Monday, June 16, 2008

What is gross about happiness?

I like Arthur Brooks’ book, “Gross National Happiness” (Basic Books, 2008).

However, the old saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover” seems to me to be particularly apt in the case of this book. I found the title so unappealing that I had actually decided not to read the book until I stumbled across a series of articles based on it, which the author has written in the Freakonomics section of the New York Times (here).

Before I attempt to say something constructive about the book I want to state my objections the title. It seems to me that the concept of gross national happiness is just a gimmick. It is a useful gimmick for a politician to use to make the point that some of the important things in life are not measured in gross national product. I can understand why the king of Bhutan, for example, could be attracted to making gross national happiness a national goal as a way of making this point. But I cannot understand why any serious researcher would want to use “gross national happiness” as a title for a book.

In what sense is happiness gross? In terms of national income accounting, “gross” means that depreciation of capital stock has not been deducted from national product: net national product equals gross national product minus depreciation. “Gross” has no corresponding meaning in relation to happiness research.

It seems to me that the idea of governments setting out to raise aggregate (or average) happiness is indeed gross, or crass, when it involves interference in the lives of people in order to make them happier. Fortunately, Arthur Brooks manages to distinguish the focus of his book from this concept. Brooks’ focus is based on the idea in the American Declaration of Independence that individuals have the right to pursue happiness. The question he asks is: “Are we improving as a nation in protecting and exercising our right to pursue happiness?” (p3).

However, I don’t think the purpose of the book is to address that question. What the book does – and does well - is to present the results of survey information for the United States on the relationship between happiness and a variety of factors: political views, religion, family values, security, economic achievement, inequality, unemployment and charitable giving.

Many of the findings in this book would be familiar to readers of the happiness literature. However, the findings about the relationships between happiness and politics seem novel, and in combination with the findings about religion and family values, give a great deal of food for thought:

  • Americans who label themselves as conservatives are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy as those who label themselves as liberals. This gap has persisted for 35 years and apparently cannot be explained in terms of income differences. Religion and marriage account for some but not all of this happiness gap. The author suggests (quoting columnist, George Will) that conservatives tend to view happiness as a project whereas liberals tend to view it as an entitlement.
  • Religious people (those attending church at least once a week) are about 20 percentage points more likely to say they are very happy than secular people (those who seldom or never attend church). The relationship between religion and happiness is common to all religions and has little to do with money, age, education, sex, family status or race.
  • Having children can be part of a happy lifestyle even though it lowers the probability of happiness by 6 or 7 percentage points. The percentage of married, religious, conservative people with kids who are very happy is 38 percentage points higher than the percentage of single, secular, liberal people without kids who are very happy. While secular liberals have stepped off the baby train, religious people are breeding profusely. You could even say they are flourishing.

I do not fully understand these findings and I wonder to what extent they hold in countries other than the United States. I will give further thought to this in later posts.

Meanwhile, I commend Arthur Brooks for bringing these findings to public attention.

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