David R. Henderson  

Why Am I So Cheerful?

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The GiveWell-Clemens Brainstor... Alfred and Mary Paley Marshall...

After we taped a segment for the John Stossel show last Tuesday, John and I took the subway to his beautiful apartment on the Upper East Side, where he had invited me to dinner with him and his lovely wife. I have known John, in little bits, for about 20 years, but we've never had much time to talk. On the way there he asked me a question that I think had been perplexing him for quite a while: "Why are you so cheerful?"

What was behind the question was that he and I have a very similar view of the way we would like the world to be: where everyone has much more freedom than he/she has today. At the same time, we see that freedom constantly under assault and we see it diminishing. How can one be cheerful in the face of this?

Here, in a more organized way than I actually said it, was my answer.

When I grew up in rural Manitoba, we watched "The Wonderful World of Disney" every Sunday night. They had Frontierland (my favorite), Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Fantasyland. But, to me, Disneyland was Fantasyland. If you had told me, when I was 11, or even when I was 15, that I would not only go to Disneyland but also go there at least 7 times and if you had told me that I would live in coastal California, which, from a distance, appeared to be one big Disneyland, I would have told you to quit pulling my leg. In short, one reason I'm so cheerful is that I'm so wealthy compared to what I ever expected. Notice that I said "compared to what I ever expected," not "compared to other Canadians or Americans." I think it was Russ Roberts who said once--I think in one of his novels--that life isn't a race unless you make it one. Whether or not he said it, this has become one of my mottos that has helped me enjoy the world. I am wealthier than over 80% of Americans, but if I were wealthier than just 40% of them, I would still be able to go to Disneyland multiple times.

That's about wealth, not about freedom. And although freedom generally leads to more wealth, one can be relatively wealthy but not that free. So let's look at freedom.

I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the big issues that worried adults around me, and worried me a little if I thought about it, was that the world would be destroyed by nuclear war. But I didn't think about it much. My life, up until about age 12, was pretty good. Our family kind of fell apart in slow motion after that, but before that, as I say, it was pretty good. So there were two things I took out of that experience with the threat of nuclear war that help me be cheerful now. First, even with that threat, I had many happy times and, as I looked around at the time, I saw many adults having happy times. Second, that threat is now substantially less than it was. For a few days in October 1962, John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev looked as if they might be close to incinerating large parts of the world. When you're burned to death, you're not free, because you're--not. So the decreased threat of being burned to death is a pretty big boost to freedom.

There's one related thing that I didn't say to John but that is part of why I enjoy life so much. It has to do with my view of people. Here's where I depart from the thinking of my co-blogger Bryan Caplan. Bryan once wrote, "I find my society unacceptable. It is dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked." I don't. I think that much of what he finds dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked, I would too. But in many of those places, I would find real beauty and virtue also. As Renee Zellwegger's character, Dorothy Boyd, said in one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies from the 1990s, Jerry Maguire, "I still love the enemy."


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COMMENTS (27 to date)
rapscallion writes:

How you feel about things has more to do with your biology than your ideology.

Ted Levy writes:

When the actual reason is you have abnormally high levels of serotonin...;-)

Bill writes:

The world needs more people with your perspective.

Whatever our problems here in America in the early 21st century they pale into insignificance when compared to what other people elsewhere and at different times had to put up with.

Just thinking about my parents and grandparents; Depression and 2 world wars in the span of 30 years. I've known people who grew up in houses without indoor plumbing. People who survived concentration camps. People who walked hundreds of miles just to get into the USA where they started their own businesses. So on and so forth.

Staying up late at night worrying about what Wall Street quants will do next is kind of silly if you have a little perspective.

Mike Rulle writes:

Thank you for your trip down memory lane. While the other commenters discussed the potential of you having an abundance of chemical interactions which work in your favor (I admit to having had such a general theory too about happier people), I believe one's reaction to circumstances and one's outlook create happiness.

For me personally, this short essay is inspirational.

A6 writes:

The imminent threat of a nuclear Iran, to which the threat of assured destruction is a positive inducement, doesn't scare you as much as the late unlamented USSR, to which that threat gave pause?

