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The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness

(Clicking any of the underlined text in blue will take you to a reference on it.)

The 1776 Declaration of Independence summarized government’s purpose as follows: to secure for citizens the “Rights” of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Public responsibility to foster individual happiness were fleshed out by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union address, also known as the “Four Freedoms” speech, where Roosevelt said governments should act to secure freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This post argues that the “freedom from want” component of “happiness” should be limited to satisfaction of a person’s reasonable minimum needs for food, shelter and basic amenities. Government can’t be helpful if everyone’s happiness depends on satisfaction of “I want to be be a billionaire” fantasies and on the dreamer’s getting a billionaire’s disproportionate share of all society’s goods and services.

Fortunately psychologists and economists are producing evidence that life satisfaction is only loosely correlated with income and wealth, once basic needs are met. California economist Richard A. Easterlin has studied societies and written articles with titles like “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence.” He offers evidence in his 2011 book, “Happiness, Growth and the Life Cycle,” that happiness at a national level does not increase with more wealth once core material needs are fulfilled. Easterlin studied survey data on Chinese “satisfaction with life” as it changed during the 1990-2011 period in which the Chinese material standard of living quadrupled, an amazing climb in wealth. Data showed that happiness declined while China moved from an inefficient socialist economy, but one which provided high levels of security, to a free-market economy which produced wealth along with unaccustomed, unwelcome shocks – unemployment, lost benefits, worries about job security. Closer to home, psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and professor Michael Norton analyzed Gallup data collected from almost a half million American households which indicated that higher household incomes were associated with more life satisfaction, but only up to a household income of about $75,000 (New York Times, “Don’t  Indulge, Be Happy,” 7/8/12).  As the Beatles sang, “Money can’t buy me love” – even rich guys get divorced.

The presidential campaign is focused on who can best grow the economy, with everyone apparently assuming that a growing economy in itself will increase American happiness. The Easterlin and Gallup data show that more stuff and more happiness do not necessarily go together. If national government’s overall purpose is to increase the national happiness total, a wiser course is stronger job and income supports to reduce the pain and anxiety of involuntary unemployment – possibly recutting the economic pie instead of the current one-trick-pony strategy of growing it. A roadblock is the top-one-percent family which rejects any soft notion that wealth doesn’t produce happiness, and fears anything which threatens its own wealth. Fear produces unhappiness and may generate effective political contributions-lobbying to candidates and office holders who promise to keep the money rolling in.

Image by Original by Thomas Jefferson et al.; Engraving & fascimile by William J. Stone (1798-1865). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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