How to find happiness, and promote policies that encourage it
It’s the least wonderful time of the year. Just a few weeks into 2014, and a fifth of Americans have already cheated on their New Year’s resolutions, according to a recent poll. Nearly half the country didn’t make it that far — 46 percent abandoned their resolutions before they could even start them. And to top it all off, research indicates that only 8 percent of us will have kept our resolutions come the end of the year.
At least there’s some good news. After decades of study, social scientists finally have an answer to that age-old question: What really makes us happy?
It doesn’t seem like good news at first. After accounting for genetics and the short-lived impact of recent events, it turns out that only 12 percent of happiness remains under our control. But if we focus on the right things, this 12 percent can have a profound impact on our lives.
Data show that four basic values have the biggest influence on our happiness: faith, family, community and work. The first three are no surprise. Studies consistently demonstrate that people of faith — any faith — are consistently happier. Ditto for family life, which trumps loneliness any day of the week. And try convincing someone that friendships and community involvement aren’t worth their time.
But work? At first blush, our jobs seem likelier to reduce happiness than promote it.
Yet the General Social Survey disagrees. More than half of Americans report being “very” or “completely” satisfied with their work. Add in “fairly” satisfied, and that number increases to over 80 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment proves disastrous for happiness. From laid-off workers to lottery winners, countless studies show that people who lack vocation are dramatically less happy. (Retirement, in case you’re wondering, is a mixed bag: While some get happier, others do not.)
This is not about money. It’s about the profound personal rewards that only earned success can bring.
In other words, the secret to happiness through work is earned success. It is deeply satisfying to apply our skills and create value in our lives and in the lives of others. No wonder Americans who feel successful in the workplace are twice as likely to say that they’re happy overall.
This means economic opportunity is critical. That’s what enables us to find the job that suits our skills — hedge funds, hedge trimming, or something in between — and advance through hard work. Opportunity is the gateway to a key source of human happiness.
In 1980, more than 20 percent of Americans in the bottom income quintile could expect to break into the middle class within 10 years. Today, that number has fallen to 15 percent. Increasingly, Americans at the bottom are stuck at the bottom. This is not some mere economic inefficiency. It is a moral tragedy.
The solution to this opportunity crisis lies in the principles of free enterprise — individual liberty, equal opportunity, entrepreneurship and self-reliance. In the past two decades, societies built on these pillars have lifted more than a billion people out of starvation-level poverty. No greater engine of opportunity has ever existed. And as these principles erode at home, social and economic mobility have shrunk.
Unfortunately, many economists believe free enterprise has slowly declined in America over recent decades, which explains the falling opportunity levels among the poor.
The right policies can reverse this trend. We need schools that put children’s civil rights ahead of adults’ job security. We need to encourage job creation for the most marginalized and declare war on barriers to entrepreneurship at all levels. And we need to revive our moral appreciation for the cultural elements of success.
Earned success is the secret to happiness, and only renewing our spirit of free enterprise will give every American an equal opportunity to pursue it. Only then will we have the fullest personal control over our own happiness. That’s why fighting for free enterprise is a New Year’s resolution worth keeping.
Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. His video, “The Secret to Happiness,” can be found at www.aei.org.
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