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The Pursuit of Happiness

September 20, 2011

Happy Smiley FaceWe hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” –United States Declaration of Independence

The problem with this (brilliant) statement is how you measure and promote happiness. A constitutional scholar will probably argue that the founders intended this to refer to property. Other contemporary formulations used that kind of verbiage, after and Jefferson et al tended to agree with that kind of idea. But one economist today, Carol Graham has dedicated her career to exploring exactly what the pursuit of happiness really entails. Even though it’s a little out of the field of sociology, landing somewhere between social psychology, health studies, and economics, I’m going to tackle her new book (titled, drum roll please… The Pursuit of Happiness) here in terms of its implications both for national policy and for religious leaders.

First of all, the question should be asked: what in the world is an economist doing studying happiness? In case you have not made the acquaintance of any, I have, and can tell you that they like numbers. A lot. They like hard data like gross national product, unemployment rates, and the natural log of personal income (as opposed to the Duraflame). So why happiness?

Well, apparently there is a movement afoot, lead by the associates of a certain economist who shall remain nameless (but whose book is reviewed on this page), to find out what causes happiness and satisfaction and integrate these measures of “subjective well-being” into national policy debates. In other words, in addition to a measure of gross national product, government reports might have another number call gross national happiness.

While you might be tempted to write this off as over-the-top or nanny-state-ism, consider this for a second. Graham and company have found a whole slough of correlates of happiness, ranging from income to health care, and all are generally things we like to encourage. But by using happiness data, we can discuss things like the amount of extra income it takes to recover the lost happiness from getting laid off or losing your home. It’s common sense that losing your job costs more than just the money you lose, but now there is a way to quantify that and consider the true costs of these events when crafting policy.

More useful than that to religious leaders is this: Graham has developed a theory of happiness and life satisfaction based on her research that has broad-ranging implications for understanding the ways in which religion and faith provide support to practitioners and others.

In a nutshell, here it is: People can be happy in almost any conditions as long as:
A) Their conditions are stable and
B) They have little hope of mobility.

No, wait, that can’t be right… The great insight is that it’s ok that you scrape by in the war-torn desert of Afghanistan and I have an iPhone mount in my shiny new Hummer? No.

Here’s why: that metric of happiness accounts for only short-term contentment. Ask someone a question like “How satisfied are you with your life?” or even “Compare your life to the best possible life” and you in fact often get a different answer.

You see, Jeremy Bentham had a theory of what he called hedonic utility, which basically stated that we should make as many people as happy (content, etc) as possible. In that way, Afghans can be happy with their life, Tanzanians can be happier with their healthcare than Americans, and so on.

Aristotle, who lived long before Bentham, had a different theory of happiness, related more closely to the ideas of agency and free will. It had more to do with having power over your life, to choose how you live and what’s important to you.

People can be happy without agency, but it is less likely that they would sit back and say, yeah, having no control over my life is the best thing I can imagine. And the data bear that out. And then you say: “That’s great. You’ve convinced that if I was in congress I might care. But I’m not.”

Don’t sell yourself short. It matters as much if not more for churches, and here’s why. There is not only material content (i.e. happiness) to this discussion but a theological content (free will). From a Christian theological perspective, the less personal agency a person has, the less they resemble God and the more they resemble animals. The reformations reflected this insight- they were essentially about giving the people a place as producers of their own faiths, not just passive consumers of theology. Bible reading and sermons which taught listeners to reason all point to the importance of agency.

By this measure, you can think about and evaluate how worship is organized and content is taught. On the one hand, you have happy Benthamite Afghans. They come together to be encouraged and supported in their present situation. Joel Osteen’s message of prosperity is an extreme example of this in the context of American culture. If you ask “What are most Americans already trying to do?” and then compare Osteen’s message, they line up.

By contrast, Martin Luther King Jr taught a very different type of message. Read (or better, listen) to some of his sermons and speeches and you will quickly discover the copious exhortations to actively seek change in the status quo, all supported by biblical references. One of his great messages was that all Americans must seek to have a measure of freedom and control in their own lives and in the life of the nation, regardless of their background. Aristotle would be proud.

That is not to say that Osteen doesn’t encourage people to improve their lives. All you have to do is watch an interview with him or read any of his books to see he believes God has great plans to prosper you. Nor is it to say that King did not seek to provide comfort to his parishioners; he was a pastor in every sense of the word. But if you compare results, King clearly made more people uncomfortable and Osteen did less to promote the long-term advancement of human self-determination.

Graham’s ideas about politics could equally well be made about churches with a little modification. After wrestling with data, philosophy, and political theory, she comes to the conclusion that (assuming a few basic conditions of subsistence are met) the government’s job is not to make us happy. But it has a vital role in promoting agency.

Whether you use her words or call it something else like living into your potential or having the freedom to exercise your free will, happiness in full is more than just contentment. It is a challenge to nations, to people, and to faith leaders.

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