How to be happy in a toxic environment

After all, he launched his 1968 presidential campaign by promising to pursue “the politics of happiness.”

 And even though his pledge soon rang hollow in one of the most turbulent and divisive elections in American history, which he lost by a razor-thin margin to Richard Nixon, the late Minnesota Democrat undoubtedly would have found solace in Derek Bok’s scholarly The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn From the New Research on Well-Being.

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 But I suspect even the eternally optimistic Humphrey would have wondered how, in view of the current toxic environment of partisan gridlock in Washington and voters’ widespread loss of faith in Congress and the political process, Bok’s analysis of scientific research on human happiness can help lawmakers promote the nation’s well-being.

 Indeed, I found myself wondering whether the former president of Harvard’s book raises more questions than it answers, or at least raises an awful lot of questions that have a perplexing multitude of answers.

 For example, Bok writes of the difficulty of measuring something as personal and abstract as human happiness. He cites the efforts of political theorists from Thomas Jefferson, who included the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, to Jeremy Bentham, who sought to reduce policymaking to a process of mathematical calculation.

 “In the last 35 years, however, psychologists and economists … have tried to overcome the problems of measuring happiness by the simple device of asking people directly how pleasant and disagreeable they find particular activities throughout their day or by inquiring how satisfied … they are overall with the lives they are leading.”

 Their efforts have led to four “especially thought-provoking findings [because they] depart in intriguing ways from conventional wisdom,” Bok writes. They are:

 • That average levels of happiness in the United States have risen very little, if at all, over the past 50 years, despite substantial growth in per capita income.

 • That people are often surprisingly bad judges of what will make them happy.

 • That the growing inequality in the U.S. over the past 35 years has not made Americans more dissatisfied.

 • That there is no correlation between the percentage of gross national income that governments devote to social welfare programs and the happiness, health or longevity of the populations involved.

 Such findings, Bok declares, raises questions “about several widely held beliefs with respect to the proper goals and priorities of government.”

 “If happiness has changed so little over decades of increasing prosperity, does it make much sense for public officials to attach such importantance to economic growth as a measure of the nation’s progress? If people are such poor judges of what will give them lasting satisfaction, should conservatives continue to extol the virtues of free markets and consumer choice in promoting the welfare of the population? At the same time, if poor Americans are undisturbed by the growth of inequality in recent years, should liberals worry so much about the distribution of income in America and press so strongly for progressive taxes and expensive government programs to benefit the sick, the needy, and the unemployed?”

 Bok attempts to answer these questions in the next 200 pages while discussing a long list of findings by happiness researchers that reached “one strikingly reassuring conclusion. By and large, the experiences and conditions associated with people’s happiness are almost all ones that most Americans approve of heartily: strong marriages, close friendships, acts of charity and community service, feelings of good health, religious faith, and a stable democracy with a responsive, effective, accountable government.”

 But as I read this challenging and provocative book, I kept thinking of what Bok said in November 1995, during a visit to The Hill while spending two months at the Brookings Institution studying Congress.

 He said he was puzzled and disturbed by the fact that Congress has “never been held in lower esteem, and often produces results that are disappointing,” especially in addressing major societal problems. He characterized Congress as “a group of people who are the best our society has to offer, yet in the view of the American people, they don’t seem to be reaching close to the kind of results we want.”

 As the French saying goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they remain the same.