Happiness is declining in the most powerful country in the world. As Robert E. Lane, Yale professor emeritus, puts it in his book, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies: ďAmidst the satisfaction people feel with their material progress, there is a spirit of unhappiness and depression haunting advanced market democracies throughout the world, a spirit that mocks the idea that markets maximize well-being and the eighteenth-century promise of a right to the pursuit of happiness under benign governments of peopleís own choosing.
The haunting spirit is manifold: a postwar decline in the United States in people who report themselves as happy, a rising tide in all advanced societies of clinical depression and dysphoria…increasing distrust of each other and of political and other institutions, declining belief that the lot of the average man is getting betterÖa tragic erosion of family solidarity and community integration together with an apparent decline in warm, intimate relations among friends.Ē
Nationís Policies Should Be Guided By Happiness
Richard Layard, a British economist and member of the House of Lords, echoes these words in a book called Happiness, writing that a nationís policies should be guided by happiness, not GDP. He says we should return to the classic Jeremy Bentham idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Peter Whybrow, head of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, says that the character of todayís culture is one of mania – weíre going faster and faster, reaching and grasping for happiness in futility until we crash into the next manic cycle, that of depression.
Obviously, the subject of happiness is a topic of interest to more and more scholars. But what is interesting to me is that when I start talking about happiness to progressive, liberal audiences, some of them start getting upset, arguing that happiness is a shallow thing to be concerned about and that our goal should be social justice. Of course, it goes without saying that we care about social justice. But what is the ultimate goal of justice? For people to suffer less and be happy! Happiness always assumes social justice.
Happy People Consume Less
I would think this is obvious, but Iíve found I need to defend the idea right from the start by doing a song and dance about the importance of happiness. Robert Lane does a nice job of explaining why happiness is important, so I always use the list he pulls from his survey of happiness literature. Happy people are more creative and productive in their thinking. Theyíre nicer; they consume less. Theyíre healthier and harbor less prejudice. By contrast, Lane says, depressed people make poor parents, cause coworkers to enjoy their jobs less, take more sick leave and suffer life-shortening health problems. ďIf going from the money standard to the companionship standard reduces these human and financial costs, we would all be better off,Ē Lane writes.
Lane presents a pretty good argument, but Iím still bothered that we need an argument in the first place. After all, isnít our country based on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And didnít our founders consider this to be self-evident? Why is it hard for so many of us, particularly on the progressive end of the political spectrum, to understand that happiness should be our goal? Actually, I understand why people object. Itís because the idea of happiness has been distorted and linked to the pursuit of wealth and material things. As Iíll continue to point out, all of our important life-sustaining concepts have been distorted and diminished. (And, as Iíll also continue to argue, we need a national conversation on these issues.)
Happiness Is Being Used to Seduce People
Itís imperative that we understand happiness, because the pursuit of happiness is being used to seduce people into the corporate consumer lifestyle that is destroying our planet and putting us at war. Understanding happiness is important because if we are going to be able to get people to change, we must show them alternative ways of living that truly make them happy and do not destroy life. Our tactics of change themselves must make people happier! Most of our methods (lecturing, writing books, creating citizen initiatives, working to pass a law) simply bore people. Our protests, marches, and boycotts scare or alienate others. We must develop methods of change that in and of themselves make people happier.
Psychologists are beginning to understand its importance, and in the last few years research on happiness has exploded. In some ways Iím still skeptical of the research because self-reports of happiness, which most of the studies rely on, can be misleading. If all youíve ever felt is a lukewarm sort of comfort, and never any ecstatic exuberance, you will define happiness as lukewarm comfort (thinking thatís as good as it gets!). But most researchers, while acknowledging that self-report has its limitations (what else can they say?), conclude that it seems to be a fairly reliable way to measure happiness. Iím not totally convinced – and some researchers have gone beyond self-report to look at measurable factors such as health consequences and neurological activity.
Further, it seems strange to me that we need to resort to research to try to understand happiness, when wise people have drawn the same conclusions about it throughout the ages. It may be that today, science more than wisdom is what gets people to listen.
Does Money Bring More Happiness?
The biggest factor researchers agree on is that after a certain point, more money does not bring more happiness. If youíre poor, more money makes you happier. After that? Nothing. In fact, in some cases happiness declines as affluence goes up. (Because as you have more and more money, you have less time for the things that matter. Making, managing, and spending money take a lot of time! As my husbandís father likes to say, the more things you own, the more things own you.)
This is an incredibly significant finding because it goes counter to all of our beliefs. Everything we do is aimed at making more money. All of our dreams of success focus on money, money and more money. We grow up with Horatio Alger stories of people going from rags to riches. We watch professional athletes and CEOs and poker stars pull down the big bucks and think they have it made. Apparently the mythology is potent, because somewhere around 35 percent of people in this country believe that they will one day be among the top 1 percent of income! (Obviously itís one of the reasons that people havenít risen up to oppose the multiple tax cuts given to the rich and privileged during the Bush administration.)
If there is one fact that everyone should know, it is this one. We must see through the myth that if youíre rich youíll be happier – because the myth is at the basis of unhappiness and ill health, as well as corruption and injustice and war. Clutching at profit is the reason companies pay people low wages, make products that ruin peopleís health, cheat employees out of their retirements and investments, destroy the environment, and go to war to try to control oil.
Everyone Wants to Win The Lotto
Yet even though the evidence is clear, the amazing thing is that at some level we all still believe that getting rich will make us happy! Prime case in point: Everyone wants to win the lotto. Yet research on actual winners shows that after the first few months of excitement, people go back to normal. By the end of the first year, that spike of pleasure is not only gone, people may be less happy than before. A New York Times front-page article in December, 2005, described how the winners of a $34 million lottery purchased expensive cars and a huge estate but were dead (from alcoholism and suspected drug overdose) within three years. Most of us, though (myself included), feel that we would be an exception – if we won, we would indeed be happier, because we, unlike those other poor saps, would know how to use the money.
So What Does Make Us Happy?
Again, thereís complete agreement. Itís warm, caring relationships with other people. Happiness has been on the decline because we live in a cold, cutthroat, uncaring culture. Most of us have rarely experienced being truly, truly cared for. Obviously, caring relationships are important for all kinds of things. Letís look at the needs that Abraham Maslow outlined in 1943. He said we need food, water and sleep; we need to feel safe, and then we need to feel loved and accepted by others; then we move to esteem needs of respect from others and self-respect.
Finally, he suggests the need to be self-actualized – to express our true selves – and to experience self-transcendence – connection with something beyond oneís self. All of these needs are met through relationships. We need other people if we are to feel safe, loved and accepted; we need othersí respect and esteem; we only become self-actualized by what we are able to offer humanity as a whole. It is people who give us a sense of security and it is caring for others that gives us a sense of meaning.
Excerpt from chapter 2 of the book: Slow is Beautiful: New Visions of Community, Leisure and Joie de Vivre available at amazon.
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