Gross National Happiness
Arthur C. Brooks
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Buy *Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America - and How We Can Get More of It* by Arthur C. Brooks online

Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America - and How We Can Get More of It
Arthur C. Brooks
Basic Books
277 pages
April 2008
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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This book about America and Americans, subtitled "Why Happiness Matters for America - and How We Can Get More of It," is written by Arthur C. Brooks, a professor of business and government policy, previous author of Who Really Cares (he also plays the French horn). He has reached a conclusion that he amplifies in this latest book, making no bones about it: conservative Americans are happier than liberal Americans.

The title comes from the announced intent of the government of the tiny nation of Bhutan to quantify its success as a country by measuring what it calls "gross national happiness." Unfortunately for the broader picture, Bhutan is an extremely authoritarian regime which doles out happiness from the governmental font, rather than allowing its citizens to seek it on their own ways. As Americans, we have all been taught that what counts, what indeed distinguishes us from other nations, is that we are allowed to pursue happiness, all the way to the top of the pinnacle.

Brooks is not a primarily partisan surveyor. He is an academic, and there was a time in his life when he really didn't know many conservatives. He recognizes that there may be people at any strata of society, across any parameters one might care to name, who are not happy, and those on the opposing team to the winners he has posited who are perfectly happy. But he makes some compelling points about what constitutes happiness and why certain people are more likely to be happy.

For example, marriage makes people happy. This is a statistical fact - "married people from nearly all political groups are nearly twice as likely as single to say they are happy." And conservatives are more likely to be married than liberals. A second important component of happiness is religion. People who profess to a religious belief are statistically happier than those who don't, and again, conservative Americans greatly outnumber liberals in terms of actual weekly church/temple/meeting attendance. But please take note, political extremists on either end of the spectrum are miserable - how can you be happy when you're feeling embattled and plotting to rid the world of your enemies (or just hoping they'll be converted to your way of thinking, and feeling bilious when they aren't)?

Perhaps most important, since we are a nation that, in the scornful opinion of the Europeans, "lives to work" (rather working to live), is our perception of ourselves as workers. Employed people are happier. This is an inescapable conclusion. It seems that there are two myths about wealth that all statistical surveys tear down. The first is that once having acquired wealth, people will have attained happiness and will simply wallow in their good fortune thereafter. The second is that money per se can buy happiness.

The author poses the question, "Have you ever wondered why rich entrepreneurs continue to work so hard?" When I read that question I immediately thought of the owners of the company my husband works for. Two brothers, they inherited their large asphalt paving business from their father and grandfather. It was floundering when they took over and they built it up to a highly successful multi-county business. They are executives with total authority. Yet their greatest pleasure seems to be riding around on trucks and tractors of various kinds, delivering cement and supervising the pouring of asphalt. They are rarely found on a golf course, rarely take vacations. The reason, according to Brooks, is that we tend to repeat the actions that make us feel good, the actions that bring us success. For these two men, having been pavers from an early age, they simply enjoy paving. Money may be a measure of their success, but as Brooks points out, it's only a measure. Even that great American liberal, FDR, stated that "Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort." This is why Brooks has proposed one of his nine "rules": We should celebrate our work, not impose greater leisure.

As a measure of happiness, money can serve us well. If we get a bonus or a raise, we fell better about ourselves. It also increases our general optimism. Most disgruntled will be those employees whose salary level is static, who have no reason to believe that they can get ahead. Even workers at the low end of the scale tend to feel happier when everyone is doing well economically, if they have any reason to believe that they can "move on up to the big time." Just knowing that Bill Gates has succeeded can make us feel more cheerful if we think that "he simply had a lot of opportunities and made the most of them." Another of Brooks' rules: We must look for ways to promote opportunity, not economic equality.

Other rules for fostering happiness in the world according to Brooks include:

  • Right or left, political extremism is bad for our nation's happiness.
  • America must defend its tradition of religious faith.
  • Family life must be protected.
Brooks builds his case with many thoughtful examples and supports it with a copious appendix of statistics. If there was to be a plan formulated for American "gross national happiness," this book would be a sensible starting place for constructing it.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2008

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