Some promoters think so, but we need to focus first on our basic needs and fairness rather than the psychology of well being.
It seems that happiness is busting out all over – like that famous lyric from the classic Broadway musical, Oklahoma. True, happiness is not much in evidence in our battered economy, or in our shrill and rancorous politics. The word “anger” seems more appropriate, or even “despair” in some quarters.
But never mind. An explosion of research and a bumper crop of writings about happiness can be found — somewhat incongruously — in various academic journals these days, as well as in the bookstalls. Just look at a few of the outpouring of recent titles: Happiness: Lessons From a New Science; The Psychology of Happiness; Happiness: A Revolution in Economics; Exploring Happiness; Stumbling on Happiness; Happiness: A History; and not least, Be Happy.
Happiness we are told by these latter day Pollyannas is really our most important goal in life, not money. Accordingly, there is a growing, multi-disciplinary happiness movement in academia that aspires ultimately to replace our traditional focus on economic growth with something like a “Gross National Happiness” index (an idea pioneered many years ago, improbable as it may seem, in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan in Central Asia).
In our own country, research on how to measure the quality (rather than the quantity) of life goes back at least 50 years, but it is only within the last two decades that a growing band of happiness researchers have established scientific respectability for their efforts. Now this work has culminated in a well-funded, high-profile “State of the USA” project, where there are plans for an on-line array of some 300 “social indicators” that will provide a full menu of quality of life measures, ranging from infant mortality to job satisfaction, crime rates and the latest statistics about sleep deprivation.
Among the many counter-intuitive – even astonishing – conclusions of this nascent new happiness science are some that are sure to make conservatives happy and raise the hackles of liberals. Here are some examples:
- Forget the recession: most Americans are quite happy we are told, regardless of their economic and political circumstances, including more than 80 percent of the poor in some study results.
- Although average happiness levels are higher for the rich, their advantage is not as great as you might expect. In happiness surveys covering the period from1975 to 1992, only about 12 percent of the respondents on average described themselves as being unhappy (though many more were only “somewhat” happy).
- Increases in personal income levels over time seem to have had relatively little influence in altering our happiness quotient.
- The growing income inequality between the rich and the poor in this country over the past 30 years has not made the poor any less happy, so it is claimed.
- There also seems to be no correlation between government spending on welfare and various happiness measures.
- Any redistribution of wealth is therefore unlikely to add to our sense of well-being as a nation and might even make wealthy people less happy.
The overall consensus among happiness researchers seems to be that income and happiness are not closely linked after all. Happiness is much more dependent on such things as a successful marriage, healthy social relationships, a high level of job satisfaction, having good health, and even the quality and effectiveness of government. In his book, The Politics of Happiness, the former Harvard president and law school professor Derek Bok concludes: “Happiness, or satisfaction with life, can lay claim to being not merely an end in itself but the end most people consider more important than any other.”
So, what’s wrong with this happy picture? After all, doesn’t it tend to confirm the old cliché that money can’t buy happiness? The answer is that, from a biological perspective, there is a lot wrong with it.
In the first place, the psychology of happiness is based on public opinion surveys that ask people to evaluate how “satisfied” they are with their lives overall. Or, in some in-depth studies, people are asked how agreeable (or disagreeable) they find each of their many daily activities and experiences. This methodology raises some serious concerns about biases. It’s notorious that survey results can be highly skewed by such things as how the questions are asked and what sampling methods are used. For instance, it may well be that unhappy people are generally undercounted because they are much less visible and much less willing to participate in happiness surveys. Also, many of these surveys were done before the current deep recession and may therefore be seriously out of date.
Another likely source of bias is rooted in our innate optimism and our common tendency to suppress unpleasant thoughts, which we now understand has a genetic basis. These human traits normally help us to cope with the vicissitudes of life. But more important, happiness surveys focus on our psychological state-of-mind, not our objective circumstances, and people are often ill-informed and poor judges of how well they are doing in a material sense. Or else they may simply be resigned to their lot in life and trying to make the best of it. Or they may even be in denial.
Perhaps the most serious concern about the happiness research is the very fuzziness of the concept (its meaning has been debated for centuries) and the tendency of researchers in the happiness field to equate happiness with “well-being” – a term that implies an objective condition in life rather than a hedonic mental state. This expansive definition of happiness is especially questionable because there are serious discrepancies between the sanguine conclusions of the happiness researchers and the data and research focused on more concrete aspects of our well-being. Here are some discordant statistics:
- About 40 percent of our people do not believe they have sufficient income to meet their needs, up from about 25 percent in 1975. This is consistent with the findings of more than a dozen studies of poverty over the past decade showing that the government’s official poverty line statistic is a gross underestimate.
- At the end of 2009, at least one-quarter of our workers were either unemployed or underemployed “working poor” who were struggling to provide for their basic needs. We also know that unemployment is a major cause of personal angst and psychological depression. These people are clearly not happy.
- During 2009, some 50 million Americans were reported to have suffered from “food deprivation” (hunger) at various times during the year, including 17 million children. Hunger and happiness don’t mix as a rule.
- An estimated 60 percent of Americans worry about not saving enough for their retirement, a situation that has been exacerbated by the recent steep decline in home equity values.
- According to happiness researchers, only a small fraction (less than 10 percent) of the elderly are “not at all” satisfied with their lives, yet the data show that some 23 percent of our elderly live in poverty. Can it be that many of them haven’t noticed?
- Some 26 percent of the respondents to a national survey in 1996 reported that they had recently experienced an “impending nervous breakdown,” and the percentage is likely to be even higher during this dark time. These people were obviously not very happy.
- Until the newly enacted health insurance reforms kick in, roughly one-third of our population remains vulnerable to catastrophic medical costs, and many of us are worried about what has become the single largest cause of personal bankruptcy in this country.
