How To Be Happy

Almost every morning, this blog highlights problems. It’s usually a downer, I know. (I often tell friends that, sometimes, having the ability to vent regularly is all that keeps me from searching for a glass of hemlock.) But every so often, I’m reminded that we really don’t live in a dystopia, and that lots of folks–including yours truly–are pretty happy most of the time.

Granted, it’s a lot easier to be happy when you are a middle-class privileged person with a nice place to live, enough to eat, and perfect grandchildren. But we all know people who manage to be happy despite life circumstances that are anything but comfortable, raising the question: why? Why are some people seemingly hard-wired for happiness–or at least contentment–while others who appear incredibly fortunate, apparently enjoy being miserable?

Are misery and happiness basically genetic, or is there a role for public policy? Several countries seem to think that policy plays a part.

Several years ago, when my husband and I visited Bhutan, I remember being impressed with that country’s Gross National Happiness Index. So much more humane than the economic measures we favor in our “advanced” country! The United Nations also sponsors a Happiness Index (which usually finds Denmark’s citizens to be the world’s happiest). In 2016 the UAE installed a Minister of State for Happiness. In 2019, New Zealand introduced a wellbeing budget to ensure policies consider citizens’ quality of life.

Happiness has also become the focus of academic study. Some time back, the Guardian ran an article on the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. The Institute is an independent think tank, founded in 2013 to “look at happiness from a scientific perspective”, by analyzing data to figure out why some folks are happier than others and–more importantly– how societies can boost their citizens’ wellbeing.

The article questioned Meik Wiking (the “happiness guru”), who founded the Institute, about the impact of the pandemic on happiness.

What the pandemic has done is underscore the joy of simple pleasures. The link between happiness and money has been well-documented over the years and while, in general, rich people are happier than poor people, it’s not that money buys happiness but that “being without money” and unable to afford food and shelter causes unhappiness. Once you’ve passed a certain threshold, “if you’re already making good money, and you make £200 extra, you buy a more expensive bottle of wine but it doesn’t matter”….

Covid-19 has also diminished the possibility for social comparisons. “There’s an American saying that ‘A happy man is a man who makes $100 more than his wife’s sister’s husband,’ and that concept shows up a lot in the data,” says Wiking. We derive pleasure from being more successful than our neighbours or friends – but become anxious when we’re not. By purging our social media feeds of sparkling shots of Michelin-starred meals and island getaways, the pandemic has reduced angst, envy and fear of missing out.

Genetics clearly plays a role in happiness, as studies of identical twins have demonstrated, and researches have also documented what they call “the natural rhythms of life,” finding a “U curve” in which happiness tends to be highest when we’re young and again when we’re old–or at least, past middle age. Where we live is also important– least-happy countries include war-torn Syria, Burundi and the Central African Republic.

“I don’t think we can go to people in refugee camps and say, ‘Listen guys, happiness is a choice,’” says Wiking. “We need to acknowledge external and genetic conditions and not put the entire responsibility on the individual.”

The happiest 10 countries – the Nordics, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland – are all wealthy, so money matters. But so does policy. Countries with similar GDPs have very different levels of life satisfaction, and some poorer nations, such as Costa Rica, score high.

According to Wiking, a nation’s success at converting “wealth into wellbeing” mostly comes down to its ability to eliminate sources of unhappiness. Denmark’s widespread access to education and healthcare removes anxiety- inducing competitiveness. Wiking says that the Nordic countries are not the happiest in the world – they’re the least unhappy.

What I found when I was doing research for my book God and Country supports Wiking’s thesis. People in countries with strong social safety nets were not only happier than Americans, they were less violent. And of course, if happiness is undermined by comparisons with those who have more than we do, America’s current “gilded age” is a constant “in your face” source of discontent.

Public policies can’t change your DNA. They can’t turn pessimists into optimists or make grief over loss less wrenching. But–as Wiking says–good public policies can make you less unhappy.

And that’s not nothing.


American Exceptionalism?

