. These motivations may in turn drive motives for reputation and status.

    I think Grant is right that this working assumption (never theoretically grounded) is becoming less tenable over time. Intrinsic motivations of producers are becoming a larger part of the story as a) we become wealthier, b) economic growth is driven more by “creative” innovations in the domain of style, aesthetics, meaning generation and the like, and c) more people earn their living in non-routine activities in general. Close-up studies of technological innovation, for instance, suggest that scientists’ and engineers’ motivations to pursue particular avenues exert a bigger distorting influence on project outcomes than do preferences for leisure or money.

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