Don't worry. Be happy. Be very happy.

By Arthur C. Brooks
Basic Books, 288 pages, $26.95

I opened the cover of Arthur C. Brooks’ book to find talking points for how readers can contribute to America’s gross national happiness, the first two being to vote Republican and get religion. This startling religio-political pronouncement is derived from surveys on happiness that ask people to rate themselves as “very happy,” “pretty happy,” or “not too happy.” People who regularly attend religious services respond that they are “very happy” consistently more frequently than those who do not, as do political conservatives in contrast to political liberals. Do higher scores of “very happy” mean the same as happiness?

The term “gross national happiness” was coined in 1972 by the 16-year-old king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who saw it as more consistent with Buddhist beliefs than GNP. But you won’t find discussions here of two of the four pillars of Bhutan’s conception of GNH, namely, “equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development” and “conservation of the natural environment.” They involve the greater good rather than simply personal well-being measurements.

The happiness surveys Mr. Brooks draws from are objective indicators of respondents’ self-reporting of subjective states of well-being. Mr. Brooks takes the maximizing of “very happy” scores as the way to improve America. This is a peculiar reliance on one abstract indicator of a subjective state as a basis for public life. The Enlightenment ideals motivating the Founding Fathers to hold life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights were not simply those of a feeling state but about a common life as a basis for democracy.

Mr. Brooks is a conservative who thinks not only that the Republican vision of America will “make us happier” but also that Democratic complaints about the long decline of the federal minimum wage are “depressing.” He cites as evidence an experiment that showed that “normal, happy” subjects who repeated depressing sentences began to show signs of depression, as though politics and economics are reducible to feel-good psychology. He does not mention that the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage declined 9.3 percent between 1990 and 2005 while CEOs’ pay increased almost 300 percent. A few pages earlier, a discussion of Democratic policies to redistribute resources is lampooned with references to Stalin and Orwell’s 1984. Mr. Brooks has an ideological ax to grind, which unfortunately overrides his interpretation of data that do not fit neatly into his political views.

Take giving. People who donate more to charity score higher on the “very happy” end of the scale than those who donate less or not at all. This is interesting, even if “very happy” has a limited meaning, and what’s wrong with urging people to give more to charity? But Mr. Brooks goes on to argue against government aid to individuals and nonprofits, seeing social welfare not as a significant aspect of public life or happiness but as primarily a private concern.

People who attend church regularly do report higher percentages of “very happy” than those who do not, for which Mr. Brooks claims bizarrely that there is a genetic component to attendance. But attendance at church is not necessarily the same as faith, and Mr. Brooks allows that it may also reflect greater social integration and affiliation associated with voluntary associations generally, citing Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

People who make more money and attend church regularly report even higher “very happy” percentages than those who make less money and attend regularly; similarly, among those who do not attend church regularly, people who make more money report higher “very happy” assessments than those who make less. This statistic reveals that however much we love to preach religion, it is materialism we increasingly practice.

Surveys have shown increasing valuation of material goods the past few decades as elements of “the good life,” and decreasing valuation of social goods such as a good marriage or interesting job. People also report more pessimism about achieving the good life, because they have bloated it with desired commodities. But happiness levels have remained about the same for decades.

Consider what the Pew Research Center states on happiness and money: “What matters on the happiness front is not how much money you have, but whether you have more (or less) at any given time than everyone else.” This helps give the happiness game away as competitive “top-of-the-heapism.”

Mr. Brooks argues against materialism on the one hand while rationalizing economic inequality on the other. For him, economic inequality is simply something to be met with a happy face and harder work, Horatio Alger style, and not the product of a highly centralized corporate power structure that has reshaped the ownership of wealth in America, concentrating ever more of it among the wealthiest. Americans are working harder because they are spending much harder. They are spending much harder because they are hooked on a Happyland dream of continuous consumption propagated by an omnipresent marketing machine that says buying things will make you happy.

Taxes are supposed to provide for social goods, not individual euphoria. But Mr. Brooks urges readers to fight for lower taxes because the percentage of people describing themselves as “not too happy” rises 2.91 points for each $1,000 per person of federal taxes. This is a good example of Mr. Brooks’ cherry-picking of statistics because as the Pew survey and others reveal, happiness rises as income rises, so that in the highest income category of those earning $150,000 or more, 50 percent of people are “very happy” compared to 23 percent with income under $20,000. You can’t have it both ways.

Arthur C. Brooks’ vision of America is smiley-face happiness, where corporate power is repackaged as everyman’s entrepreneurship. If you’ve lost your job or your mortgage failed, if you’re worried that your children are being deliberately exploited by predatory marketers, if you’re upset with all that weight you’ve gained, and the sleeping pills you’ve been brainwashed by ads to take aren’t helping, if you think President Bush’s policies are something to worry about, well, you are not contributing to gross national happiness. It’s all about good-feel: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Or rather, be “very happy.”

Eugene Halton is professor of sociology and American studies at the University of Notre Dame and author of the forthcoming book The Great Brain Suck: And Other American Epiphanies.

National Catholic Reporter July 11, 2008

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