When we hear the term “exceptional,” we tend to think in terms of merit–someone who is exceptionally good at something. But exceptional has another meaning: unusual. As in “not typical” or “abnormal.” Even before the disaster of the past four years, I’ve come to see American exceptionalism as more of an illustration of that less desirable definition than the former. Our current struggle with COVID-19 has certainly undercut the widespread belief that Americans are exceptionally competent.

My cardiologist cousin recently shared an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that focused on the prevalence of biases that have inhibited our national response to the pandemic–biases that, when added to the utter lack of competent national leadership, certainly help to explain our inability to contain it.

The article began with a discussion of ventilators. One of the first decisions made by the Trump administration in response to the pandemic was to spend $3 billion dollars to build more ventilators. As the article noted, however,

These extra ventilators, even had they been needed, would likely have done little to improve population survival because of the high mortality among patients with COVID-19 who require mechanical ventilation, which acts to divert care-givers away from more health-promoting endeavors. Yet most US residents supported this response because they believed that enough ventilators would lead to better overall survival from this scourge.

So why are so many people supportive of ensuring a sufficient number of ventilators but not similarly supportive of efforts to implement earlier, more aggressive physical distancing, testing, and contact tracing– policies that would have saved far more lives? The article attributes that (illogical) response to the referenced biases, beginning with our human tendency to “prioritize the readily imaginable over the statistical, the present over the future, and the direct over the indirect.”

In other words, to prioritize emotion over science.

This causes humans to respond more aggressively to threats to identifiable lives, ie, those that an individual can easily imagine being their own (or representing of people they care about such as family members) than to the hidden, “statistical” deaths reported in accounts of the population-level tolls of the crisis. Similarly, psychologists have described efforts to rescue visible, endangered individual lives as a highest priority goal, even if more lives would be saved through alternative responses.

Anyone who has ever wrestled with the Trolley Problem has encountered that bias.

This very human trait is why descriptions of the millions of people killed by the Nazis and the Soviets, or reports of the Rwandan and Chinese genocides–or our own near eradication of Native Americans– are less moving, less likely to cause outrage, than the individual stories that emerge from those and other horrific episodes in human history.

The article also cites “Optimism Bias,” our human tendency to predict optimistic outcomes.

Although early pandemic prediction models considered both best and worst-case outcomes, sound policy would have attempted to minimize mortality by doing everything possible to prevent the worst case results, but human optimism bias led many to act as if the best case was in fact the most likely. President Trump provides one of many good examples of this bias.

There were others: A preference for benefits in the “here and now” to larger benefits in the future,  leading us to place greater value on saving a life today than a life tomorrow, and something called Omission Bias–a desire to avoid an imminent “harm” (like the pain of a vaccination) even when avoiding it is likely to lead to significantly worse results down the road.

It’s one thing to recognize the prevalence of these very human biases. It’s another thing, however, to indulge them–and it is unforgivable to cater to them through public policies rather than basing those policies on medical and scientific knowledge.

If we really want to achieve that first definition of American “exceptionalism,” we will stop denigrating and dismissing scientific and other expertise, stop scorning people who know what they’re doing as “elitists,” and stop electing people. who pander to our biases rather than those willing to base policy decisions on the best information available.


Job Creators or a Tale of Two Big Boxes

There are job creators, and then there are job creators.

Debates about economic policies tend to center on concerns about job creation. Corporate CEOs often argue that raising tax rates or the minimum wage will suppress hiring. (I’ve often wondered why we can’t just offer a tax credit for each job created, rather than keeping rates low and hoping that will translate into additional employment. But I digress.)

The question that is too seldom addressed is: what kind of jobs do we want to incentivize? Because all jobs are not equal–not from the standpoint of the employee, and not from the standpoint of the taxpayer.

