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Satisfaction and Smiles in an Unequal World

Happiness, modern science shows, has many dimensions besides the economic growth we usually zero in on.

Research & Commentary
May 19, 2013

by Sam Pizzigati

What makes us happy? A simple question. In America, we’ve been asking it ever since 1776, the year we declared for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Back in those days, Americans hoping to encourage happiness had little more than guesswork to go by. Today we have help: a new science of happiness, with years of research findings.

John de Graaf, the executive director of the Seattle-based Take Back Your Time and the co-author of What’s the Economy For, Anyway? has done as much as any American to share what this science has to offer. I caught up with de Graaf last week for an exchange on the factors that make for happiness — and how inequality impacts them.

We’ve been officially pursuing “happiness” in the United States ever since 1776. Since then we’ve become the richest nation in the world. Why hasn’t all this wealth brought us happiness?

Until recently, we’ve pursued happiness without any real knowledge of what actually makes people happy over the long run. Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and Franklin all believed that government ought to be working to increase happiness, but in their day how to go about doing that amounted to guesswork at best.

Now we have a new and robust science of happiness to draw from, and this science has shown us that happiness has many dimensions besides the economic growth we usually focus on. Our undue focus on GDP, this research helps us understand, may well undercut other aspects of life more important to happiness.

In fact, beyond a certain level of GDP — about the current GDP of Portugal — we have no evidence that countries become happier as they become richer.

We do have evidence, and a great deal of it, that other factors — reduced stress and greater leisure time, good health and social connections — do contribute to greater happiness. And so does the opportunity to do meaningful work and live in a democratic society that fosters trust and personal safety, with access to education, arts, culture, and nature.

In the United States today, our unrelenting focus on economic growth, on higher incomes, above all else jeopardizes all these factors that make for greater happiness, as Italian economist Stefano Bartolini points out in his important new book, Manifesto for Happiness, soon to be published in English by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Indeed, Bartolini shows that our greater economic growth rates in the United States, as compared to Europe, don’t actually reflect any greater economic dynamism. They reflect our shrinking ability to meet the basic needs that make and keep us happy.

The longer hours we work, for instance, reduce our social connections, a central foundation of happiness. To compensate for the resulting loneliness, we buy more stuff. These defensive purchases, in turn, add to our national GDP. Higher GDP numbers create a sense that we’re wealthy. In fact, we’re impoverished on the things we value most.

Enormous increases in inequality have come with this economic growth. Small happiness gains for the rich have been more than offset, since 1980, by larger losses in well-being for the poor and middle class. All this inequality greatly increases social distrust, a development totally toxic to happiness.

Greater equality and a greater attention to our non-material needs — especially the need for leisure time — would go much further toward increasing American happiness than our current strategy of fostering an economic growth whose benefits go almost entirely to those already at the top.

People work harder and smarter, mainstream economists theorize, when they have a shot at becoming wealthy. What incentives do you believe inequality actually creates in real life?

The chance to gain great wealth does operate as an incentive for some, but certainly not all people. Our current U.S. economic model gives some of us the opportunity to become fabulously wealthy while reducing social mobility — and, in the process, de-incentivizing work — for many more of us. More equal societies such as Denmark show almost three times more social mobility than we do.

Some say we must do more in the United States to “make work pay.” But we need to see “pay” in a far more comprehensive frame. Work can “pay” more by delivering significantly more leisure time for workers, as work does in Europe. People actually work harder and smarter when their workplaces have limits on their work time and extend them longer vacations.

Good health, better pension benefits, more opportunity for purposeful work, growth on the job, social connections — all these incentives can and will work if we pay attention to them.

Happiness research shows that people often believe more money will make them happy, when instead they need more time. I’ve written about Amador County in California, a place where workers at first became furious at having their working hours and salaries cut, but then two years later voted 71-29 percent to remain on the shorter hours at less pay rather than return to their former hours and pay. We have many cases of this sort of thing.

At what point do greater amounts of personal wealth stop adding to our sense of personal well-being?

Our pursuit after more personal wealth stops adding to our well-being when this pursuit impedes our ability to take the satisfaction that comes from leisure time, purposeful work, and all the other quality-of-life dimensions mentioned above.

When we gain personal wealth at the expense of these dimensions, our personal well-being suffers. When a whole society pursues personal wealth for the few at the expense of these dimensions for the many, that entire society suffers. That’s what we see in America today.

We see more as well. Our ever-greater piling on of personal wealth is threatening to leave future generations a barren planet. We’re already exhausting the world’s resources and waste sinks more rapidly than they can naturally replenish. If everyone on earth were to suddenly adopt the American consumer lifestyle, research from the Global Footprint Network shows us, we would need five planets to provide the resources and absorb the wastes.

We simply cannot grow on like this. We must find a different approach to well-being for the sake of the future.

What does the research tell us about the factors that do make people feel happier?

In a broad sense, perhaps a third of happiness comes from genetic factors. That is, some people are just born with a better disposition. Perhaps another third of happiness comes from personal attitudes and behaviors.

We know, for example, that people who behave materialistically and choose a job just for the money, rather than for intrinsic pleasure a job may bring, tend to be less happy. We know it truly is better — for our happiness — to give than to receive. In general, people who behave altruistically, who show compassion and kindness and tolerance to others, who practice mindfulness, all tend to be happier.

Finally, perhaps a third of happiness — more in very poor countries — represents a response to the conditions of life, to poverty, ill health, lack of access, dictatorship, overwork. Inequality exacerbates all these problems and seriously dampens happiness.

Contrary to conventional political opinion in the United States, lower taxes do not lead to happiness. All the world’s happiest countries — Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands — have high taxes and high levels of social and economic equality.

