Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America--and How We Can Get More of It
by Arthur Brooks
Basic Books, 2008
277 pp., $26.95
One of the small but unexpected joys of parenthood is getting to sing a lot of children’s songs. Sure, some of those repetitive ditties about farm life can get irritating, but when I took my daughter to our first “Mommy and Me” class and the teacher led us in “If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands,” I was hooked. Somewhere in the middle of the third verse (“If you’re happy and you know it, shout hurray!”) I began wondering why I liked that particular song so much. It captures, I think, the unadulterated fun of childhood—we start to laugh and clap and shout even before we know what happiness is.
Sometime after the age of two, of course, happiness gets a lot more complicated. “Are you happy?” becomes a question that adults answer only when their therapists ask—or when pollsters call.
Until I opened Arthur Brooks’ new book, Gross National Happiness, I had no idea how many researchers were engaged in finding out how happy we are and why. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University and author most recently of Who Really Cares?, has compiled and sorted through a staggering amount of information on this topic to create a readable and very informative book.
While it is generally acknowledged that there are three types of happiness—fleeting moments of joy, contentment on balance, and moral quality of life—most of the research has focused on the second type, and so Brooks generally sticks to that category. He pores over the data to formulate some public policy prescriptions about what would make Americans, on average, a happier people. He offers a few tips for individuals, too.
Get married, for instance. Actually, Brooks is quick to say that running out and getting married just to ensure happiness will not necessarily work. But, generally speaking, married people are much happier with their lives. He writes: “In 2004, 42 percent of married Americans said they were very happy. Only 23 percent of never-married people said this, as well as 20 percent of those who were widowed, 17 percent of divorced people and 11 percent of those who were separated (but not divorced) from their spouses.” As Brooks observes, the once-popular notion that marriage is “merely a bourgeois convention . . . that prevented women and men from truly realizing themselves” turned out to be wrong.
Even women, who were supposedly the ones oppressed by the institution of marriage, turn out to be pretty happy with it. Looking at whether it is women or men who are happier in a state of matrimony, Brooks summarizes what he calls the “fascinatingly convoluted” answer: “Women do better than men if they stay single, get more happiness than men when they do marry, and cope better when their spouse dies.”
Of course, as with so much of the happiness data, it is difficult to sort out correlation from causation. And Brooks acknowledges that it may in part be that happy people are more likely to get married than unhappy people; perhaps they are just more outgoing and therefore more likely to meet a mate. But he cites a study of 24,000 people tracked over more than a decade that “documented a significant increase in happiness after people married.”
The marriage certificate, however, may not be responsible for this happiness effect, as Brooks points out. Cohabitation also brings people some happiness, a finding that seems to disappoint the author. And so he suddenly moves the goalpost. “Unmarried cohabitation,” he adds, “affects the happiness of others, especially when there are children involved.” Admittedly the book is about “gross national happiness,” but it feels occasionally as if Brooks is eager to show that a traditional family life is the key to happiness.
For instance, when the polling data show that children do not tend to add to people’s happiness (see repetitive farm-life ditties above), Brooks immediately reverts to a “higher definition of happiness,” one which involves “meaning.” By that definition, of course, children make us happy. He also notes that even if children don’t add to happiness, the other things associated with having children are likely to do so. “Ponder this,” he writes, “52 percent of married, religious conservative people with kids are very happy—versus only 14 percent of single, secular liberal people without kids. Kids are part of a happy lifestyle.”
His most widely publicized conclusion—that people with politically conservative views tend to be happier than those with liberal views—is striking, and, as he notes, flies in the face of conventional wisdom that conservatives are miserable, buttoned-up types who have no fun. He writes: “In 2004, people who said they were conservative or very conservative were nearly twice as likely to say they were happy as people who called themselves liberal or very liberal (44 percent versus 25 percent).” The political “happiness gap,” according to Brooks, has persisted for at least 35 years, and the party in power has had no measurable effect on it. Also, surprisingly, political extremists on both sides turn out to be rather upbeat folks. Brooks attributes this to their sense of surety about the world—but he also finds that they may bring unhappiness to people around them.
