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Building the skyscraper down

"Building the skyscraper down" Continued...

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

BROOKS: It probably isn't too surprising to learn that money does not buy happiness. This is true as long as people are above the level of basic subsistence, which is true of virtually 100 percent of Americans. That's one reason why America's astounding economic prosperity, which is a wonderful thing and something I believe we should be deeply grateful for, hasn't raised our happiness levels much over the past decades, on average. It also explains why a country like Mexico, which is a lot poorer than, say, France, can also be happier: In Mexico, 63 percent of adults said they were very happy or completely happy. In France, only 35 percent gave one of these responses.

WORLD: What is the relationship between economic inequality and unhappiness?

BROOKS: We hear from a lot of politicians these days that income inequality makes us unhappy. This is not correct. What makes people unhappy is the belief that they do not have opportunities to get ahead in life. What they often complain about, however, is income inequality. Studies show that when people feel economically mobile, they actually like income inequality even if they have less than others because it shows them what they can achieve. The irony is that when politicians fight income inequality they often lower economic mobility by wrecking the rewards to hard work. And this makes the real problem worse, not better.

WORLD: According to your chapter on "the secret to buying happiness," is it better to give or receive?

BROOKS: As a researcher, I always go where the data lead me. But I will confess to rejoicing a little every time I find that the data back up the Scriptures. Such is the case for charity. It is abundantly clear that when people give to others, they get happier, healthier, and even more financially prosperous. The scientific evidence detailed in the book is quite incredible, showing that people can create miraculous changes in their lives when they give.

WORLD: The mantra of this year's election campaign so far is "change," with partisans evidently feeling a spurt of joy every time a candidate mentions the word. Why does that word have that effect?

BROOKS: This is due to what psychologists call the "Principle of Adaptation." We get used to life's status quo very quickly and crave improvement as a source of happiness. This is why we get the most pleasure from a pay raise not when it shows up in our paychecks, but rather when we find out we're going to get it. Lots of people forget that we are the most prosperous, free nation in the world. Americans are accustomed to feeling safe in their homes, being able to express their political opinions without being arrested, and finding food in the supermarket. Some politicians can and do degrade the importance of these things and convince us that we are unhappy-and only significant change will make things right.

WORLD: Theologian Francis Schaeffer criticized Christians who make "personal peace and affluence" their goal. Keeping in mind the lives of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul, what kind of happiness should be our goal?

BROOKS: I can't stress enough that according to all the evidence, shooting for affluence or material comforts as a source of happiness is an error. As we see in the life and teachings of Christ and the prophets, happiness comes from an exercise of our good values, including a focus on service to others. Proper values are what bring a happy, well-ordered life. These things also bring prosperity. But to try to get personal happiness from material affluence is like trying to build a tall skyscraper by starting with the top floor.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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