Pursuit of Happiness

Last Sunday’s New York Times ran an op-ed by  Arthur Brooks in which he reported the current state of research into that elusive quality we call happiness.

About half of human happiness appears to be “hard-wired”–a genetic inheritance for which we can thank or blame our parents and other forebears. Another forty percent or so apparently comes from relatively evanescent events in our lives–a great new job, an inheritance, divorce ….the sorts of “stuff happens” for good or ill that people post to their Facebook pages.

The remaining 12 percent, Brooks tells us, comes down to four elements: faith, family, community and work.

Actually, while Brooks doesn’t cite it, there is also a fair amount of research suggesting that the first three of those–faith, family and community–are really just surrogates for an underlying data-point: the strength of an individual’s social support system. (It doesn’t matter, for example, what “faith” one cites–the value, and contributor to happiness/contentment, lies in the existence of a supportive congregational community. That need for connection can be met by avowedly secular communities as well as deeply devotional ones.)

It was when he discussed the importance of work that Brooks made a less-appreciated and important observation.

This shouldn’t shock us. Vocation is central to the American ideal, the root of the aphorism that we “live to work” while others “work to live.” Throughout our history, America’s flexible labor markets and dynamic society have given its citizens a unique say over our work — and made our work uniquely relevant to our happiness. When Frederick Douglass rhapsodized about “patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work, into which the whole heart is put,” he struck the bedrock of our culture and character.

Brooks uses the data about the importance of rewarding work to emphasize the role of the free market, and that’s fair enough. Certainly, the ability to choose the work we do is an important element in finding that work meaningful. But I took another, darker lesson from his data.

Americans do indeed measure our  self-worth in terms of our jobs. That means that people who are unemployed don’t just face financial challenges–they face the loss of self-respect. Despite “makers and takers” talking points and the deeply-seated scorn displayed by comfortable Americans who are sure that “those people” don’t really want to work, decades of research underscore the humiliation and deep despair of most unemployed workers–especially those who have lost their jobs in economic downturns.

Policymakers give great lip-service to job creation, but regularly ignore evidence that contradicts their pre-existing beliefs about which policies actually create those jobs.

Brooks has done us a service by reminding us that high unemployment doesn’t just run up the bill for unemployment insurance, food stamps, Medicaid and the like. It increases human misery, and makes a mockery of the American Dream.