The secret of happiness
27 Dec 2013
By RAMESH PONNURU
The head of the think-tank where I work believes he has discovered the secret of happiness and he wants to share it with everyone.
Mr Arthur Brooks is President of the American Enterprise Institute and also a social scientist who has written a book on happiness. His research has shed light on who is happy and why.
Some of the results are what you would expect: Genes have a lot to do with a happy disposition. Poverty reduces happiness, but past a certain point, higher income does not do much to raise it. Mr Brooks notes that the decline in global poverty over the last few decades, especially in China and India, has thus meant a happier world.
Once basic material needs are met, though, satisfying work matters more than money. What people want is not only success, but also “earned success” — the feeling that one’s efforts have paid off.
In general, people overestimate the importance of “one-off” events to their future happiness. Even after personal tragedies, people within months revert to their baseline level of happiness. Other patterns were surprising, at least to me. Women in the United States have long reported greater levels of happiness than men. Their advantage has, however, been shrinking, and for an unhappy reason: Falling happiness among women.
Women also rebound more quickly than men from the death of a spouse — perhaps, Mr Brooks speculates, because they have more close friends.
Over the last 40 years, women who describe themselves as “conservative” have been more likely than women to their left to say they are “very happy”. Over the same period, conservatives, in general, have held the same pattern: Righty men, too, have been happier than their more liberal counterparts.
Most Americans — 89 per cent — are either satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs. Among those who want to “lean out”: A plurality of mothers, who say they would prefer part-time employment. Women who say they have turned down a promotion or made some other work sacrifice for the sake of their families report high happiness levels; it does not seem to make much difference for men.
Mr Brooks’ read is that the four great sources of happiness within human control are faith, family, friends and work. Married people are happier than singles. Those engaged in religious practices are happier than the unchurched.
He draws some public-policy conclusions, too. A safety net provided by the government is morally imperative and politically inevitable; it also raises the sum of human happiness.
Mr Brooks thinks conservatives need to make their peace with its existence. They should reform the safety net, and other policies, to enable more people to achieve earned success. That is, he argues, the ultimate reason for a focus on promoting economic growth and reducing dependency on the government. Policies that discourage work — aid programmes that phase out steeply as poor people move ahead in their jobs, for example — reduce happiness, not only economic efficiency.
Mr Brooks is an optimist, a happy warrior for free markets. There is, however, a heavy lump of coal amid the numbers. All four sources of happiness he identifies are in retreat in the US — especially among men, and even more especially among men without college degrees. They are less likely to be working or looking for work; less likely to get married and stay married; less likely to belong to a faith community; and less likely to report that they have close friends.
The low point for male happiness comes at age 45, on average, Mr Brooks reports.
It is not easy to see how any of these deep-seated cultural trends, which have been underway for decades, could be reversed. Unless we do, however, the US could be in for a future with a lot more sadness. BLOOMBERG