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Building the skyscraper down

Books | The search for happiness, says author and researcher Arthur C. Brooks, often starts in the wrong place

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks is one of the handful of statistics whizzes who are adept at not only crunching numbers but slinging words. He writes pithy columns for The Wall Street Journal and also produced two years ago a stereotype-slashing book, Who Really Cares? The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (WORLD, Dec. 9, 2006). Now he's done it again with a book published this month, Gross National Happiness (Basic).

WORLD: Do you define "happiness" as fleeting feelings, a sense of overall contentment, a sense of doing what's right, or some combination of those?

BROOKS: "Happiness" is really all of these things. We enjoy momentary happy feelings when something nice happens to us, of course. But we also calculate whether we are happy with our lives "on balance," and many people strive to live a good and moral life because we know that it will ultimately reward us in a much larger sense. What social scientists measure on surveys is the second kind of happiness-how we feel when we consider both the nice and not-so-nice things in our lives, and decide whether overall we have a happy life.

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WORLD: Your book is full of fascinating poll data about whether people rate themselves as "very happy," "very unhappy," or somewhere in between-but why should we take such self-analysis seriously? Don't we lie to ourselves?

BROOKS: Amazing as it sounds, this kind of survey data is accurate and reliable. Researchers have compared anonymous self-assessments of happiness with other kinds of tests, from interviewing family members to asking people other types of questions that tend to be correlated with happiness. For example, I might ask your wife whether you are as happy as you say, and also see whether it is easier for you to think up happy words or sad words. Some researchers even look at the brain activity of people who say they are happy. What researchers find is that most people answer happiness questions about themselves honestly, and we assess it in ourselves in more or less the same way.

WORLD: OK-assuming the right definition of happiness and informative stats, what tends to make Americans happy?

BROOKS: There are three basic things that make people happy: meaning in their lives, control over their environment, and success in creating value in the world. And the way people get these things is not with money or power or fame-it is with their values. People who are serious about healthy values in their lives, families, and communities are much happier than others. The data say that these values come in eight categories: faith, family, personal liberty, private morality, non-materialism, opportunity, work, and service to others. Many journalists and academics dismiss these as just "cultural issues." But what happy Americans know is that nothing is more important than these things for building true happiness.

WORLD: You examine "the politics of happiness" in chapter 1 and come to some conclusions about liberals and conservatives that would surprise our academic colleagues who stereotype conservatives as emotionally rigid, insecure, and angry.

BROOKS: I look at strange data results all day, but the evidence on liberals and conservatives surprised even me. People who say they are conservative or very conservative are nearly twice as likely to say they are "very happy," than are people who call themselves liberal or very liberal. Conservatives are much less likely to say they are dissatisfied with themselves, that they are inclined to feel like a failure, or to be pessimistic about their futures. A 2007 survey even found that 58 percent of Republicans rated their mental health as "excellent," versus just 38 percent of Democrats.

WORLD: The title of chapter 2, which concerns religion, is "Happiness is a gift from above." What do you mean by that?

BROOKS: Faith is an incredible predictor-and cause-of happiness. Religious people of all faiths are much, much happier than secularists, on average. In 2004, 43 percent of those who attended a house of worship at least once a week said they were "very happy" with their lives, versus 23 percent of those who attended seldom or never. The connection between faith and happiness holds regardless of one's particular religion. One major 2000 survey revealed that observant Christians and Jews, along with members of a great many other religious traditions were all far more likely than secularists to say they were happy.

WORLD: Later you ask, "Does money buy happiness?" and arrive at some conclusions based on U.S. data but also comparisons between people in France and Mexico.

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