Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Arthur C. Brooks, the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The author of the 2006 book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, Dr. Brooks writes widely about the connections between culture, politics, and economic life in America, and his work appears frequently in the Wall Street Journal and other publications. He is the author of the new book, Gross National Happiness.
FP: Arthur C. Brooks, welcome back to Frontpage Interview.
Brooks: It’s great to be with you again, Jamie.
FP: What inspired you to write this new book?
Brooks: This book asks who the happiest Americans are, and how we can all get happier by changing our politics, government, and culture in constructive ways.
As we all know, the American Declaration of Independence enshrines the “pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental right. I believe we have an ethical responsibility to exercise that right, and to express our values as a nation in a way that makes it possible for our fellow citizens to pursue happiness as well.
FP: Why does happiness matter for America?
Brooks: The reason happiness is so important is that happy citizens are the best citizens. This
book shows in detail—using large amounts of data collected over many years by nonpartisan survey organizations—that happy people treat others better than unhappy people. They are more charitable, have better marriages, are better parents, act with greater integrity, and are better citizens than unhappy people. Happy people work harder than unhappy people, but volunteer more as well—meaning that they increase our nation’s prosperity and strengthen our communities. Happy citizens are vital to making our nation strong and prosperous, and a strong and prosperous nation can and should be a happy example to the world.
FP: In terms of political views, who are the happiest people in America today? Tell us about the "happiness gap".
Brooks: It turns out this is an easy question: conservatives are happiest, by far.
In 2004, people who said they were conservative or very conservative were nearly twice as likely to say they were very happy as people who called themselves liberal or very liberal (44 percent versus 25 percent). Conservatives were only half as likely to say they were not too happy (9 versus 18 percent). Political conservatives were also far less likely than liberals to express maladjustment to their adult lives. For example, adults on the political right were only half as likely as those on the left to say, “at times, I think I am no good at all.” They were also less likely to say they were dissatisfied with themselves, that they were inclined to feel like a failure, or to be pessimistic about their futures. Further, a 2007 survey found that 58 percent of Republicans rated their mental health as “excellent,” versus 43 percent of political independents and just 38 percent of Democrats.
FP: Why are political conservatives so much happier than liberals?
Brooks: About half the “happiness gap” is explained by two demographic differences. Conservatives are far more religious than liberals, on average, and much more likely to be married. Faith and marriage both strongly improve life quality for most people.
The other half of the gap is explained by differing worldviews. Conservatives generally look at society and see a collection of individuals. They naturally believe, therefore, that personal action is the right focus for our attention. Liberals are much stronger at the level of the collective. For many on the left, individual action is a silly, futile focus if we want to make any meaningful social change; the community or all society requires change (even by force) in order for real progress to be made.
This worldview difference dramatically affects happiness levels. Simply put, it is easier to be successful in relying on your own actions for things that are important to you than to rely on the actions of everyone else. Conservatives feel more in control of their world than liberals do; liberals are more likely to feel like victims when others don’t behave the way they “should.”
FP: Is traditional family life the secret to happiness? What about religious faith?
Brooks: We have heard a lot of bad things since the 1960s about marriage. Don’t believe it. In 2004, 42 percent of married Americans said they were very happy. Only 23 percent of never-married people said this, as well as 20 percent of those who were widowed, and 17 percent of divorced people. Married people were six times more likely to say they were very happy than they were to say they were not too happy. Meanwhile, people who had lost their spouses or had their marriages break up were more likely to be not too happy than very happy.
Children don’t generally raise happiness by themselves (in fact, they tend to lower the happiness of a marriage, on average). However, they are nearly always part of an overall “culture” of happiness. Consider this: 52 percent of married, religious, conservative people with kids are very happy--versus only 14 percent of single, secular, liberal people without kids. Kids are part of a happy lifestyle.
