Happiness takes faith, family, friends and work

The head of the think tank where I work believes he has discovered the secret of happiness, and he wants to share it with everyone. Don’t worry: I’m not in a cult.

Arthur Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, where I am a visiting fellow, and also a social scientist who has written a book on happiness. His research has shed light on who’s happy, and why.

Some of the results are what you would expect: Genes have a lot to do with a happy disposition. Poverty reduces happiness, but past a certain point, higher income does not do much to raise it. Brooks notes that the decline in global poverty over the last few decades, especially in China and India, has thus meant a happier world.

Once basic material needs are met, though, satisfying work matters more than money. What people want is not just success, but also “earned success” – the feeling that one’s efforts have paid off. In a recent talk, Brooks cited a 1978 study in which lottery winners were slightly less happy six months after they hit the jackpot. (I’d still be willing to take my chances.)

In general, people overestimate the importance of “one-off” events to their future happiness. Even after personal tragedies, people within months revert to their baseline level of happiness.

Other patterns were surprising, at least to me. Women in the United States have long reported greater levels of happiness than men. Their advantage has, however, been shrinking, and for an unhappy reason: falling happiness among women. Scholars are unsure why that’s happening. Women also rebound more quickly than men from the death of a spouse – perhaps, Brooks speculates, because they have more close friends.

Over the past 40 years, women who describe themselves as “conservative” have been more likely than women to their left to say they are “very happy,” and those who say they are “extremely conservative” have been happier still. Over the same period, conservatives in general have held the same pattern: Righty men, too, have been happier than their more liberal counterparts. So maybe the last two presidential elections should be seen as a victory for the redistribution of happiness as well as income.

Most Americans – 89 percent – are either satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs. Among those who want to “lean out”: a plurality of mothers, who say they would prefer part-time employment. (Here I’m drawing on the work of another AEI colleague, W. Bradford Wilcox. Happiness surrounds me at the office.) Women who say they have turned down a promotion or made some other work sacrifice for the sake of their families report high happiness levels; it does not seem to make much difference for men.

Brooks’ read is that the four great sources of happiness within human control are faith, family, friends and work. Married people are happier than singles. Those engaged in religious practices are happier than the unchurched.

He draws some public-policy conclusions, too. A safety net provided by the government is morally imperative and politically inevitable; it also increases the sum of human happiness. Brooks thinks that conservatives need to make their peace with its existence, as most have, and proclaim their support for it in word and deed.

They should also reform it, and other policies, to enable more people to achieve earned success. That is, he argues, the ultimate reason for a focus on promoting economic growth and reducing dependency on the government. Policies that discourage work – aid programs that phase out steeply as poor people move ahead in their jobs, for example – do reduce happiness, not just economic efficiency.

Brooks is an optimist, a happy warrior for free markets. There is, however, a heavy lump of coal amid the numbers. All four sources of happiness he identifies are in retreat in our country – especially among men, and even more especially among men without college degrees (the majority of men). They are less and less likely to be working or even looking for work; less and less likely to get married and stay married; less likely to belong to a faith community; and less likely to report that they have close friends.

The low point for male happiness comes at age 45, on average, Brooks reports. Consistent with all these findings, there seems to be a surge in suicide rates among middle-aged men without college degrees.

It is not easy to see how any of these deep-seated cultural trends, which have been under way for decades, could be reversed. Unless we do, however, our country could be in for a future with a lot more sadness.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.