A great deal of happiness research rests on opinion surveys. Do we have any indicators for happiness more robust than survey results?

Survey results tend to be quite robust, actually. But we also have evidence from brain wave studies that show what sorts of behaviors make people happier. We understand the importance of altruism and compassion through these studies.

Happiness is, in a sense, a subjective feeling, and the best way to measure these feelings may well be through subjective surveys. On the other hand, well-being is a more objective state, and here we need solid data on real conditions of life. Here we want to measure life expectancy, not whether people are personally happy with their health.

I like the model proposed by Enrico Giovannini, Italy’s new minister of labor and social policies and former chief statistician. He uses objective factors to measure well-being , but understands that a higher level of objective well-being doesn’t always make people happier. Good conditions of life need to combine with “happiness skills”— social connections, generosity, and the like — to produce subjective “happiness” or life satisfaction.

The small Himalayan nation of Bhutan measures all of these things in its very robust Gross National Happiness Index. Bhutan has brought happiness scientists from many nations together to help shape its public policies, and Bhutan’s GNH Index takes into account dozens of objective and subjective variables to determine whether citizens have “sufficiency” in the conditions of life and happiness.

In the United States, the Happiness Initiative is doing work along similar lines, and I’m happy to have been associated with it.

Are other peoples significantly happier than Americans? What are they doing that Americans aren’t?

Scientists measure happiness in two key ways, through life satisfaction and daily affect, how individuals come across in everyday encounters.

Americans do reasonably well when it comes to overall life satisfaction, ranking 14th in the Gallup Healthways Survey and about 20th in the World Values Survey. But these scores, while not bad, still run well below those of the world’s happiest countries, the Nordic nations and the Netherlands, and significantly so, from 7-10 points in a scale of 100.

These other countries all have much more equality than the United States. People in them have among the shortest working hours and best work-life balance in the world — we have in the United States about the worst among rich countries.

These other nations also discourage the flaunting of wealth and encourage social connection through their urban design. They focus on bicycle travel rather than automobiles. They have far greater social mobility and much stronger social safety nets.

The data — see particularly The World Happiness Report — also show that the standard deviation for happiness scores is much narrower in these countries. That means that happiness spreads more widely throughout the population.

Another important consideration: the happiness of children. U.S. children rate themselves 26th happiest out of the 29 rich countries that UNICEF surveys. Dutch children rank first, with Nordic children all in the top 10.

Finally, Americans have a great deal of positive daily affect. We are generally cheerful and smile a lot, with much of this a cultural norm. But, on the other hand, we also score high in negative affect, in sadness, anger, anxiety, and especially, according to Gallup, stress.

We understand you have a particular basketball game you’d like to see?

When I was in Bhutan earlier this year, I spoke with its king about his love for basketball. He’ll be in the United States next year, in June. He’s 33 years old, a good basketball player, and a delightful individual. In Asian countries, they call him “Prince Charming.” The king expressed interest in playing with President Obama, saying he knew that Obama likes the game and plays well. I’d like to see this happen.

Such a game could generate widespread press attention to the concept of Gross National Happiness, a notion first recognized by this king’s father. Add a few celebrities and NBA stars to the game and you have an international event of great interest, but one which can get people talking about the concept of measuring “equitable and sustainable well-being and happiness” instead of GDP, as Bhutan will propose to the United Nations next year.

You travel and speak widely across the United States. Do you see signs that Americans would like to change the trajectory of our daily economic lives?

Well, certainly many people are despairing about our immense American levels of inequality. Unfortunately, most of us don’t know much about how dismally we also rank among rich countries in so many quality-of-life categories. We’re “dead first” in mortality, as Dr. Stephen Bezruchka at the University of Washington puts it, with the shortest life span among rich countries.

Many Americans — after getting pounded by over 30 years of anti-tax and fundamentalist free-market ideology — also have little understanding of how growing corporate power has left America much less equal and productive than we were as a society in the years right after World War II. These Americans blame the government instead, and some even feel giving banks, corporations, and the wealthy even more power will solve our problems.

And many people believe that even if they don’t feel happy themselves, they would be far less happy if they lived any place else. Conservative analysts have created this ridiculous idea that Europeans live worse off than we do simply because their GDPs rise less rapidly, when, as Stefano Bartolini has shown, our high GDP reflects economic decay, not dynamism.

Other Americans seem to believe that we have no alternative to the status quo if we want “the economy” to thrive. But they never stop to ask, as Dave Batker and I try to do in our new book, What’s the economy for, anyway? They accept the notion that we’re here to serve the economy. But the economy should be serving us.

That said, I do see many signs of hope. When I speak to audiences across the country, even to Rotary groups in small conservative towns, people respond well to the points I’m making here and tell me they wish what I’m saying would be taken more seriously.

Part of what troubles me is that I run into so many people who had great faith in President Obama to bring about change and now feel even more discouraged than before. They praise the President’s efforts on health care and his general concern for workers and the middle class, but bemoan his coddling of Wall Street.

At the state and local level, I see many good signs — the local food, currency, and cooperative enterprise movements, the passage of sick and family leave bills in cities and states, the growing support for the Happiness Initiative in many communities and on many campuses, the development of Genuine Progress Indicators in Maryland and Vermont, the recent trip of the Governor and First Lady of Oregon to Bhutan to observe that nation’s work on the happiness front. I find these all wonderfully positive signs.

Can a modern society with a top-heavy distribution of income and wealth ever become happier without challenging that distribution?

That’s an easy one with a one-word answer: No!

Sam Pizzigati co-edits His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.


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