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C'mon, get happy, Washington

As official Washington enjoys its annual summer break, it seems appropriate to reflect on what it is that makes us happy.

This ground is well-trod by social scientists, including my former teacher Robert Lane in his book, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies.

As official Washington enjoys its annual summer break, it seems appropriate to reflect on what it is that makes us happy.

This ground is well-trod by social scientists, including my former teacher Robert Lane in his book, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies.

Lane identifies a paradox “of apparently growing unhappiness in the midst of increasingly plenty.” In the past half-century Americans have grown much wealthier but are no happier and by some measures much less so.

There is no doubting our material progress. Take one measurement, fraught with meaning for those who lived through Washington’s past week. In the past 40 years, the number of homes with air conditioning nationwide leapt from just 15 percent to nearly 75 percent. Real incomes, too, have risen, and along with them the level of our material possessions. But we have become no happier.

What shocks economists would not surprise Thomas Jefferson, who consciously substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for Locke’s pursuit of “property.”

Money does not buy happiness. The poor are certainly less satisfied than the rich, but above a basic level of income the differences start to fade. Whether we look at individuals or nations, the rich are no happier than the middle class.

A New Yorker cartoon captured the sentiment, albeit in exaggerated fashion. “The country Grandpa comes from,” he reports to his grandchildren, “was a stinking hellhole of unspeakable poverty where everyone was always happy.”

Yet our society is geared to increasing our wealth on the false presumption that these material gains will be reflected in higher levels of happiness. Two central mechanisms short-circuit the connection.

First, we make judgments by comparison. If everyone else is getting richer too, we don’t feel any better off. Second, we quickly take our gains for granted. Over the years, what people told Gallup that they thought was the minimum a family needed to get by changed with real income. People’s requirements adjust quickly to their higher living standards.

Well, if beyond poverty money doesn’t bring happiness, what does? Though, as the Beatles opined, “money can’t buy me love,” love is one currency of happiness.

Human beings are social creatures by nature. We crave the affection of family and friends. Lane argues that companionship — with friends, spouses and children — is the prime source of happiness.

Surveys have asked respondents to rate their happiness while engaging in various activities. People report they are by far happiest while having sex — an activity usually requiring companionship. “Socializing” ranks next on the list. Working and commuting are at the bottom. Yet, we spend more time working than having sex or even socializing.

Similarly, people purport to be happiest interacting with friends, relatives, spouses and children. Being with the boss is least enjoyable, ranking behind even being alone.

Unemployment has a profound negative effect on happiness, with the loss of the job more important than the loss of income. As social beings, we want to feel we are valued by peers and contributing to something larger. Job loss damages self-respect, along with networks of interpersonal relationships.

The importance of attachment to something larger is also evident in the pivotal role religion plays in happiness. That is not to say that nonbelievers are unhappy, but on average, those who believe in God are considerably happier than those who do not, other things being equal.

Personal freedom is also makes an important contribution. The most miserable people on earth were citizens of then-communist dictatorships.

Other factors, such as health, also play their roles.

So after taking a few days off with friends and family during these closing weeks of summer, let’s all get back to work as quickly as we can.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.