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.
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.
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.