The Battle over Happiness

Happiness is hot. Happiness studies have exploded on American campuses. It seems as if everyone is talking about it these days, even the economists. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke gave the 2010 commencement speech at the University of South Carolina. His title: The Economics of Happiness.

Bernanke suggested that the Gross Domestic Product is a not a reliable measure of economic welfare and warned students about focusing on making a lot of money after graduation. “Money is not enough,” he said. “Indeed, taking a high paying job only for the money can detract from happiness if it involves spending less time with your family, stress, and other such drawbacks.”26

In the past year and a half, some twenty-seven thousand books and articles about the science of happiness have been published. Some, like Derek Bok's The Politics of Happiness, are balanced, thorough, and profound. But others, such as Arthur Brooks's Gross National Happiness, are ideological and shallow. “The data,” writes Brooks, support the conclusion that “government, important as it is, has inherent happiness-lowering tendencies … taxation is inherently coercive … as government grows — measured in the percentage of GDP it soaks up — the percentage of the population that is satisfied with life shrinks.”27

Really? Brooks's “data” seem to have eluded most happiness researchers and the Gallup polls that consistently rank high-tax Nordic countries as the world's most satisfied. Even another conservative, the economist Bruce Bartlett, an adviser to President Reagan, acknowledges that “one would expect the happiest countries to be the lowest-taxed countries. In fact, this is not the case. Most of the world's happiest countries are high-tax countries.” As a percentage of the GDP, Denmark, the happiest country, pays 49 percent in taxes; Finland pays 43 percent, the Netherlands 39 percent, and Sweden 49 percent. Americans pay 28 percent of total income in taxes.28

Moreover, Brooks's suggestion that higher taxes cause a decline in happiness conveniently ignores that Americans' taxes are the lowest they've been since the 1950s, while happiness has remained flat and depression increased. Brooks also argues that policies that would increase time balance, including time away from work, would actually reduce happiness, because “most Americans regret that they can't work more, not that they can't work less” (italics his). Though satisfying work is important for happiness, the idea that Americans, whatever their jobs, want to work more will no doubt come as a surprise to those who check out Gallup's daily happiness poll: Americans rate themselves 20 percent happier on weekends (and happier yet during holidays) than on workdays. What a surprise! Interestingly, these results are confirmed precisely by a method of analysis that tracks Americans' moods by the words they use on Twitter or on Facebook.29

Except in the case of the unemployed, Brooks's opposition to leisure runs counter to the study of American happiness during daily activities cited earlier in this chapter and other surveys: A 2008 poll found that 69 percent of Americans would favor a law mandating paid vacations, for example; more than 70 percent support a paid family leave mandate; and more than 80 percent favor a law guaranteeing paid sick days.30

Despite the fact that happiness researchers have generally come to conclusions opposite his, Brooks seems determined to wrap the idea of happiness in his ideology in order to convince people that his economic policies, those favored by the government in recent years, are as good as it gets.

We'll return to some of the (often contradictory) arguments and policies Brooks advances later in this book. Most have been tried and found wanting for at least a generation. Still, even Arthur Brooks understands the lack of connection between GDP and life satisfaction: “Economic growth is not, and never can be, a direct measure of our national happiness. A narrow focus on gross domestic product without a conversation about how it meshes with and enhances our culture and values, will not necessarily enhance our gross national happiness. In fact, it may take us in the wrong direction altogether.”31

Amen to that!

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