Monday, June 02, 2008

Happiness? Ignorance is bliss?

An interesting piece by Margaret Wente from Saturday's Globe and Mail

The happiness... gap
Why conservatives are (gasp) happier than liberals


Here's a bit of bad news for all my latte-loving, liberal-leaning friends who believe that jobs in retail stink, traditional religion is for morons, and income inequality has made society a lot worse off.

You're a miserable bunch.

I don't mean miserable, as in contemptible. I mean that as a group, you are not particularly happy people. In fact, you're far less likely to be happy with your lives than, say, a gun-owning truck driver who goes to church, shops at Wal-Mart, and makes half the money you do.

So says Arthur Brooks, who's spent the past few years exploring what makes us happy. "This is counterintuitive to urban elites," he says. "We think nobody can be happy but us."

Over breakfast earlier this week, Mr. Brooks, a political scientist at Syracuse University, shared a few other surprises about happiness. For example, despite their 35-hour work weeks and long vacations, the French are less happy than Americans. Most Americans who work are amazingly happy with their jobs, even if they work at Wal-Mart. Happiness and income are not closely related. Churchgoing people are happier than secular ones, married happier than unmarried. And people who give away their money are the happiest of all.

The study of happiness is a thriving field these days. Entire scholarly journals are devoted to the subject, as well as tons of books. For his book, Gross National Happiness, Mr. Brooks decided to delve into the data. He discovered mountains of large-scale, reliable surveys that go back for decades. According to the data, conservatives are nearly twice as likely as liberals to say they're happy - and the gap has persisted for at least a generation.

What explains the happiness gap? Two of the biggest factors are marriage and religion, which are powerfully correlated with happiness. Two-thirds of conservatives are married, while only a third of liberals are. Conservatives are also twice as likely to go to a house of worship once a week.

There's another factor, too, which, he argues, centres on world view. Conservatives generally believe that people who work hard can get ahead and be successful. They believe success is in their own control. Liberals are more inclined to believe in collective solutions to social problems - and that people's success depends on factors outside their control. "I compared poor conservatives with rich liberals," he told me. "Ninety per cent of poor conservatives say that hard work and perseverance can overcome disadvantage. But only 65 per cent of rich liberals believe that."

Mr. Brooks has focused his lens on the United States, which, as some of believe, is to Canada as Mars is to Venus. So why should these findings apply to us? Maybe they don't. Or maybe (as I suspect), the two countries aren't as different as we sometimes think. In culture and values, Canada is probably closer to the United States than it is to Europe. Like the United States, we are populated with immigrant stock, which makes us more genetically inclined than Europe toward entrepreneurship, individual initiative and risk-taking. And though Canada is undoubtedly less religious and more liberal, our social-policy debates have closely tracked those in the United States.

For example, liberals in both countries believe income inequality is our biggest social problem. But Mr. Brooks argues that when you look at what actually affects people's happiness, it's not. "What makes people miserable is the sense that they don't have equality of opportunity," he says. Or take the matter of work. You'd think (especially if you're a professor or a journalist) that sewer-cleaners, cleaning ladies and burger-flippers would be unhappy with their jobs. But that's not the case. The data say that 89 per cent of all people who work more than 10 hours a week are happy or very happy with their work. The overwhelming majority of people who work like to work. The main reason is that it gives them a feeling of achievement.

"Work is an authentic source of happiness, and idleness - especially involuntary idleness - is a source of pure misery," Mr. Brooks says. Work gives life meaning. Even among the nickel-and-dimed set, he found, 87 per cent of people are satisfied with their jobs. And job satisfaction is highly correlated with life satisfaction.

It turns out that your mother was right. Happiness has very little to do with materialistic stuff at all. It mostly comes (and I shudder to say these words) from family, faith, friends and the dignity of work. This is a truth that Mr. Brooks thinks the urban elites ought to try to grasp. "The majority of people are very happy with these yucky traditional values," he says. "They work very well."

Who, then, are the unhappiest of them all? Look in the mirror, dear reader, for it may be you. Researchers have found that lifetime happiness is shaped like a U. It has a big sag in the middle. "Statistically, the saddest year in a man's life is age 44," he tells me merrily. "By then your spouse has figured out that you're a bore. You're not that fun, and you're not gonna change. You have adolescents in the house. And you've found that success and money aren't the same thing." For men, all these chickens come home to roost in their mid-to-late 40s. (Women also have a middle-aged slump, but they tend to suffer somewhat less.)

If you are 44, I have good news. Soon you will be 50, and things will start looking up. Happiness studies show that healthy people who are 70 are just as happy as people who are 20.

By the end of breakfast, Mr. Brooks has explained why almost everything I believed when I was 20 was entirely wrong. Many of the things I thought would bring me happiness did not, and many things that I despised (e.g., marriage) did. So what now? Alas, I'm not religious. Is there any other way to increase my happiness?

Yes, he tells me. Be philanthropic. People who volunteer or give money to charity are 43 per cent more likely than non-givers to say they are very happy. Conservatives are more charitable than liberals, which is another reason why they're happier. And the more you give, the happier you get.

In other words, money really can buy happiness after all - but only if you give it away.


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