Monday, May 26, 2008

more from Arthur Brooks

Excerpts from a book review in the WSJ by Dave Shiflett (hat tip: Linda Christiansen) and Susan Olasky's interview with Brooks in World-- of Brooks' new book, Gross National Happiness.

I had already excerpted a review of his earlier book from Books & Culture (Who Really Cares? The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism) and an article based on this newer book in the WSJ--

First, the book review...

The advice will sound familiar: Get a job, get married, go to church and don't listen to wild-eyed utopians. In such a way, it is said, you will find your portion of happiness. To this list of imperatives Arthur C. Brooks would add one other: Avoid this summer's Democratic National Convention.

In "Gross National Happiness," Mr. Brooks has assembled an array of statistics to measure the mood of America's citizens and to discover the reasons they feel as they do. Most often he cites polls that ask for self-described happiness levels, matching up the answers with various beliefs, habits, life choices or experiences....

At the end of the day, Mr. Brooks notes, "political conservatives take the happiness prize hands down." Those who identify themselves as conservative or very conservative, he says, are twice as likely to say that they're very happy as those who identify themselves as liberal or very liberal. What explains the rightists' relative bliss? It seems that a conservative political disposition exists alongside other happy habits of being.

Mr. Brooks points especially to Holy Matrimony, with an emphasis on the Holy. Citing 2004 data, he writes that conservatives are twice as likely to go to church or temple once a week than liberals and that "two-thirds of conservatives are married versus only a third of liberals." Married conservatives, he says, are "more than three times likely to say they're very happy than single liberals to say they are very happy."

And though conservative religious people are often regarded as sexless puritans, they turn out to have 80% more kids than secular liberals, and their children tend to be religious, meaning that they'll probably further populate the Earth with more religious, right-leaning monogamists. This kind of news tends to cause secularists to feel very unhappy and increasingly outnumbered....

And what about Mr. Brooks himself? Is he one of those sunny, hymn-singing types who are so hard to take at neighborhood picnics? He tells us that he is a Roman Catholic, though not of the ultramontane variety; he generally considers himself to be an "ebullient grouch." He says that he doesn't know whether faith produces happiness or happiness makes people want to practice their faith. The categories are "mutually reinforcing."...

He challenges those partial to tales about long-suffering Wal-Mart workers and surly burger flippers to rethink their victimology creed. The woe is not nearly as widespread as rumored: 89% of Americans who work more than 10 hours a week are very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their jobs while only 11% are not very satisfied or not at all satisfied. Most surprisingly, Mr. Brooks writes, there "is no difference at all in job satisfaction between those with below-average and above-average incomes."...

"Gross National Happiness" ends with a list of policy suggestions: Government should aim for economic opportunity, not income equality; it should not penalize marriage with tax policies; and it should resist excessive security measures (think of the screening process at airports), which inhibit freedom and increase unhappiness....

Now, here's the interview...

WORLD: Your book is full of fascinating poll data about whether people rate themselves as "very happy," "very unhappy," or somewhere in between—but why should we take such self-analysis seriously? Don't we lie to ourselves?

BROOKS: Amazing as it sounds, this kind of survey data is accurate and reliable. Researchers have compared anonymous self-assessments of happiness with other kinds of tests, from interviewing family members to asking people other types of questions that tend to be correlated with happiness. For example, I might ask your wife whether you are as happy as you say, and also see whether it is easier for you to think up happy words or sad words. Some researchers even look at the brain activity of people who say they are happy. What researchers find is that most people answer happiness questions about themselves honestly, and we assess it in ourselves in more or less the same way.

WORLD: OK—assuming the right definition of happiness and informative stats, what tends to make Americans happy?

BROOKS: There are three basic things that make people happy: meaning in their lives, control over their environment, and success in creating value in the world. And the way people get these things is not with money or power or fame—it is with their values....

WORLD: You examine "the politics of happiness" in chapter 1 and come to some conclusions about liberals and conservatives that would surprise our academic colleagues who stereotype conservatives as emotionally rigid, insecure, and angry.

BROOKS: I look at strange data results all day, but the evidence on liberals and conservatives surprised even me. People who say they are conservative or very conservative are nearly twice as likely to say they are "very happy," than are people who call themselves liberal or very liberal. Conservatives are much less likely to say they are dissatisfied with themselves, that they are inclined to feel like a failure, or to be pessimistic about their futures. A 2007 survey even found that 58 percent of Republicans rated their mental health as "excellent," versus just 38 percent of Democrats.

WORLD: The title of chapter 2, which concerns religion, is "Happiness is a gift from above." What do you mean by that?

BROOKS: Faith is an incredible predictor—and cause—of happiness. Religious people of all faiths are much, much happier than secularists, on average. In 2004, 43 percent of those who attended a house of worship at least once a week said they were "very happy" with their lives, versus 23 percent of those who attended seldom or never. The connection between faith and happiness holds regardless of one's particular religion. One major 2000 survey revealed that observant Christians and Jews, along with members of a great many other religious traditions were all far more likely than secularists to say they were happy.

WORLD: Later you ask, "Does money buy happiness?" and arrive at some conclusions based on U.S. data but also comparisons between people in France and Mexico.

BROOKS: It probably isn't too surprising to learn that money does not buy happiness. This is true as long as people are above the level of basic subsistence, which is true of virtually 100 percent of Americans. That's one reason why America's astounding economic prosperity, which is a wonderful thing and something I believe we should be deeply grateful for, hasn't raised our happiness levels much over the past decades, on average. It also explains why a country like Mexico, which is a lot poorer than, say, France, can also be happier: In Mexico, 63 percent of adults said they were very happy or completely happy. In France, only 35 percent gave one of these responses.

WORLD: What is the relationship between economic inequality and unhappiness?

BROOKS: We hear from a lot of politicians these days that income inequality makes us unhappy. This is not correct. What makes people unhappy is the belief that they do not have opportunities to get ahead in life. What they often complain about, however, is income inequality....

WORLD: According to your chapter on "the secret to buying happiness," is it better to give or receive?

BROOKS: As a researcher, I always go where the data lead me. But I will confess to rejoicing a little every time I find that the data back up the Scriptures. Such is the case for charity. It is abundantly clear that when people give to others, they get happier, healthier, and even more financially prosperous. The scientific evidence detailed in the book is quite incredible, showing that people can create miraculous changes in their lives when they give....

WORLD: Theologian Francis Schaeffer criticized Christians who make "personal peace and affluence" their goal. Keeping in mind the lives of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul, what kind of happiness should be our goal?

BROOKS: I can't stress enough that according to all the evidence, shooting for affluence or material comforts as a source of happiness is an error. As we see in the life and teachings of Christ and the prophets, happiness comes from an exercise of our good values, including a focus on service to others. Proper values are what bring a happy, well-ordered life. These things also bring prosperity. But to try to get personal happiness from material affluence is like trying to build a tall skyscraper by starting with the top floor.


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