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Commentary: Happiness takes faith, family, friends and work
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Ramesh Ponnuru

Bloomberg News

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.

Over the last 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. 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.

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