The secret to happiness? Who knows? [1]

[ Mon. May. 19. 2008 ]

Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks's new book, "Gross National Happiness," advances the provocative hypothesis that conservatives are happier than liberals: "Political conservatives take the happiness prize hands down." Why? For one thing, they are more likely to be married, which generally correlates with happiness. (Although having children does not.) Also, they are more likely to be religious, which, Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens/Sam Harris notwithstanding, has its own rewards.

More to the point, conservatives like things the way they are. The status quo is perfectly all right with them, although the status quo ante would be even better. Haven't you noticed that right-wing lunatics like Rush Limbaugh affect a jolly, contented tone, while left-wing lunatics like Al Franken always sound angry? Look at our current president: distanced, out of it, but smugly satisfied with his disengagement. It may be that his last day in office will be the happiest day of his life. Ours, too.

What is it with happiness, anyway? It's like being thin; everybody wants it, no one can have it. Happiness, of course, is the animal that disappears in the pursuit. "Those only are happy," John Stuart Mill wrote, "who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness."

I keep an eye on the nebulous science of happiness, or "hedonometrics," which is not so unlike the nebulous science of political polling, or of bunting with men on second and third and one out. Happiness studies prove to be a full-employment program for economists, psychologists, and psychiatrists offering pabulum for people almost as miserable as they.

So who's happy? Not people in midlife, according to data extrapolated from 500,000 responses to the General Social Survey in America, and from the Eurobarometer across the Atlantic. In a paper posted on the National Bureau of Economic Research website, economists David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of Warwick University report that "well-being reaches a minimum, on both sides of the Atlantic, in people's mid to late 40s." After that, the U-shaped index rises again.

Their paper also shows that, generation after generation, Americans (like Japanese) are becoming more unhappy. De Tocqueville knew as much more than 150 years ago: "So many lucky men, restless in the midst of abundance." With Europeans, it is the opposite; the younger ones enjoy more "well-being" than their parents.

What about the undeserving rich? Research shows that it's better to be middle class than poor. Things get complicated as you move further out on the "swinishly wealthy" axis, because $100 million doesn't buy a hundred times the pleasure of $1 million. Best-selling happiness monger ("Stumbling on Happiness") Daniel Gilbert compares accumulating wealth to eating pancakes. "The first one is delicious, the second one is good, the third OK," he told Harvard magazine. "By the fifth pancake you're at a point when an infinite number more pancakes will not satisfy you to any degree. But no one stops earning money or striving for more money."

The hedonometricians even came up with the notion of a "hedonic set point," or baseline. This is like the body weight set point, meaning that if you weigh 175 pounds now, you will probably weigh about that much for the rest of your life. Hedonically speaking: This is about as happy as you will ever be.

Harvard psychologist Nancy Etcoff has asserted that this happiness baseline notion is wrong: "Personality is much less stable than body weight, and happiness levels are even less stable than personality." So, there is an upside: A certain number of people can become more happy. But wait! "For every person who shows a substantial lasting increase in happiness, two people show a decrease," Etcoff wrote on a website called [4].

Suddenly, this is an ethical dilemma. For me to be happier, both you and your friend have to bum out. Of course, your being unhappy might raise my spirits. Speaking of which, I think I'll have that second Negra Modelo.

I'm OK, but you two are not. I am happy with that.

On this subject

I know, I am becoming like a broken record on the subject of Justin Cartwright. But his 2004 novel, "The Promise of Happiness," is very good. Stewart O'Nan can pull this off, too, writing about intimacy and family dynamics in a non-syrupy fashion. Hie thee to the library, or to the internets. I think you'll be happy that you did.