The religious happiness gap looks almost identical to the political one, with 43 percent of religious folks saying they were “very happy” versus only 23 percent of secularists. Brooks does note one interesting exception: “Worshippers who have an unhappy image of God” are more likely to be unhappy. Perhaps this says more about modern America’s sunny religious outlook than anything else. It’s hard to imagine Jonathan Edwards’ congregants telling pollsters they were a particularly cheerful lot.
For a book on happiness, Brooks engages in refreshingly little psychoanalysis. He does, reasonably enough, claim that people are generally happier when they feel they have control over their lives. He speculates that liberals, who believe it is the government’s job to fix problems, are therefore unhappier than conservatives, who believe they can change bad situations themselves.
One method for changing things, of course, is philanthropy. Giving to others is apparently a very effective way of achieving that sense of self-determination and, ultimately, greater happiness.
While Brooks may not advise readers to rush out and get married or go to church or vote Republican to feel happier, he does suggest that they turn to philanthropy. “People who give money to charity are 43 percent more likely than nongivers to say they are very happy. Volunteers are 42 percent more likely to be happy than nonvolunteers.”
Brooks even briefly delves into a physiological explanation for this phenomenon. There is some evidence that volunteers get a “helper’s high” through the production of endorphins in their brain. And other experiments have shown that charity “lowers stress hormones that cause unhappiness.”
This finding turns out to be provable in the aggregate too. “The happiest communities in the United States,” according to Brooks, “tend to be those in which people give and volunteer the most. For instance, the citizens of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, give and volunteer at exceptionally high rates (86 percent and 65 percent respectively) and an unusually high percentage (44 percent) say they are very happy.” Even the nongivers in the communities with a high percentage of givers tend to be happier than nongivers elsewhere.
So aside from advising individuals to give more in order to increase their own happiness, what does Brooks propose that we should do with all of this information? Limit the scope of government, for starters. Since charity makes the donors happy and the recipients happier than they would be if they were receiving government handouts, private philanthropy should be encouraged as much as possible: “When government gives your local soup kitchen $1, it drives off up to 40¢ in private donations.” Brooks notes that this effect occurs not simply because donors perceive less of a need, but because the nonprofit will put less effort into fundraising if it’s getting government handouts.
Brooks’ other public policy suggestions are fairly predictable given his conclusions about happiness: Eliminate the marriage penalty in the tax code to encourage more people to get married, minimize the role of political extremists in public debate, and ensure that religious institutions continue to flourish in the United States by allowing people as much freedom as possible to worship.
Since the publication of his last book, conservatives have embraced Brooks and his findings, which seem to provide a utilitarian justification for what they’ve been saying for decades: Get married, have kids, go to church, don’t depend on government, and give to charity.
But those who endorse these practices don’t do so just because they think it will make them happier. Rather they believe that there is some moral imperative at stake. God wants them to get married and have kids. Or their own earthly principles tell them not to be dependent on welfare or that they owe it to their fellow man to be generous with what they have. One would like to think that people might continue to do these things even if they didn’t make them happier.
Especially philanthropy. The goal of donating to charity, most people would agree, is not to make the giver happy; it’s to alleviate suffering or increase knowledge or expose more people to the arts. Whatever the cause, the idea should be to support it effectively, not just to get a “helper’s high.” Plenty of smart philanthropists find themselves frustrated—justifiably so—with the way institutions are run or the way money is wasted by institutional bureaucracies.
Indeed, perhaps there are even good reasons for people to be unhappy. A colleague recently suggested that Robert Bork is perhaps not the sunniest man, but Bork’s concerns about the future of this country are probably enough to make many of us unhappy if we gave them sufficient thought.
Which brings us to Brooks’ premise that once we find out what makes Americans happier, we should then set about forming government policy to increase “gross national happiness.” When the founders wrote that we “are endowed by our Creator” with the “unalienable right” to “the pursuit of happiness,” it would be hard to imagine that this is what they had in mind. Not only was such polling data nonexistent, but one senses that the concept of happiness was entirely different as well. Gross National Happiness may be a useful counter to many facile arguments, but as a matter of principle, well, let’s just say Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t be clapping his hands.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is the deputy taste editor at the Wall Street Journal.