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Mark Mellman: Are you happy?

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In this political year, only a lucky few of those streaming out of the nation’s capital this summer are headed for a real vacation, but they are doing so with broad smiles, believing those escapes will bring them happiness. And they might. But what makes us happy according to the research?

While the U.S. is an exceptional country in many ways, we are not exceptionally happy, ranking 11th in the world, ahead of France, Germany, Qatar and Colombia but behind Denmark, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Canada. But beyond their individual personalities and genetic endowments, what makes some people happier than others?

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Money: Money cannot buy happiness, but poverty tends to bring misery. Poor countries are relatively unhappy, and poor individuals in rich countries aren’t very happy either. But after a certain point, more money doesn’t bring more happiness. Those who cannot afford food, medicine or shelter can’t be expected to be happy. On the other end of the spectrum, Arnold Schwarzenegger noted that he was no happier with $50 million in the bank than with $48 million. A $2 million increase in his wealth had no impact on his happiness — a finding borne out in analyses involving much smaller amounts and much smaller net worths.

It’s also true, at least for the U.S., on the national level. Since 1960 our per capita economy has tripled, but we are not happier at all. Perhaps disappointingly, relative income — how you compare to others around you — is more important than what you can afford for yourself.  

Employment: Having a job makes people a lot happier than not having one, separate and apart from earnings. Indeed, what’s most important about work is job security, autonomy, opportunity for advancement and engaging in work one finds interesting.  

Trust: Whether we trust our fellow citizens and our institutions, including government, plays a significant role in happiness, with higher levels of trust leading to greater happiness. It’s worth noting that perceptions of trust are correlated with actual trustworthiness, according to at least one important line of research. Experimenters dropped wallets with cash and the owners’ name and address in 15 countries, including the U.S. The percentage of returned wallets was closely related to answers about trust given in response to survey questions. 

Freedom: The perceived ability to choose the course of one’s own life is strongly related to happiness.

Religion: When and where life is tough, religious people are happier. When and where things are pretty easy, religion seems to matter less. Religious communities are particularly important in providing more “friends you can count on” and in giving people a sense that their lives have meaning — perceptions that in turn affect happiness. 

Values: Several key values, like the presence of altruism and the absence of materialism, are also related to happiness. Giving to others literally excites the reward centers in our brains. At the same time, people who care more about money are less likely to be happy.

Family: Marriage is one of the most important determinants of happiness. Kids? Not so much (mine excepted, of course). 

Reading over this list, it’s clear why America’s happiness is isn’t chart-topping, or even increasing. Rising inequality leaves most people seeing themselves as falling behind while economic shifts have meant lower levels of job security. While inequality is rising, trust has fallen to record lows — and not just trust in government. We trust each other far less than we used to as well. Religion and marriage are waning while unemployment has been waxing, until recently.

So go ahead, have a great vacation, but know in the end it’s not what will really make you happy. To that end, come back ready to make you and your country happier by recreating economic stability, reducing inequality, modeling good values, inspiring trust and making America’s political system work again. 

 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.