Just How Much Happier Could You Be Anyway?

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Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson "ponders the happiness gap" and finds that there's not all that much to worry about. Samuelson begins by noting that happiness has been flat for decades:

In 1977, 35.7 percent of Americans rated themselves "very happy," 53.2 percent "pretty happy" and 11 percent "not too happy," reports the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. In 2006, the figures are similar: 32.4 percent "very happy," 55.9 percent "pretty happy" and 11.7 percent "not too happy."

Actually, how much happier could people be? In 1977, 88.9 percent of Americans were pretty happy or above and in 2006, 88.3 were pretty happy or above. Happiness was down only 0.6 percent and this after 9/11 and a war that's not going so well.

Samuelson next takes a whack at the likes of Cornell economist Robert Frank whose new book Falling Behind argues that rising inequality is causing Americans to despair. Samuelson notes that it was ever thus.

The behavior he [Frank] describes isn't new. A mobile society such as ours is inherently stressful. People rise and fall. Americans have always been acquisitive and rank-conscious. In "Democracy in America" (1840), Alexis de Tocqueville observed: "Besides the good things which he possesses, [the American] every instant fancies a thousand others. . . . This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret."

The psychology of prosperity—striving, taking risks—feeds on ambition and insecurity. Our system often seems an insane rat race. But over time, it has created huge gains in material well-being. Air conditioning may not have made people in the South and elsewhere happier. But it surely has made them more comfortable.

And while accumulating stuff and enjoying new expensive experiences certainly can be a lot of fun, Samuelson is correct when he says:

We ultimately get satisfaction from our relations with family and friends, the love we give or receive, the meaning we find in work, service, religion or hobbies.

Finally, what can the government do to enhance national happiness? Actually not much, but it surely can drastically reduce happiness by screwing things up. Samuelson correctly concludes:

The popularity of happiness research suggests that economists and other social scientists think they can devise public policies to elevate the nation's feel-good quotient. This is an illusion. Happiness depends heavily on individual character and national culture. Some people will complain no matter how great their fortune; others will smile through the worst of times. In international comparisons, the United States ranks lower in happiness than some smaller nations (Denmark, Ireland, Sweden) but much higher than many large countries with paternalistic welfare states (France, Germany, Italy). Governments can provide health care. But they cannot outlaw despair or mandate euphoria.

It is novelists and philosophers, not social scientists, who provide a deeper understanding of happiness. For better or worse, there are limits to reengineering the human spirit.

And in any case, as the Declaration of Independence says we have an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, not a guarantee. 

For more thoughts on happiness, you might check out the deep conversation on the topic over at Cato Unbound that took place earlier this year.

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  1. What? They can’t outlaw despair?

    How about if we re-classify it as a form of emotional terrorism, then we could set up all sorts of counter measures. Anyone sporting a frown could, perhaps, be detained until they ‘cheer the hell up’.

  2. I share Samuelson’s concerns about happiness research. It’s just a way for nannies to dodge our collective history of objective improvements in the way everyone lives regardless of income parity.

  3. “We ultimately get satisfaction from our relations with family and friends, the love we give or receive, the meaning we find in work, service, religion or hobbies.”

    That is a statement made by a man who has never been poor.

  4. It’s the insane war on (some) drugs that’s holding down our happiness quotient!

  5. And how exactly does one define poverty, Mr. Vanneman?

  6. Money can’t buy you happiness, but poverty can’t buy you squat.

  7. I like the way Adam_Y thinks.

    “So, Mr._Y(if that is your real name), you feel unhappy? Well, let’s just see how unhappy you are after a few years in Gitmo.”

  8. Some people would gripe even if you hung them with a new rope.

  9. Will Wilkinson OWNS this topic. No one can F%@#!& with him.

  10. “Air conditioning may not have made people in the South and elsewhere happier. But it surely has made them more comfortable.”

    Universal healthcare may not have made people in Britain and elsewhere happier. But it surely has made them healthier.

  11. The popularity of happiness research suggests that economists and other social scientists think they can devise public policies to elevate the nation’s feel-good quotient. This is an illusion.

    I’m sure the people who are kept from destitution because of Social Security would be equally happy if they didn’t get their checks.

  12. Tony Soprano’s one legged Russian hooker had it right:

    “Americans are the only people in the world who expect to be happy.”

  13. She was a one-legged Russian home healthcare entrepreneur, thank you

  14. According to the Buzzcocks (hier) EVERYBODY’S HAPPY NOWADAYS!

  15. Eleven. That much happier.

  16. I don’t know about that, VM, but I think I might be an Orgasm Addict!

  17. Ah yes.

    You found that it’s a habit that sticks…

  18. Well, I tried just for once and found it all right for kicks.

  19. What are those stains on your jeans?

  20. Dennis Leary on Happiness.

    These “researchers” can go auto-fellate themselves.

  21. Social security just creates unhappiness by highlighting our differences. Some guy drives a BMW while you have to just get by. Better to starve, I say. The unhappiness of inequality is much worse than the unhappiness of absolute low levels of wealth.

  22. It’s a labor of love.

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