I mentioned the other day research by Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks into the causes of happiness among Americans. In his new book Gross National Happiness (Basic), he shows that self-ratings of happiness are statistically reliable, and then writes about "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."
WOW: You examine "the politics of happiness" and come to some conclusions about liberals and conservatives that would surprise our academic colleagues who stereotype conservatives as emotionally rigid, insecure, and angry…
ACB: 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 called 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.
WOW: What is the relationship between economic inequality and unhappiness?
ACB: 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.
WOW: 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?
ACB: 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.