And the Pursuit of Happiness

In a NY Times editorial, Eduardo Porter takes on the line from the Declaration of Independence that I recall bugging me in the 3rd grade:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
My prepubescent brain had trouble with a few things: "self-evident" why?; "equal" how?; is the right to the Happiness or to the pursuit?; what is happiness?

[Off-topic: I didn't question the "endowed by their Creator" part, but today I see it as the logical equivalent to "self-evident." Not really provable or even arguable -- just an opinion that's nice to agree with.]

According to Porter:
The era of laissez-faire happiness might be coming to an end. Some prominent economists and psychologists are looking into ways to measure happiness to draw it into the public policy realm. Thirty years from now, reducing unhappiness could become another target of policy, like cutting poverty.
I gather this means we've decided the right is to the happiness, not the pursuit, and that we actually feel like we can define and quantify the stuff: hurrah! Sure, this doesn't explain the "all men are created equal" part (coming from slaveholders) or the "self-evident" part, but this is progress.

[Incidentally, I've long preferred James Merrill's (Blaise Pascal's) take on the equality thing: "For while all humans / aren't countable as equals, we must behave / as if they were, or the spirit dies (Pascal)." That's from "Self-Portrait in Tyvek (TM) Windbreaker" -- the best poem of the 20th Century.]


Happiness is clearly real, related to objective measures of well-being. Happier people have lower blood pressure and get fewer colds. But using it to guide policy could be tricky. Not least because we don’t quite understand why it behaves the way it does. Men are unhappiest at almost 50, and women at just after 45. Paraplegics are not unhappier than healthy people. People who live with teenagers are the unhappiest of all.

Happiness seems fairly cheap to manipulate. In one experiment, subjects were asked to answer a questionnaire about personal satisfaction after Xeroxing a sheet of paper. Those who found a dime lying on the Xerox machine reported substantially higher satisfaction with their lives.

Most disconcerting, happiness seems to have little relation to economic achievement, which we have historically understood as the driver of well-being. A notorious study in 1974 found that despite some 30 years worth of stellar economic growth, Americans were no happier than they were at the end of World War II. A more recent study found that life satisfaction in China declined between 1994 and 2007, a period in which average real incomes grew by 250 percent.

I bolded the amusing bits. Now speaking as a very happy person, I really want to know how they're planning to quantify this. Why am I happy? Because I have some free time to roll around in the bedsheets, read books, slurp coffee, blog on cool topics, play with my cats, love my lover, water my plants, eat tasty food, ponder the universe, make art, bake cakes, make smoochy, listen to the birds sing, watch the iguanas, talk to interesting people, and of course because of beer, the "proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy" (That's Ben Franklin -- should we have been interpreting "pursuit of happiness" to mean "pursuit of BEER" all along? And if so, what a crime was prohibition!)


Despite happiness’ apparently Sisyphean nature, there may be ways to increase satisfaction over the long term. While the extra happiness derived from a raise or a winning lottery ticket might be fleeting, studies have found that the happiness people derive from free time or social interaction is less susceptible to comparisons with other people around them. Nonmonetary rewards — like more vacations, or more time with friends or family — are likely to produce more lasting changes in satisfaction.

This swings the door wide open for government intervention. On a small scale, congestion taxes to encourage people to carpool would reduce the distress of the solo morning commute, which apparently drives people nuts.

More broadly, if the object of public policy is to maximize society’s well-being, more attention should be placed on fostering social interactions and less on accumulating wealth. If growing incomes are not increasing happiness, perhaps we should tax incomes more to force us to devote less time and energy to the endeavor and focus instead on the more satisfying pursuit of leisure.

I would add to the end of that, if we're talking money, preventing our society from becoming a "trap" of debt, and making it so when you're sick, money is one thing you don't have to worry about. But of course happiness is, it seems to me, much more about time than money. Early in the labor movement, workers dreamed of ever-shortening workweeks, and the opposite has happened. If you want to see happy Americans, give them good middle-class pay and a three or four-day workweek. Then you'll have some happy mofos. And some kids who recognize their parents' faces, too.

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