It is likely the most important, yet most illusive goal one can pursue. Different strategies for achieving it have been passionately debated throughout the ages. The goal: achieving lasting happiness.
What makes people happy? Which, if any, factors are universal across all races, genders, and locations? The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof explored this issue in his Op-Ed column, irresistibly titled, “Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving.” Borrowing examples from University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, he poses the question, “who would you rather trade places with?”
First up is Richard: “an ambitious 36-year-old white commodities trader in Florida. He’s healthy and drop-dead handsome, lives alone in a house with a pool, and has worked his way through a series of gorgeous women.”
Next is Lorna: “a 64-year-old black woman in Boston. She’s overweight and unattractive, even after a recent nose job. Lorna is on regular dialysis, but that doesn’t impede her active social life or babysitting her grandchildren. A retired school assistant, she is close to her 67-year-old husband and is much respected in her church for directing the music committee and the semiannual blood drive.”
The somewhat predictable outcome is that Lorna is more likely to live the happier life. As you may already know, our class spent the beginning of the semester reading Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, in which he argues vehemently for the positive impacts of social capital. Putnam argues social capital creates a positive impact in all areas of people’s lives, including the social, political, and economic realms. Looking into recent studies on happiness in different groups, the data seems to suggest Putnam was right (at least when it comes to happiness).
Moving across the NYTimes website to the Freakonomics blog, we are shown some interesting and pleasing findings on happiness inequality: the gaps in race and gender are shrinking. The gap between those with more education and those with less education appears to be widening, but this fits with our expectations based on Putnam’s social capital arguments. The benefits of higher education are myriad: a better functioning democracy, a better understanding of the world and each other, more fulfilling careers and countless others. Let’s be sure not to forget one of the most important and often overlooked benefits: happiness.
If you’re interested in reading more, Jonathan Haidt’s book on the subject can be found here: The Happiness Hypothesis.