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June 26, 2008

Reading Journal: "Gross National Happiness"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Arthur C. Brooks' book is a survey of happiness studies, combined with political-policy suggestions.

Did Brooks write the book as a response to Richard Layard's "Happiness"? Where the British Layard -- a Labour life peer in the House of Lords -- uses happiness studies to bolster up a traditional social-democratic agenda, Brooks looks at the same (or similar) data and reaches mostly conservative conclusions: Economic opportunity raises people's happiness levels, where social-welfare taxing-and-spending lowers them. So let's promote opportunity and be wary of government programs.

But Brooks isn't dogmatic, and he's responsive to the evidence. If marriage, family, and religion matter to happiness, so do job-satisfaction, professional success, charitable giving, and volunteer work. Short version: There's a lot to be said for solid values, and for living 'em.

This is a pleasing point-of-view to me. But in the case of both books, I enjoyed the well-done happiness-studies surveys far more than the op-ed arguments. The main reason is dopily basic: I'm simply hyper-skeptical of using happiness studies as a basis for setting policy. I mean, happiness? Talk about a soft, still young, and easy-to-interpret-in-a-zillion-ways social so-called "science." Although I do think that "if a policy is clearly making us miserable, then why are we pursuing it?" isn't a bad argument. And I do celebrate the fact that economists are studying happiness. Anything that introduces a bit of humanity into the field, eh? Softness isn't just squishiness. It's also a big part of life, and well worth our attention.

FWIW, although Layard's book is much the more fluent read, Brooks' book -- despite being a bit plodding and earnest -- strikes me as subtler, fresher, and more original. One especially nice passage comes in the midst of a look at the fact that, in the U.S., political conservatives are, as a bunch, markedly happier than political liberals. Why should this be the case?

The American left has occupied itself for decades with the plight of victims -- victims of discrimination, of class, of circumstance, and of exploitation -- who lack control over their fate. In many cases, such as during the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, this focus was not only justifiable, but noble and important for America, and instrumental in giving victims more control over their lives. Bu inasmuch as the American left is now a coalition of groups that define themselves as victims of social and economic forces, and inasmuch as liberals encourage these feelings of victimization in order to mobilize votes, liberal leaders inevitably make themselves and their constituents unhappy.

Not a bad shot at an explanation.

Semi-related: Friedrich von Blowhard expressed reservations about happiness studies here. I mused at length about free-marketeers and happiness studies here. Richard Layard talks to -- inevitably -- the Guardian. Here's a video interview with Arthur C. Brooks; here's a text interview with him. Buy a copy of "Gross National Happiness" here.



posted by Michael at June 26, 2008


So American liberals are misery pimps?

Posted by: dearieme on June 26, 2008 9:39 AM

Regarding the Brooks quote: What a bunch of hooey.

What liberals acknowledge is that the larger the group of poor and unhappy people, the more it affects everyone's happiness in that society. One way of putting it is in places where there's no middle class, people on the whole are more miserable - crime is higher, etc. Conservatives for some reason do not see the value of having a middle class. Liberals realize a (largely content) middle class is crucial for overall happiness.

Yes, there are the doom and gloom victimhood junkies in the identity politics depts. of academia. But they are a tiny, overly vocal group who get attention because they're so much fun to mock - kinda like fundie Christians. But they are not the core of liberalism by any means; they are the caricature of liberalism.

Posted by: yahmdallah on June 26, 2008 11:36 AM

Liberals don't seem to mind it, not one little bit, that the middle class is being eviscerated by $4 gas.

Posted by: ricpic on June 26, 2008 1:49 PM

For a more touchy-feely approach, you can go here:

And for my favorite quote on the subject from Philip Larkin: "Very few people are happy, and they wouldn't be happy if they were."

Posted by: Sister Wolf on June 26, 2008 7:32 PM

yahmdallah - Be careful expressing such a rational, intuitively logical and (dare I say it?) spot on POV in a forum where a sizable number of regulars seem to have a "blame the victims for feeling victimized" stance to defend.

Which is not to disagree with the notion that there are those professional politicians on the left/liberal/progressive side of the balance beam who have a stake in marshalling votes by encouraging some voters to feel victimized by the opposite camp to win votes. But then, that is the flip side of the coin wherein Pro-Pols on the right promote the idea that anything government does that helps someone else MUST mean it victimizes YOU.

Posted by: Chris White on June 27, 2008 12:03 AM

Conservatives are against the middle class? Then I guess Jeremiah Wright is a conservative. As are all those radicals who inveigh against "bourgeois values", from Marx on down.

As to happiness, my thought is that it might have to do with "traditional values", such as sexual restraint, hard work, thrift, politeness, and charity. These in my experience tend to lead to better life results.

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