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December 19th, 2008:

Is Everybody Happy?

I just ordered two books: Gross National Happiness by Arthur Brooks, and The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop. The books are part of my long-term research into why we think and act the way we do. I’ll report further next year when I summarize my thoughts so far, but sniffing around online for reactions to Brooks’ book has raised an interesting question: Can we in fact measure happiness?

I don’t always agree with Arthur Brooks, but I admire his willingness to bring up issues that seem calculated to infuriate liberal opinion-makers—and back his opinions up with reasonable research. One of his controversial positions in Gross National Happiness is that happiness appears to correlate with intensity of religious feelings. Cato research fellow Will Wilkinson challenges that thesis in his blog, and whereas it’s a reasonable counterpoint, one of the comments below Wilkinson’s essay hit the whole problem between the eyes: People belonging to deeply conservative religious organizations are pressured, sometimes intensely, to say that they’re happy. (The commenter claims to be a lapsed Evangelical.) This maps with my own experience dealing with the conservative Catholic fringe, and yet the truth is that a lot of these people seem to me to be not only deeply unhappy, but on the thin edge of panic.

Why this should be is a subject I hate to broach at all and can’t even attempt right now, but set it aside for the moment. The real flaw in Brooks’ research may be that asking a person if he or she is happy is not a useful way to measure happiness. I see research summarized online indicating that the people in Nigeria are the happiest people in the world, though more recent research tags the Danes. The summaries understate the obvious: Happiness does not mean the same thing to all people. Worse, there are cultural pressures in a lot of places to fit in and not make a fuss (Japan comes to mind) and heavy pressure in religious and other tribal organizations to claim that the tribe provides everything they need to be happy—leading their adherents to make the statements that are simply expected of them. It’s like the ritual answer to the seminal rhetorical question, “How ya doin’?” People who answer something other than “Great!” don’t really understand the ritual.

It might be more useful to measure happiness by way of things like public civility, rate and tenure of marriage, incidence of alcohol and drug abuse, and so on. If research must be based on questionnaires, it may be possible to approach the matter from the other side, by asking more oblique questions about feelings like satisfaction, pain, sadness, or enthusiasm, or at least things that are not obviously a part of cultural or religious scripts. The truth may be that the whole question is meaningless; after all, what is the objective experience of the color red, or the taste of dry wine? We all experience the world differently, and we interpret that experience for ourselves through the lens of our culture and the social structures that are the most important to us. If we badly want to be part of a sophisticated social culture, we may choke down a crappy bitter Cabernet and praise it to the ceiling even if (to us) it’s (red) swill, because that’s what the cultural leaders and our “initiated” peers expect. This is a very deep well of inquiry, and I will be writing more about it in months to come.

We’ll see what Brooks has to say when the book arrives, but I’m suspicious of the premise, even though I would be happy (as it were) to be proven wrong.