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Top>Opinion>Aiming for a New Happiness System


Masahiro Yamada

Masahiro Yamada [Profile]

Aiming for a New Happiness System

Masahiro Yamada
Professor of Family Sociology, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

Change in the feeling of happiness over time

Happiness is attracting public interest lately, and an increasing number of people think that spiritual happiness, more than material happiness, is particularly important. This reflects a change in the feeling of happiness over time.

Under the system that existed up to some decades ago, when we had something that we wanted, we tried to obtain it and became happy when we finally bought it.

During the period of high economic growth (1955 to 1973), leading a rich family life was equal to happiness. The symbols of richness included home appliances, family cars, houses, leisure activities with the family, and education for the children. People felt happy just by bringing a television into the home, or when they were able to afford a larger apartment. Going forward step by step from having nothing to a middle-class life was a source of happiness.

The ebb and flow of brand-name consumption

When Japan developed into a middle-class society and an abundant lifestyle was realized, people began to purchase brand name products. They eagerly sought goods and services that seemed to promise happiness through consumption, separated from daily life. Brand names signified the happiness that came from buying one thing after another. Brands at that time included bags, cars, and other goods, but overseas travel, skiing, and discotheques were a kind of brand as well. There were a lot of articles and magazines introducing new brands. Take skiing as an example. If people saw an advertisement for a fashionable ski resort, they went there. If people heard that a nice new ski resort had opened, they went to that ski resort. Dating consumption was also enormous. One of the then popular consumption styles was going to a stylish restaurant and staying at a high-end hotel. A person was loyal to one or more brands and felt happy when he or she consumed goods or services provided by these brands. It was at that time that such a system of happiness through the consumption of brand name goods and services was at the height of its prosperity.

This system was led by those called "parasite singles." Young people at that time remained at home with their parents after graduation, and could afford to use most of their income for private use while depending on their parents for their basic daily needs. As a result, young people at that time were the driving force of consumption. If they so desired, they were able to work full-time and receive a considerable amount of bonus. Above all, they could look forward to a continuous increase in salary. This is because they increased consumption even by borrowing money without considering the future.

For 20 years following the collapse of the bubble economy in 1990, the economic conditions of young people have slumped while the feeling of happiness promoted by brand-name consumption has decayed. From the employment ice age to the financial crisis to the Lehman Brothers shock, employment conditions for the young have drastically and continually deteriorated. It is no longer rare for a university graduate to fail in acquiring a full-time position. Even full-time workers cannot count on a raise in salary, and they are always anxious about unemployment. Now they cannot afford to buy brand-name goods and they are uncertain about their potential for a bright future.

Modest happiness derived from connection

I have tried to ask my students when they felt happiness. Their answers included "when I bought new sweets at a convenience store and they tasted good," and "when I stayed home and hung out with my boyfriend while watching TV." More and more young people are satisfied with modest happiness in daily life without spending a lot of money.

In my opinion, modest happiness is found in connection. For example, volunteer travel is now popular among students as overseas travel. Some students go to an orphanage in a developing country, make donations, and play with the children there. Others go to southern islands to clear resort beaches of rubbish. In these cases, building up connections with fellow volunteers and with local people leads to happiness. Similarly eco-friendly products sell well because consumers can feel that they help conserve the natural environment-that is, they connect to the earth when they buy such products. Other examples are described in detail in my book Equation of Happiness (co-written with Dentsu Team Happiness, Discover 21).

A stable lifestyle is required, however, to feel such modest happiness. Young people in particular worry whether they can make a stable living going forward. Middle-aged people worry whether they can maintain their current standard of living, and older people worry whether their pensions will last. As a result, we save money while refraining from even modest consumption in order to alleviate our worries about the future, which has in turn produced a condition called consumer recession.

At all events, employment must be stabilized and reliable social security schemes must be established in order to eliminate worries about the future. After these conditions are satisfied, then it is important for the future society in Japan to promote the modest happiness that is derived from connection.

Click here for the culture program Corridor of Knowledge (Equation of Happiness, Episode 71), edited by the authorNew window

Masahiro Yamada
Professor of Family Sociology, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
The author was born in 1957 and graduated with an undergraduate degree from the Faculty of Letters at the University of Tokyo in 1981. After leaving the doctoral course in the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology at the University of Tokyo in 1986, he became a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University and has been a professor on the Faculty of Letters at Chuo University since 2008. He is also a member of the Council for Gender Equality of Cabinet Office.
His specialization is family sociology. He approaches family relationships from a sociological viewpoint by considering affection and money as key factors. His main works include Future of the Modern Family (SHINCHOSHA Publishing Co., Ltd, 1994), The Era of Parasite Singles (Chikuma Shinsho, 1999), Unequal Hope Society (Chikumashobo Ltd., 2004), Wandering Family (YUHIKAKU Publishing Co., Ltd., 2005), New Equal Society (Nikkei BP, Biztech book award, Bunshun Co., Ltd, 2006), Japan as a Society with Fewer Children (Iwanami Shinsho, 2007), The Era of the Working Poor (Bunshun Co., Ltd., 2009), and Why do the Young People Become Conservative? (Toyo Keizai Inc., 2009). Professor Yamada also co-wrote many books such as The Era of Marriage Hunting and Equation of Happiness.
He enjoys the theater (musicals, operas, Takarazuka, and Kabuki) and writes theater reviews for magazines.

Yamada Masahiro LaboratoryNew window