Does Cash Dependence Bring Happiness?

Money has caused us to abandon or delegate many tasks that we used to perform ourselves. What happened to the comfortable life that we were supposed to gain in return?

Questioning Human Behavior in the Modern Era

We may take the term "modern" to refer more or less to the period after the Industrial Revolution. In the modern period we acquired technology, learning in particular to extract and use energy from fossil fuels. From that point our lives speeded up. Previously we had gone about our business as human beings in time and space at a pace slightly quicker than other animals as a result of the advantage we enjoyed due to our intelligence. Technological progress, however, led to an astounding acceleration in human activities. Humankind had acquired the motor.

Whether this was a good thing or bad depends on one's point of view. Inasmuch as it brought us convenience and comfort, it may be considered a positive development. On the other hand, the resulting environmental problems and the psychological stress caused by industrialization's social impact might lead one to view it in a negative light. An examination of the modern era - making an assessment of all the positive and negative things that emerged during the period - has, I believe, become a pressing necessity.

The 1972 Club of Rome report, titled The Limits to Growth 1 , examined the modern era at the global level. It was the first time that a warning had been issued to the world on limits regarding population, energy, the environment, and other aspects in a quantified and easily understandable manner. The report was based on a simulation carried out by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It was as if something that everyone had until 1972 viewed as being wholly positive had been clearly shown to have something negative behind it. The report warned that if we continued on this path, disaster awaited. Since then a range of more complex problems has surfaced that, while not specifically envisaged by the report, make one feel that the warnings it contained are becoming reality. Climate change is one example; another is the damage to people's health caused by the copious use of agrochemicals and drugs in pursuit of efficiency in every aspect of daily life, including the very basics like food and housing. These problems give people a tangible sense of the limits of growth, triggering a feeling that continuing down the current path will lead to catastrophe and that something must be done to change course.

What We Lose in Gaining Money

We are now faced with the need to rethink many of the values on which our daily lives are premised and the structures that have come to be based on them. I feel that the degree to which we have become dependent on money in our lives is an important indicator in this context. A global statistical comparison of such an indicator over the past hundred years would surely be illuminating.

Japan was home to quite an advanced cash economy long before the Meiji Restoration of 1868 heralded the establishment of the modern Japanese state, so people at that time would have been dependent on cash to some degree in their daily lives. Today, the degree of dependence is incomparably higher. People in those days did not pay water bills because they used water from rivers or wells, and they had no need to pay gas or electricity bills because they would gather firewood from the mountains. A diet consisting largely of rice and vegetables meant that miso and soy sauce were about the only foodstuffs that people needed to buy. They also made their own clothes.

In urban areas today, by contrast, the level of cash dependence is extraordinarily high; this is the price city dwellers pay for a life of convenience and comfort. To earn the money needed to live like this, people have to work from morning to night, with the result that they have no time to cook and so are obliged to buy ready-cooked meals. This only increases cash dependence even further.

This phenomenon is especially pronounced among the younger generation, for many of whom the act of buying itself is a source of pleasure and purpose. Among urbanites like this, the level of cash dependence is probably close to 100%. But cash dependence has risen sharply even among rural dwellers since around the mid-1960s. Whereas once people in rural communities were born and died in their own homes, today even these events require large sums of money. In today's world, every human activity is cash dependent.

It is simply not possible to live without cash, and we need even more money if we want to lead convenient, comfortable lives. To earn this money, people work themselves into the ground day in and day out, as a result of which some become physically ill or feel so much stress that they become depressed. Modern civilization is the sum of all these aspects of life today.

Changing this situation and the values that lie behind it is no easy task, but I would hope at least that Japan's cash dependence could be reduced by 30%. I have the feeling that, if we could do this, people's happiness would increase by more than 30%.

Seeking a Path Away from Twentieth-Century Values

What, in practical terms, does reducing cash dependence and increasing people's happiness actually mean? Let us compare Japanese people with citizens of countries like Italy and France, who live in simple but well maintained houses in the suburbs and enjoy welcoming guests with home-cooked food made from vegetables, olive oil, and other ingredients that they grow themselves. In purely monetary terms, ordinary Japanese people may be wealthier than ordinary Europeans. But in terms of happiness, the Europeans described above appear to lead far more contented lives than the Japanese. This is because they do a variety of things in their daily lives themselves, rather than relying on cash for everything.

Many Japanese people wear expensive European designer clothes and accessories that ordinary Italian and French people would never buy, and they buy expensive cakes advertised as "hand-baked" in the basement food halls of department stores. This is surely the reality of life for Japanese urbanites, who have grown used to buying life, or "outsourcing" it, to put it another way.

If you make a cake yourself instead of buying a "hand-baked" one in a department store, you reduce your cash dependence. Making a cake may take two hours longer than buying one, and the result probably will not look as good as the cakes on sale in stores. But the key question is whether you consider the two hours spent making the cake a waste of time or a pleasurable process.

Housekeeping companies in Japan advertise their services to high-income households with slogans like "Free yourself from housework and enrich your life." The idea of being freed from housework is echoed in the "Innovation 25" strategy 2 produced by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This put forward the goal of developing by 2025 "robot assistants" that would perform all our cleaning, cooking, and housework for us, making the lives of Japanese people more comfortable. This vision seems to me the exact opposite of the "beautiful Japan" 3 concept advocated by Abe. I believe that beauty and fulfillment result from performing tasks like cleaning, cooking, and washing up with wholehearted dedication. We cannot generate beauty if we omit these things from our lives.

Taking this idea to an extreme, if Japan made it compulsory to reduce cash dependence by half, people would be obliged to make up for this by "doing it themselves." This would surely make Japanese people happier and healthier and bring the country closer to being a truly "Beautiful Japan." People would stop being scared by the figures when economic growth went down. It might serve as a trigger for a sea change away from the values of the twentieth century.

Doing things ourselves teaches us valuable lessons. Cleaning and tidying up are tiresome chores. But I think that when families cooperate to carry out such chores, fundamental rules are set. That is where the spirit of public service is created. If children are made to help clean their homes thoroughly, for instance, they experience a sense of pleasure. Each of these chores forms part of the educational process of imparting social maturity to children - a sense of duty and obligation. Carrying out all the little chores of our daily lives conscientiously, I believe, is where pleasure begins. And it is here also that dignity comes into being.

In modern society, social divisions of labor have developed on the premise that progress consists of reducing that which is considered wasteful. In keeping with this, people have delegated in exchange for money a range of processes in their daily lives that they used to undertake with their own hands. Behind this is the delusion that the absence of tiresome or unpleasant chores and hardship is a desirable state of affairs.

Today there is no chance of a return to a life of self-sufficiency, and even reducing cash dependence by half seems impossible. I believe, however, that it is possible to point society as a whole in a new direction if each one of us changes his or her daily life and the values and thinking on which it is based. And the first step on this path is to strive to live our daily lives in a more conscientious manner.

1. Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows and William Behrens. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind . New York: Universe Books, 1972.

2. The "Innovation 25" strategy aims to create innovation contributing to growth in such fields as medicine, engineering, and information technology, with an eye on the year 2025. For details, see the Interim Report by the Innovation 25 Strategy Council released on February 26, 2007:

3. First set out by Abe in his policy statement on September 26, 2006, just after becoming prime minister, in which he stated, "I am aiming for the vision of ‘a beautiful country, Japan'—a country filled with vitality, opportunity, and compassion, which cherishes a spirit of self-discipline, and is open to the world." An English translation of the speech is available here:

The original Japanese article appeared in Gekkan MOKU , Feburuary 2008.

Hideki Kato

  • President, Tokyo Foundation (2006-2012)