Just How Much Happier Could You Be Anyway?


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.