American Happiness

“The necessity of pursing true happiness (is) the foundation of our liberty.” — John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690.

But he answered one of them, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” — Matthew, 20:13-16.

Facts and information are like blocks of carbon. They can be either black bits of charcoal covering everything with a choking and obscuring dust. Or, if placed under the pressure and heat of test and scrutiny, they can be gleaming bits of diamond whose every facet illuminates. Because of the complexity of humanity social science information and data must undergo the longest journey from dust to diamond.

Philosophers have long struggled on the definition of happiness. Aristotle suggested that happiness was the full use of one’s abilities for a constructive purpose, all in all not such a bad definition. What is clear is that societies that nurture happiness seem to be serving their members most effectively.

A recent study out of the Harvard University Business School and London School of Economics by Alberto Alesina, Rafael Di Tella, and Robert MacCulloch suggests that measures of happiness between societies may in some measure be a function of outlook and attitude. They found profound differences between the ways that Americans and Europeans view economic inequality.

In the United States over the last two decades, not only has there been an increase in wealth but it has been accompanied by a significant increase in economic inequality. Nonetheless, Americans appear to be going their own happy way. In general, happiness as measured by surveys of different groups has not changed in the face of this inequality. The authors found rich Leftists to be the only group in the United States upset with the inequality. But then again rich Leftist are notorious whiners. The study also found that in Europe, by contrast, “inequality makes the poor unhappy, as well as the Leftists unhappy.”

The authors suggest that the differences between Europe and the United States have to do with the perception of social mobility. In the United States, people, even if poor, aspire to be rich and consider it a sufficiently likely possibility that they do not wish to punish the rich. It this belief in social mobility and opportunity that distinguishes Americans from Europeans. Americans, as a group, believe in possibilities, while Europeans are more likely to feel trapped by class and circumstances. Ironically, the highly regulated economic structures required to redistribute wealth and income calcifies social structures and makes it more and more difficult to increase wealth at the lower end.

This suggests that if leaders of the Democratic Party like Representative Richard Gephardt and Senator Thomas Daschle really wish to make the lives of their constituents happier, they would worker harder to increase opportunity and wealth and labor less at harping on economic distinctions. For example, when considering the recent tax reduction bill, the real question should have been whether the bill increased social mobility rather than whether the rich would benefit.

Europeans like to chide Americans for working too hard and not knowing how to enjoy life. Europeans consider it a sign of social regression that all Americans are not guaranteed five weeks of vacation. Well, vacations can make life enjoyable. Who can deny the pleasure in sitting at a cafe on a Paris street or eating a delicious meal on Venice’s Grand Canal? Nonetheless, the data suggest that the balance between work and play struck by Americans makes life happier for Americans. Perhaps we should not make too much of this. If Europeans believe they know how to live better than Americans, let them continue in this fiction. After all a sense of superiority over Americans is one of the few pleasures all Europeans appear to enjoy. We should not rob them of this small delight.

Perhaps even more interesting are factors that contribute to happiness within the United States. For example, married people are happier than single people and religious people are happier than non-religious people. This latter fact makes Karl Marx’s statement, “The first requisite for the people’s happiness is the abolition of religion.” look particularly foolish retrospect. Yet there is not too much that Marx wrote that does not appear foolish in retrospect. The data do suggest that the government can nurture happiness in the United States by encouraging marriage (read eliminate the marriage tax penalty) and allowing an open field for private religious activity (read make donations tax deductible for those who do not itemize their deductions).

Samuelson, Robert, “Poverty v. Inequality,” AP, May 3, 2001.

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