Bryan Caplan  

Brooks' Hidden Secrets of Happiness

Obama thinks we can be perfect... Our Imperfectly Evolved Brains...

Arthur Brooks, of Gross National Happiness fame, is now guest blogging for Freakonomics. So this seems like the perfect time to disclose his hidden secrets of happiness - the "a-ha" surprises you'll find on a close reading of his book:

1. You may have already heard about Brooks' finding that the conservative are happier than the liberal, and the religious happier than the secular. But did you hear that extremists of left and right are both happier than the moderates who lean in their direction? Brooks has a nifty explanation:

Why are ideologues so happy? The most plausible reason is religion - not real religion, but rather, a secular substitute in which they believe with perfect certainty in the correctness of their political dogmas... True political believers are martyrs after a fashion... They are happy because - unlike you, probably, - they are positive they are right.

2. Happiness researchers who study the link between income and happiness often conclude that people are deluded, petty, or full of envy. Brooks has a totally different take: People don't want to drag down their fellow man; they just want to feel successful. The General Social Survey actually measures the feeling of success; Brooks takes advantage of the data to reach a true "a-ha" moment. Given two people with identical income, education, age, sex, race, religion, politics, and family status...

The one who feels successful is about twice as likely to be very happy about his or her life than the one who does not feel successful. And if they are the same in perceived success but one earns more than other, there will be no happiness difference at all between the two.
Great soundbyte:
Of course, successful people make more money than unsuccessful people, on average. But it is the success - not the money per se - that is giving them the happiness.

3. Some simple regressions inspire this striking "speculation":

[G]overnment spending, financed with taxation, is an "X-factor" helping to explain why growing national prosperity generally does not raise happiness.

4. Chew on this:

The average happiness level in America has not changed since the early 1970s, but inequality in happiness has actually fallen.

5. Unemployment creates true misery, but retirement doesn't.

6. Once again, Europe's not the workers' paradise people want you to believe:

[J]ob satisfaction is generally much lower in Europe than it is in the United States. A 2002 international survey showed that, while 51 percent of American adults reported being completely satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs, only 36 percent of the Dutch gave this answer, as well as 35 percent of the British, 33 percent of the Spanish, and 32 percent of the French.

7. Finally, from the "people who like markets the least need them the most" department:

[I]f liberals and moderates gave blood like conservatives do, the blood supply of the United States would increase nearly by half.
Brooks' book isn't perfect. After I return from my trip to the Continent-falsely-considered-a-workers'-paradise, I'll post my main criticisms. In the meanwhile, try to find the time to read Brooks' book. It's a fun ride.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Peter St. Onge writes:

I think the Buddhist angle on materialism, that enlightenment requires letting go of all desire (including non-material) is more along the lines of your point 2.

Kurbla writes:

1. Radicals happier? I expected that.

2. Success, not money? I expected that.

3. I do not see how should government spendings make anyone unhappy. Except if he is radical who is against government spendings. Actually, progressive taxes might have opposite effect, i.e. one who earns $20 000/year is probably more likely to think about himself as successeful if average is $20 000 than if he earns $25 000 and average is $50 000. And for the richest, they probably recognize their success no matter if they earn $100 000 or much more. "Success, not money" is actually an argument for redistribution of wealth.

4. Changes in last 30 years? Hard to say anything, maybe semantics of the words changed in these two decades more than results of test.

5. Retirement vs unemployement - obviously.

6. Maybe Europeans have higher criteria for "satisfying job." Like women in less patriarchal societies might have higher criteria for "satisfying husband." Maybe not. More data is needed.

7. Well, one point for conservatives.

Matt writes:

It is the result of a square integrable world.

Absent uncertainty and volatility, we cycle. Having to look at the next 16 year cycle is a pain. But having to live with uncertainty is paranoia.

If we weren't this way, we would be an archeology exhibit, and Malthus Theory would be true in its singularity. Remember, I think therefore I am.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I have not read this book, but most of what is here has been reported elsewhere.

Regarding #3 I would suggest putting disposable income in the regressions. I bet they still do not give you a relation between positive relationship between rising income and rising happiness. This looks like a remark inspired by ideological bias. Some of the nations with the highest reported happiness levels have very high levels of taxation with big governments, e.g. Denmark.

On the success, thing, well, most of these surveys record "satisfaction" and "happiness." What I have seen is that of these "success" is one of the variables that really distinguishes "happiness" from "satisfaction," being much more strongly linked to the latter than the former. Unsurprisingly "happiness" and "satisfaction" are strongly correlated, but not perfectly, and this business of professional success is one of the variables responsible for their differences.

The old standard story has been happiness being linked to relative income. Well, perceived "success" is pretty clearly a very relative concept. One is more successful if one has gotten promoted, received professional recognition, and so forth, all of which indeed tends to lead to one having a higher relative income. So, perceived success is very much tied to comparing oneself to others in one's profession, a relative business.

Snark writes:
"Success, not money" is actually an argument for redistribution of wealth.

Excellent point, which begs the question: If success, not money, is the happiness metric it's purported to be, why aren't the wealthy more charitable (based on a total percentage of assets donated) or less inclined towards supporting redistributionist policies?

Snark writes:
based on a total percentage of assets donated

Correction: a "relative" percentage of assets donated.

Snark writes:

Correction#2: more inclined towards supporting redistributionist policies.


Rory Sutherland writes:

I had wondered a few months ago whether higher rates of taxation might actually add to the happiness of the rich if only they brought with them some inexpensive but highly visible mark of success (what Adam Smith calls The Parade of Riches). If, for instance, only higher-rate taxpayers were allowed to drive in the outer lane of freeways, would people be far less grudging about paying more tax?

I ask this for a simple reason: as a marketer, you can pretty much premiumize anything provided its premium quality has a display value.

Ray writes:

After seeing his presentation at the CFA Institute's Annual Conference this week, one can only conclude that Jeffrey Sachs is one of the happiest men on earth.

He actually scolded the 1800-plus in the audience to avoid the editorial page in the Wall Street Journal. And, by offering few facts in a sixty-minute presentation, Dr. Sachs avoided the scrutiny of 1800-plus analysts and appeared to be very confident in his correctness on everything.

I t seems he is unaware that if his ideas were as correct as he thinks they are, then he would not have to worry about the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

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