Well, okay, maybe it doesn't scare you as much *yet*. People discount the future and the uncertain. Or maybe you were more scared then because you were a child.

Also, there are people who think, "If we leave Iran alone, and don't interfere with their ambition to incinerate Israel, they'll leave us alone."

You aren't one of those people, are you?

Justin writes:

Yes because the fact that high levels of serotonin are correlated with happiness means that causation runs from seritonin to happiness. And murderers murder because the chemicals made them do it. Personally, I'm going to try out this changing my perspective thing anyways. Maybe there's something to it.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

Can you buy a serotonin supplement at Walmart or Walgreens?

Il Falcone writes:

Similar to Russ' sentiment:

“In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it. Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking. You stand above the rat race and the pecking order, not outside it, if you do so by choice.”

That's from The Black Swan (Taleb). I've enjoyed that idea ever since I first read it.

John Goodman writes:

In many ways you are freer today than when you were growing up. In those days, you couldn't buy a T bill, the government dictated the interest rate on your savings account, the government dictated the price of every kind of interstate trasnportaion and the Postal Service had a real monopoly.

David R. Henderson writes:

@rapscallion and Ted Levy,
You may well be right.
@Bill and Mike Rulle,
Thanks so much.
@A6,
For my take on Iran, see this. Also, I thought this came across in my post but I guess it didn't: I wasn't very afraid of nuclear war as a child. That's what I was getting at when I said that I didn't think much about it.
@Il Falcone,
Nice. I've always made a point of judging things by my standards, not those of others.
@John Goodman,
Good point, especially on airlines.

Ken B writes:

A nice piece David.

There are words, the opening of Sabatini's novel Scaramouche, that I think, on my good days, I manage to live up to:
"He was born with the gift of laughter and the sense the world was mad." Both clauses matter.

I like to find kindred spirits, and many of my favourite books are favourites precisely because I sense one in the author. I disagree with you on many things David, but I do flatter myself that we are in important ways, kindred spirits.

But I'm the funny one! :)

Ken B writes:

@John Goodman:
Not just us. My lifetime -- I'm younger than DRH but not vastly -- has seen a huge increase in freedom around the world. We face threats to it now of course, but we did every year of my life. Freedom works; if we defend it we shall win.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Thanks for showing this side of yourself.

Ken B writes:

@DRH
I do think laughter is important. One day my wife stepped on my cat, just bigger than a kitten, which I had fed and raised since it was two days old, and crushed it. Awful. She was distraught and guilty, and crying for hours. Then I said it was only fair, Grisly used to walk on her too. I hope it doesn't sound callous because it was really a very good moment. Laughter is a good thing.

Matt C writes:

Hear hear.

It is easy for libertarians to focus on all the things that are wrong in our society and there are plenty. But all in all we are very lucky, compared to much of the rest of the world, and almost all the rest of human history. Count your blessings too.


Tom Nagle writes:

Thank you David and Johnathan Goodman. Perhaps due to biology, people often look for confirming evidence for how they feel rather than adjust how they feel to the actual evidence. I find it difficult to believe people who think we are less free now than when I was younger. Maybe I've been taking too much SSRI (boosts serotonin), but I think the evidence is strong anyway. Here are a few bits of that evidence:
1. I remember when beating up a gay person (particularly gay boys) was not something with which the police interfered. In fact, in places like NYC, the police were doing the beatings. In schools,teachers looked the other way.
2. I remember when 18 year old men were drafted for at minimum two years of selective slavery, during which they were ordered to kill others without question and in many cases were killed themselves. (More than 55,000 died in Vietnam versus less than 10,000 volunteers in Iraq & Afghanistan)
3. I remember when women in many states could not own property independently of their husbands, and their husbands were rarely if ever prosecuted for beatings or rape. They became essentially property when they married. Obviously they had no recourseto abortion. Child abuse was another thing that, when done by parents, was considered a family matter. Although there was less government interference, I hardly think you can call that less freedom overall.
4. I remember when only rich people flew on airplanes because the government set the prices at levels that today would be considered outrageous. Same story for the government mandated phone monopoly (AT&T) that abused its customers and charged outrageous prices for the privilege.
5. The cost to ship anything by truck or rail was set high by the government and could not be negotiated. You could not enter the trucking business without a federal license.
6. Elections in much of the country were a farce. Chicago, for example, was as much a dictatorship as many places in Africa are today. As a result of fraud in Chicago and in Texas, the close presidential election of 1960 was stolen by the Democrat.
7. The FBI operated much like an internal secret police and presidents would use info collected by the FBI (LBJ and Nixon in particular) to blackmail members of congress and undermine political opponents.
8. In much of the country, black people could not vote, could not attend public schools and universities, were by law required to use separate bathroom facilities, and could not marry white people. Needless to say, they could not rely on police protection against any white person who wanted to harass or steal from them.

