— Frederick G. Bonfils (1861-1933), founder of The Denver Post
If the headline was supposed to entice, then “How liberals can be happier,” distributed last week by The New York Times, certainly worked with me.
I’m pretty liberal and open to finding ways to be happier. And there’s a local connection, as one of the authors of the piece is Hal Boyd, executive editor of the national edition of The Deseret News. (The other two are Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang, both of the Institute for Family Studies.)
So, fellow lefties, what’s the secret to happiness? Well, according to these advocates for the conservative lifestyle, it’s simple.
Be more like them. Conform. Resistance is futile.
Thank you, no.
These scholars allow as how a lot of happiness is luck — mostly the genes and social capital we get from our parents. They also pay attention to the idea that conservatives are more likely to be pleased by life as it is while liberals see what is lacking, in their own lives and in society in general, and pine for something better.
But the keys to happiness this trio stresses boil down to “faith, family, friends and work in which we earn our success and serve others.” And it is wholly reasonable to contend that if you hit the jackpot on all of these variables — or maybe even just a couple of them — you can expect to be a happy and fulfilled adult.
But what if you don’t? What if your life doesn’t play out like a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie?
What if no religion or faith tradition calls to you? What if you haven’t found someone to be your soulmate and/or you don’t want children? What if you prefer solitude to what may seem to you to be shallow and awkward interactions with other people? What if you aren’t lucky enough to find a fulfilling career path?
What if your personal path to happiness is to break free of all of those? Religion can be oppressive. Family can be stultifying. Careers can be soul-destroying.
The authors of this piece have statistical evidence from surveys that support their argument. But there are other data points out there.
If you look at the reports of happiness in states and nations, and compare those to stats for the number of actively religious folks and the often related formation of large family units, the numbers don’t always go the way Boyd and company might lead you to expect.
The ace up their sleeve is, no surprise, Utah, where religious devotion and happiness both rate at or near the top. But there are other states — Hawaii, California, Massachusetts — where happiness is high and religious activity low. And states — Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia — where happiness is very low and religious affiliation near the top.
The diversion is even more clear when one looks at reports on religion and happiness in various nations. The countries of northern and western Europe are increasingly leaving all religious activity behind, yet they rate high on surveys of happiness.
Germans and Swedes and Norwegians aren’t made happy by a religion they don’t have. It’s more that their political systems support their individual choices — including raising children, if they want — with strong social webs that see education, health care, child care and family leave as foundational to both individual life and civilization.
Anyone who is concerned that we don’t have enough marriages or enough children in the U.S. must face the fact that the experience of Europe disproves the American conservative position that strong social services, and the taxation needed to pay for them, are destructive of personal growth and happiness.
Now that I have devoted all these words to debunking one theory of how you can be happy, one might expect me to substitute one of my own.
I can’t do that for you. The closest I can come is, you be you. And vote liberal.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, adheres to the version of the Golden Rule put forth by George Bernard Shaw. “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”