Finally, it’s important to note that such highly touted happiness facilitators as a successful marriage, strong social relationships, high job satisfaction, and being in good health are very much influenced by having an adequate source of income. No rational person can be both destitute and happy. In other words, income is necessary but not sufficient.
So if income growth is not the magic elixir that will make us all blissfully happy, neither is happiness the panacea that we should be pursuing. The cynical old saying, “What good is happiness, you can’t buy money with it,” has more than a few grains of truth in it.
In reality, happiness is not, for most people, an end in itself but rather an indirect indicator of our relative success in relation to the things that really do matter to us – including our personal goals and values but also what could be called our “deep purpose” in life. To get a fix on this underlying purpose, we need to shift our focus from the psychology of happiness to the biology of human nature.
The ground-zero premise (so to speak) of the biological sciences is that life is a contingent survival enterprise; the fundamental challenge for all living creatures is survival and reproduction. Whatever may be our perceptions, aspirations, or illusions (or, for that matter, whatever our station in life), we are all participants in a vast, interdependent “collective survival enterprise.” Earning a living, in a broad sense, is therefore our “prime directive” – to borrow a term from the TV series Star Trek.
Indeed, the survival enterprise entails no less than fourteen distinct domains of basic needs – from obvious ones like food and water to less frequently mentioned needs like “thermoregulation” (maintaining our body temperatures within a narrow range) and a restful sleep (about one-third of our lives overall). We know that these are survival imperatives because we suffer more or less immediate and sometimes life-threatening harm if they are not promptly satisfied. Sleep disorders, for example, are endemic in our society.
To be sure, biological survival may be the furthest thing from our conscious minds as we go about our daily lives – finding a job or doing our job, dealing with rush hour traffic, buying groceries, studying for final exams, pursuing a mate, or nurturing our children. For the most part we focus our attention on various “instrumental needs” – the strategies and technologies we deploy as a civilization to provide for satisfying our basic biological needs, including (needless to say) obtaining an income to purchase the goods and services required to satisfy our needs.
In fact, most of what we do on any given day, even in our relatively affluent society, is either directly or indirectly related to meeting our underlying biological survival needs, even when we are not consciously aware of it. (One important source of evidence, among others, is the government’s National Time-Use Survey.)
Furthermore, our happiness is very much affected by whether or not these basic needs are satisfied. We are likely to be very unhappy when we experience a severe illness, prolonged hunger, a physically threatening situation, a toxic environment, extreme heat or bitter cold, among many other things. So the list of happiness (and unhappiness) facilitators is much more extensive than our happiness researchers may imagine, and they are rooted in our biology.
There is one other very important aspect of human nature that also greatly influences our happiness, namely our innate sense of fairness and social justice. If happiness researchers tend to overlook the problem of meeting our basic needs, or take them for granted, an equally serious oversight is their inattention (on the whole) to the issue of fairness and social justice. Human history is replete with social conflicts, from family quarrels to social protests, riots, revolutions, civil wars and bloody confrontations between groups, nation-states, and empires, all of which have been accompanied by a serious deficiency of happiness, to put it mildly. And the root cause of most of these unhappy episodes is a deeply felt sense of injustice.
Fairness, like happiness, is a much debated concept, but the emergent multi-disciplinary science of human nature has shed new light on it. Fairness is not, after all, some abstract metaphysical principle but a concrete aspect of our dealings with other people. Any relationship is more likely to be considered fair if all the parties are treated impartially and if everyone’s interests and needs are taken into account and balanced, insofar as possible. As the great judge and legal scholar Learned Hand expressed it long ago: “Justice is the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society.”
To be sure, what may be considered fair in any given situation is influenced by our personal self-interests, as well as our cultural values and what others may think is fair. However, it is now generally recognized within the scientific community that a deep sense of fairness (and unfairness) is an innate human personality trait – an evolved predisposition that most of us (not all) share in common.
Moreover, our sense of fairness has three distinct elements – a concern for equality in relation to our universal basic needs, a desire for equity (or rewards for merit) in relation to the many differences in our personal efforts and achievements, and a strong expectation of reciprocity, including an obligation for everyone to contribute a fair share in return for the benefits they receive from others and from society. As the great Roman lawyer, Cicero, put it many centuries ago: “There is no duty more indispensable than returning a kindness.”
Not only are we prone to be very unhappy when we feel we have been treated unfairly in these terms but we are also likely to feel empathy toward others who seem to have suffered an injustice. Consider, for example, the outpouring of public anger against the Wall Street bankers who were bailed out by the taxpayers and then promptly returned to paying themselves multi-million-dollar bonuses while some 15 million victims of their malfeasance were out of work. Or consider the outrage over the charges that Wal-Mart has systematically discriminated against female workers over many years.
The bottom line is simply this: Happiness is a worthy goal (I wish it Godspeed), but as a nation we would do much better to be guided by a biological perspective and to give the highest priority to meeting the basic needs of all of our people, with full employment being only a starting point. This is the very foundation of social justice, and it is an essential prerequisite for the pursuit of happiness. As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes long ago warned: “Seeing every man [must endeavor] to obtain all that is necessary for his conservation, he that shall oppose himself against it, for things superfluous, is guilty of the war that thereupon is to follow.”
It is the ideal of a fair society, therefore, that should be our goal, not happiness per se. If we can as a nation ensure that everyone’s basic needs are fully satisfied, then happiness will surely flourish. And, because our happiness quotient will be anchored in a more solid biological foundation, it will provide a much better indicator of our well-being than is currently possible; the paradoxes noted above will disappear. When this day comes, our biological well-being and our psychological happiness will truly be aligned.