A recent study released by Congressional Democrats underlines the issue. According to that study, Walmart’s wages and benefits are so low that many of its employees are forced to turn to the government for aid, costing taxpayers between $900,000 and $1.75 million per store. As Mother Jones reports,

Walmart’s history of suppressing local wages and busting fledgling union efforts is common knowledge. But the Democrats’ new report used data from Wisconsin’s Medicaid program to quantify Walmart’s cost to taxpayers. The report cites a confluence of trends that have forced more workers to rely on safety-net programs: the depressed bargaining power of labor in a still struggling economy; a 97 year low in union enrollment; and the fact that the middle-wage jobs lost during the recession have been replaced by low-wage jobs. The problem of minimum-wage work isn’t confined to Walmart. But as the country’s largest low-wage employer, with about 1.4 million employees in the US—roughly 10 percent of the American retail workforce—Walmart’s policies are a driving force in keeping wages low.

Businesses do not have to be conducted this way. Good jobs that don’t require public support are not inconsistent with  healthy profits. A recent Business Week article reports on the very different business approach taken by Walmart competitor Costco.

Despite the sagging economy and challenges to the industry, Costco pays its hourly workers an average of $20.89 an hour, not including overtime (vs. the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour). By comparison, Walmart said its average wage for full-time employees in the U.S. is $12.67 an hour, according to a letter it sent in April to activist Ralph Nader. Eighty-eight percent of Costco employees have company-sponsored health insurance; Walmart says that “more than half” of its do. Costco workers with coverage pay premiums that amount to less than 10 percent of the overall cost of their plans. It treats its employees well in the belief that a happier work environment will result in a more profitable company. “I just think people need to make a living wage with health benefits,” says Jelinek. “It also puts more money back into the economy and creates a healthier country. It’s really that simple.”

Despite its higher wages and more generous benefits, Costco nets more per square foot than Walmart.

I have increasing numbers of students who believe that all business enterprises are at worst evil and at best unconcerned with anything but the bottom line. They look at Walmart and the many businesses that emulate its rapacious approach; more recently they point to the employers who are cutting workers hours in order to avoid having to provide health insurance under the terms of the Affordable Care Act, and they note the huge disparities between the salaries of CEOs and their employees, and they see those behaviors as an inevitable result of market capitalism. It isn’t.

Costco and many, many other enterprises demonstrate that concern for workers’ welfare is entirely consistent with a healthy bottom line. The problem is not with our markets, it is with our culture, and with public policies that enable and reward despicable behaviors.


Adverse Childhood Experiences

David Brooks’ New York Times column this morning was depressing.

Brooks was discussing academic research that traced a variety of adult anti-social behaviors and failures to cope back to certain “adverse” childhood experiences, including abuse, incarceration of a parent and similar destabilizing experiences.

The link between childhood trauma and adult outcomes was striking. People with an ACE score of 4 were seven times more likely to be alcoholics as adults than people with an ACE score of 0. They were six times more likely to have had sex before age 15, twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer, four times as likely to suffer emphysema. People with an ACE score above 6 were 30 times more likely to have attempted suicide.

Later research suggested that only 3 percent of students with an ACE score of 0 had learning or behavioral problems in school. Among students with an ACE score of 4 or higher, 51 percent had those problems.

There’s more–all linking troubled childhoods to adult dysfunctions, both behavioral and medical.

This is depressing because our ability to intervene productively in an individual’s psyche–the ability of professionals or parents to “kiss it and make it well” is still in its infancy. If the conclusions being drawn from this research are accurate–if the problems reported by the adults are actually caused by the identified childhood traumas, and not just correlated with them–social service agencies and psychologists have a very limited ability to help.

It’s also depressing because–despite all the pious political concern expressed about “families” and the sanctity of each life–our public policies are anything but family-friendly. Forcing women to bear unwanted children raises the odds of unhappy childhoods. (Not to mention the studies–admittedly contested–that have tied easing of the access to abortion to lower crime rates twenty years later.) Punitive welfare policies all but ensure familial stress. Our insane approach to drug prohibition deprives thousands of children of their fathers without any corresponding benefit to society. Demonizing homosexuality torments the childhood of GLBT youngsters, disproportionate numbers of whom commit suicide.

As someone recently said, too many people who claim the label “pro life” are really only “pro birth.” Once the child has emerged from the womb, they lose both  interest and compassion.

We may not be able to cure the effects of “adverse childhood experiences,” but rational public policies could help ameliorate those effects. If we really cared about children and families, a lot of our priorities would change.