The Joyless Economy (1976) Tibor Scitovsky

Underconsumed Knowledge
8 min readMay 12, 2021

The Need For Novelty (But, Not Too Much)

This book made me think, regardless of what you think of the author’s (somewhat elitist…?) conclusions that Americans are just boors who can’t appreciate a good Mercedes or Louis Vuitton purse. My notes from reading it are below.

The human mind craves novelty, but not something so novel that it cannot make sense of it; thus, there needs to strike a balance between novelty and redundancy; “the most pleasant is on the borderline with the unpleasant… the borderline is occasionally blurred… differently placed for different people… [shifting] with changing circumstances.” Teachers try to make things and concepts relatable to those already understood. A lack of stimulation can be seen the ill effects with solitary confinement. “Variety is not the spice of life, it is the very stuff of it.” -A Nazi prisoner. The Protestant Work Ethic brought about the importance of creating meaning through work; Industrialization took away a lot of that meaning, with tasks that became meaningless, with no variety nor stimulus. There was no more meaning or pride to be taken in craftsmanship. “[T]he Puiritan disapproval and distrust of pleasure is not against all enjoyment, but only against activity and expenditure specifically and exclusively aimed at providing or enhancing enjoyment.” Author suggests culture as an antidote to our seeking of novelty that we do not find in our work; we have to work to be able to appreciate it. We hold as the ultimate cause those things which make money, due to the work ethic background. We are thus focused on the supply side, not on the how to consume (demand) side. This leads to a homogeneity in our consumer products, where we do not appreciate many of the more refined products that are characteristic of Europe (I.e. German cars, fine Italian goods, etc), for better or for worse. We are able to raise or lower our activation level through our activities (I.e. physical exercise or mental exercise) as well as what we ingest (I.e. stimulants or depressants). Introvert and extrovert are personality types with different levels of average arousal; introverts have less of a need to raise their arousal level, preferring a safer/quieter/more reserved life. Extroverts prefer consuming stimulants, introverts depressants. Our brains process information and break it down into more relatable/understandable chunks (I.e. series of numbers). “In order to enjoy information, I must understand it and make it my own, by doing so I reduce and, ultimately, eliminate its subjective novelty by incorporating it into the already familiar.” This creates the ongoing need for novelty. Uncertainty precludes the relatability of something to the familiar, thus humans hate uncertainty; people hate waiting for election results or children waiting to know what a gift is. Feelings of comfort/discomfort have to do with arousal level and whether or not it is optimal; pleasure has to do with change in arousal level, coming up or going down towards the more optimal (analogy made of speed vs. Acceleration/deceleration). Explains a distinction in economics and GDP, which happens when things which were not in the market before become a part of the market (I.e. something someone in the family did for free before but now pays someone to do). Further explains “the secular rise in the poverty norm” which can result in an increase of people living “in poverty” without any actual change in life circumstances for those people. Also, statistics on income and its relation to satisfaction does not take into account the factor of who: if new people enter the marketplace (I.e. women, immigrants, etc), the workforce increases, and thus alters statistics. Points to the importance and immeasurability of externalities in an economy and how that very much relates to satisfaction (I.e. if everyone blared their loud car stereos). When standard of living goes up in a society, along with associated costs, people must pay for it in dollars, or in “discomfort” — that manufactured social feeling of being left out. “Status and rank are themselves habit-forming: losing status and losing rank can be a source of suffering and the fear of losing them a source of anxiety.” Habits are easily formed and hard to be broken. Points to status satisfaction, work satisfaction, novelty enjoyment, and addition as explanatory why ones happiness depends so much on ranking in society — one can enjoy a better job, more easily find novelty, etc, as a higher member of society. Points to our society’s Puritanical disdain for criminals and victimless crimes, an assault on individual liberty in which many are complicit; we allow gambling on the stock exchange, our values for those with money, but we do not allow the use of slot machines, our disdain for those without it. “In other countries, personal freedom is much more carefully cherished and guarded. They put out a good deal of publicity about hazards to life, limb, and health, trying to persuade and inform the individual, but they leave the final decision to him. Our intolerance makes us seek safety in coercion.” The idea that we should have pleasure, and enjoy things in life, such as culture, is very anti-Puritan. Modern education evolved to produce factory workers, not to propagate culture, as had been the history of education in Europe. People are unable to find satisfaction, as evidenced by lower life expectancy amongst retired men, becoming bored and aimless, the remedy being, says the author, culture. Fashion, changing of vehicles, of living situation, etc, all point to our hunger for novelty. The way our production-heavy bias in culture works points to automotive tastes in the 60s and early 70s, for huge cars, and then imports came on the scene, which people had a huge hunger for, little to the knowledge of our producer-focus culture (and bad focus groups, though this disregards the oil crisis). Our culture disdains the generalist (I.e. the housewife, the connoisseur of a range of goods), and prizes the specialist (the income earner). Points to our interest in violence as an indication of our lack of stimulation, and our tolerance for it.