Religious people of all faiths are much, much happier than secularists, on average. In 2004, 43 percent of religious folks (those attended a house of worship almost every week) said they were “very happy” with their lives, versus 23 percent of secularists (those who seldom or never attended a house of worship). Surveys show that religious people are a third more likely than secularists to say they are optimistic about the future. Secularists are nearly twice as likely as religious people to say, “I am inclined to feel I am a failure.”
FP: Some say money can’t buy love, but can it buy happiness?
Brooks: Economists find for the most part that money does not buy happiness. First, when countries get richer over time, above basic levels of subsistence, citizens on average do not get happier, even when prosperity gains are spread fairly evenly across the population. Second, richer countries do not have happier citizens than poorer ones, except in cases of countries that are miserably poor. Third, individuals adapt very quickly to income increases, and do not get permanently happier when they get richer.
Still, there is one way to “buy happiness”: charitable giving. The evidence is clear that gifts of money—as well as gifts of time—to charitable organizations, houses of worship, and other worthy causes, brings authentic happiness to givers. The bottom line is that if you want $100 in authentic happiness today, you can buy it easily—just give the money to your church or favorite charity.
FP: What about income inequality? We always hear this is rising and that it’s making us miserable as a nation. True or false?
Brooks: False. The data tell us that economic mobility -- not equality -- is associated with happiness. One survey asked Americans in 2004, "The way things are in America, people like me and my family have a good chance of improving our standard of living -- do you agree or disagree?" The two-thirds of the population who agreed were 44% more likely than the others to say they were "very happy," 40% less likely to say that they felt "no good at all" at times, and 20% less likely to say that they felt like failures. In other words, those who don't believe in economic mobility -- for themselves or for others -- are not as happy as those who do. Some studies even find that the happiness of workers increases as the incomes of others climb relative to their own, because they see the incomes of others as evidence of what they themselves can achieve.
Policies that redistribute income just to get more equality tend to get the opposite of what they seek, in terms of happiness. These policies reduce incentives to create wealth, which means less economic growth and fewer jobs, and less charitable giving -- all of which especially hurts people lower down on the income scale. Furthermore, redistribution can, as the American welfare system has shown, turn beneficiaries into demoralized long-term dependents.
FP: Europeans say they “work to live,” while we “live to work.” Your interpretation?
Brooks: It’s true. Europeans work less, and relax more, than Americans. We work 25 percent more hours each year than Norwegians or the Dutch. The average American worker takes just 16 days of vacation each year, less than half as many as the Germans (35 days), the French (37 days), and the Italians (42 days).
Europeans might not be happy if they worked as much as we do, but we certainly would not be happier if we started goofing more. In 2002, an amazing 89 percent said they were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their jobs. Only 11 percent said they were not too satisfied or not at all satisfied. You might think this is only true for those with high-pay, high-skill jobs. But this is not true. It turns out that people of all classes and job types are satisfied with their work. There is no difference at all in job satisfaction between those with below- and above-average incomes: Eighty-nine percent are satisfied in both groups. Similarly, 88 percent of people without a college education are satisfied, as are 87 percent of those who call themselves “working class.” Americans like or love their jobs, and working brings us a tremendous amount of joy, on average.
FP: Are you happy?
Brooks: Yes, I really am. Through good fortune, I have a lot of the lifestyle and worldview characteristics of happy Americans. But writing this book has helped too. When it comes to happiness, knowledge is power. Knowing that money does not buy happiness; that taking spirituality seriously brings life satisfaction; that dwelling on victimhood brings misery—these types of facts can really change one’s behavior and attitudes, and they’ve helped me a lot. One interesting factoid about happiness is that the average low point in a man’s happiness is age 44, according to research. My 44th birthday is next month! So writing a book on happiness was definitely very timely.
FP: Well, if I don’t speak to you then, Happy Birthday!
Arthur C. Brooks, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
Brooks: Thank you Jamie, and my thanks to all of Frontpage’s readers.