Gross National Happiness by Arthur Brooks is a book about measuring happiness and the author’s views on what correlates with happiness. Brooks is the head of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. The book is interesting because it is about trying to measure happiness, something that has not been a great concern of the right in general until recently.
The measurement of happiness that Brooks uses is to ask people if they are happy on a scale of 1-7. He states that this correlates well with MRI measurements of happiness and that in large enough surveys it works well as a measure. This data has been measured for some time and provides a time series of what has happened in the US. The answer is that little has changed, about 1/3 of the population is very happy and about 1/8 is not too happy. Brooks looks at this around the world and comes to the conclusion that the US is happier than the rest of the world with Americans enjoying more years of happiness than citizens of other countries.
After talking about measuring happiness the book has two sections; The Culture of Happiness and The Economics of Happiness followed by a conclusion.
In the first section the book looks at non-economic things that correlate with happiness. The first, and perhaps most controversial and the one leading to most attacks on the book, is that US conservatives are happier than US liberals. Even after correcting for other factors conservatives are happier. People with strong political views are also happier than those without. The next subject he looks at is religion. People who regularly attend a religious gathering are happier than those who don’t. People who are married are also happier than those who are not, even if people are cohabiting. Children make little difference to happiness levels. Friends correlate very strongly with happiness.
The second part looks at the economics of happiness. Money makes some difference to happiness, but not that much. Being unemployed correlates very strongly with being unhappy. Apparently having a job with long hours also correlates with happiness. Brooks goes even further to suggest that European lengths of holidays make Europeans unhappy, according to him Americans choose to work long hours without holidays and would not choose otherwise even if they could. The use of money that correlates with being happier is giving to charity. Americans don’t mind inequality as long as there is a path to getting richer. Brooks omitted to state that inter-generational wealth mobility had changed significantly between the US and Europe in the last 30-40 years. In the past Europe had less mobility while today the situation has changed.
Brooks concludes with 9 points about how happiness should be enhanced. These are; that political extremism is bad, religion must be defended, family life must be defended, freedom should be expanded (though perhaps with fewer wars, although this is unclear), success should be a national priority, opportunity not equality should be pushed, work should be celebrated , no greater leisure should be imposed, Americans should be encouraged to donate to charity, limited government is critical.
The book is well worth reading, especially for those on the Left. The book’s conclusions are somewhat dubious but many of the facts presented within, even should they be shown to be false, are worth looking at. The correlation between religious attendence and happiness is very interesting. It would be worth looking at how attendance of different services correlated with happiness. Given that the book and other studies have noted how important other people are it may be that the important thing is the religious community rather than the beliefs.
The book comes to the conclusion that what makes people happy is what the American Enterprise Institute recommends that makes it somewhat suspicious. But the book is a serious attempt by someone on the right to look at happiness and try and measure it and try to work out what can be done to make people happier. It is surely better than surveys that indicate that Nigeria is the happiest place on the planet. Hopefully with further study more will come to light.