  • “[D]anger and the fear of danger are exciting; excitement within limits is pleasant; therefore, danger is pleasant as long as it is limited, controllable or under control, vicarious, or make-believe… tastes differ greatly as to the degree and nature of excitement considered enjoyable”
  • “Anything new, in the sense of anything unexpected, is a threat to our survival, because we do not know how to deal with it. Each of us, through the accumulation of personal experience, develops a view of the world, starting from day one. And that view is the basis of the strategy we use for living — for surviving.”
  • “The two kinds of danger — chance of failure and consequences of failure — are totally different and independent; no wonder if their implications for man’s behavior are also different.” Thus, the potential consequences of riding a bike poorly on the street are being flattened by a truck; riding a bike poorly up to the Hollywood sign may result in not making it all the way to the sign. “For my enjoyment of a stimulus, the likelihood of failure, the precise degree of danger of my failing at whatever the problem or task I am tackling, is more important than the amount of danger I would be exposed to in case of failure”
  • “The simplest remedy for too low arousal is bodily exercise.” “There is some evidence that many laboratory animals manage to do about as much running or moving around as they would in the wild.”
  • “The pleasures of stimulation, unlike those of want satisfaction, are not eliminated by their too persistent and too continuous pursuit.” “The satisfaction of wants eliminates a discomfort whose initial presence is a necessary condition of pleasure. We eat to appease hunger, but we must be hungry to enjoy eating… By contrast, stimulation eliminates the discomfort of boredom, but the condition of deriving pleasure from stimulation is the discomfort not of the boredom it relieves, but of the temporary strain it creates. To be enjoyable, a play or a film must build up tensions which are resolved before the end, but the audiences does not have to be bored on its arrival at the theater.”
  • “Drives to relieve discomfort, stimulation to relieve boredom, and the pleasures that can accompany and reinforce both –those are the three motive forces of behavior distinguished by psychologists today”
  • “The dividing line, therefore, between necessities and luxuries turns out to be not objective and immutable, but socially determined and ever changing, very differently drawn in different societies, by different people, and at different times by the same people…” (I.e. indoor plumbing.)
  • “Of all nations, we have the reputation of being the most anxious about health, hygiene, and proper nutrition, yet we have little to show for it. Europeans take a much more casual attitude to these things, yet most of them live longer than we do and their mortality and infant mortality rates are lower than ours… The discomforts, therefore, that we feel when we are deprived of our accustomed routine cannot, as a rule, be explained in terms of legitimate concern over increased dangers to health, but is… explained by our difficulty of relinquishing habits we have become used to.”
  • “As the stimulus is repeated, the primary reaction” (I.e. feeling drunk) “remains unchanged, but the opponent process recruits more promptly, becomes stronger, and lasts longer” (I.e. hangover). This explains addiction. The secondary processes try to get us back to equilibrium
  • “We use money not only as a medium of exchange, but also as the measuring rod of a man’s worth, and we value income not only for the goods it will buy, but also as the proof of our usefulness to society. Being useful to society is a source of satisfaction and comfort; money income is a token of such usefulness and therefore becomes itself a source of satisfaction and comfort… “
  • “In short, the primacy of production over consumption, of monetary over non-monetary values, are both manifestations of the moral judgment which sets service benefiting others ahead of concern for oneself.” (an interesting Catch-22). Thus we do not care about externalities, and we scoff at civilizations with different value structures.
  • “[W]e Americans are more inclined to go in for austere ostentation, displaying our ability to spend a lot of money on goods distinguished from their cheaper counterparts mainly by their conspicuous expensiveness. In that way we maintain our puritanical disdain for the frivolous matter of consumption…”
  • “The same Puritan mentality is manifest in the way in which members of our counterculture seek status. They want to establish their rejection of the dominant culture and their membership in the counterculture at the same time, and they accomplish this feat by means of uniform grooming and dress which asserts their solidarity and appalls the Establishment.” (without regard for style)
  • “The interest of our counterculture in handicrafts may look like a turning back of the clock, but it is a perfect resolution of the dilemma [of insufficient stimulation and low requirements for consumption skills] and the only one fully in the American tradition of simplicity and functionalism”
  • “The rise in the relative price of novelty puts the squeeze on its supply and confronts its suppliers — artists, entertainers, and other such — with the uncomfortable choice between a reduction in their incomes and a decimation of their numbers.” Thus, artists must, in some way, pander to the masses to eat.
  • “In short, even though our Puritan attitude, lack of consumption skills, and disdain for the generalist deprive us of much enjoyable stimulation as consumers, we can make up for the loss by seeking the creative satisfaction of productive work… We have an unfortunate tendency to underestimate the importance of goods and services, activities and satisfactions, that do not go through the market and therefore fail to acquire a monetary value”
  • “The irony is that what I have called our Puritan ghost is largely responsible for the high cost of our life-style, and we find it hard to accept the idea that one way of making our lifestyles less costly is to make it less austere.”



Underconsumed Knowledge

"For the time being I gave up writing -- there is already too much truth in the world -- an overproduction which apparently cannot be consumed!" Otto Rank, 1933