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On the happiness meter, Americans are doing well

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By Kevin Huffman
Saturday, December 26, 2009

Conventional wisdom seems to be that this decade was a somewhat shoddy start to the millennium. We watched multiple unsustainable bubbles deflate before our eyes (tech stocks, home values, Tiger Woods). And, as many commentators have been eager to remind us this week, we close the year with higher debt, fewer jobs and deep political divisions.

Yet a glimmer of hope persists: We are, as a country, remarkably happy.

Last week's AP-Gfk poll showed that 78 percent of Americans, when asked to "think about how things are going in your life in general," said they are very happy or somewhat happy.

Despite the deluge of depressing national data this year, one might reasonably ask: How should we measure ourselves, if not by our happiness?

Indeed, philosophers have grappled with this question since before there was a Christmas. Aristotle said: "Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence." Our founding fathers listed its pursuit as one of our inalienable rights.

More recently, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that national well-being be measured alongside gross domestic product. And a growing academic field of behavioral and social science researchers have turned their attention to the age-old questions. What is happiness? What makes us happy? How do we know?

In the current issue of Science magazine, Andrew Oswald and Stephen Wu ranked states by the happiness of their residents, finding that people are happiest in Louisiana and least happy in New York. (D.C. slotted in at an underwhelming No. 37; Virginia at 27 and Maryland at 40.)

While the rankings drew the most attention, the purpose of the study was to look at whether subjective assessments -- how we rate our own happiness -- should be trusted. Using a wealth of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oswald and Wu looked at the subjective assessments of happiness (on a one-to-four scale) of 1.3 million U.S. residents. Then they compared the results against objective quality-of-life assessments of different states (concerns such as weather, access to green spaces, violent crime and cost of living). The results correlated: People in states that are objectively nice places to live rate themselves as happier. Ergo, when people say they are happy, they probably are.

But do we know what makes us happy?

"That's a good question," Wu said in a telephone interview this week, pointing to the quality-of-life indicators as a good starting point. Later, as I was looking out at my post-blizzard yard, Oswald told me: "I've frozen myself in Michigan and New York and basked in warm states, and I have a sense that it matters."

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of two books on happiness, doesn't buy weather or other external factors, including money, as real drivers of happiness. In his interpretation, the state rankings reflect political viewpoints -- each of the bottom 10 states on the happy meter voted for Obama in 2008. Brooks also points to research showing that 44 percent of conservatives are "very happy," but only 25 percent of liberals describe themselves that way. He says half of the difference, statistically, is lifestyle -- mostly rates of marriage and religious worship -- and half is attitude.

None of these drivers is particularly helpful to me. I won't be voting Republican or moving to Louisiana in the near future (though, after hearing a friend use "joie de vivre" to explain Louisiana's top ranking, maybe I should reconsider). But I am among the 78 percent of happy Americans, which leads me to ponder what more, exactly, we are striving for.

Tal Ben-Shahar, who teaches positive psychology at Harvard and has written extensively on happiness, calls it "the end toward which all other ends lead." He writes: "Wealth, fame, admiration and all other goals are subordinate and secondary to happiness; whether our desires are material or social, they are means toward one end: happiness."

This year was a near-constant assault on the senses from people confusing means with ends. Bernie Madoff, Balloon Boy, Mark Sanford, the Salahis, Tiger Woods. It is easy to view them all as representative of our culture, a fitting end to a rotten decade.

And yet most of us aren't, in fact, bilking or scheming or faking or aspiring to reality TV. If happiness is the point, four in five Americans already are on the right track, and that should make all of us more optimistic about the decade to come.

The writer won The Post's America's Next Great Pundit contest.


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