Add to this the vast increase in our material wealth,and I would argue that anyone who thinks things have gotten worse is more likely to be suffering from a chemical imbalance than reacting to reality.

CC writes:

Tom Nagle: Great comment. I feel better already. :)

Lars P writes:
7. The FBI operated much like an internal secret police and presidents would use info collected by the FBI (LBJ and Nixon in particular) to blackmail members of congress and undermine political opponents.

I seems unlikely that this is not still going on. The government surveillance capacity has never been better, and surely most politicians have something to hide?

Yancey Ward writes:

John Goodman wrote:

In many ways you are freer today than when you were growing up. In those days, you couldn't buy a T bill, the government dictated the interest rate on your savings account, the government dictated the price of every kind of interstate trasnportaion and the Postal Service had a real monopoly.

The glory days of America, according to some prominent economists.

The FBI operated much like an internal secret police....

Hardly. Recent revelations in books like Operation Snow and Stalin's Secret Agents demonstrate just how valid the FBI's concerns were. There was an unbelievably sophisticated penetration of America by a very serious threat, Stalin.

J. Edgar Hoover comes across as a very gifted investigator of real security threats in now public FBI reports. Hoover's reputation has been sullied mostly by people who were targets of his for good reason.

Yancey Ward writes:

Ken B,

I appreciate black humor more than most, but it can cost you. About 15 years ago, my father had to take in my grandmother's dog, a small poodle, for a few months due to his stepfather's illness- not a real problem as my parents already had three poodles of their own. One day, the dog ran out the front door and was hit by a car. A few months after this happened, I was visiting with my parents and my two younger sisters, and they told me the story, I made the remark that the other dogs had put out a hit on the interloper. No one spoke to me for two days.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom Nagle,
Excellent comment. I agree on all points, including the one-party rule in Chicago. One picky point there though: while it's documented that LBJ did steal the 1948 U.S. Senate election in Texas and I'm sure JFK tried to steal the 1960 election in Texas and Illinois, the documentation that that mattered is lacking. What gets the news is that Nixon declined to contest Illinois. What doesn't get the news is that the local Republicans in Illinois didn't so decline. They asked for a selective recount in various counties, as Gore did in Florida, and found their margin of loss widening, not narrowing.

Aaron Zierman writes:

Inspirational, David. Thank you for taking a moment to see the full context of this life. It seems to me that dealing only with the details leaves me feeling like I just ate all the ingredients of the cake separately, and not having enjoyed the finished cake with all its icing and sprinkles.

yet another david writes:

@KenB:

There are words, the opening of Sabatini's novel Scaramouche, that I think, on my good days, I manage to live up to: "He was born with the gift of laughter and the sense the world was mad." Both clauses matter.

Sounds Nietzschean (in a good way). Should I read the book?

Ken B writes:

@yet another David:
It's a pleasant swashbuckler, well written, but a little predictable. I enjoyed it, but aside from the opening line don't remember the details.

Rob writes:

@Tom Nagle

Evidence like this tends to make me more pessimistic, not optimistic. Same for reports about medieval torture, execution methods and past wars and tyranny. The reason is that we're biologically still the same kinds of people, only put in a slightly different cultural context.

When one sees a trend toward more freedom and peace from a natural state of brutality, one might well be looking at a fluke, followed by a return toward the natural baseline.

Bryan once wrote, "I find my society unacceptable. It is dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked."

I can relate to that, but I am not a natalist. How one can make such a statement, and mean it, and then write a book about selfish reasons to bring more people into the very same society, escapes my understanding.

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