Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tracking Down Happiness

I know it isn’t true but I like to believe that everyone’s memories of when they were the age of my grandsons, 6 and 8, are some of the happiest of their lives, as were mine.

The happiness about which I speak is more “what psychologists call a trait, not a state – a person’s typical emotional experience, not fleeting responses to events” as described by Dr. Richard J. Davidson in his new book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, co-authored with Sharon Begley.

Unfortunately, when I was the age of my grandsons back in the 1950s, happiness, as it has been scientifically measured from year to year across the entire population, peaked in America.  That’s a tidbit from The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, by former Harvard University president Derek Bok.

In an effort to really put today’s headlines about disparity in context though, I go back 100 years.

During the declining years of President Theodore Roosevelt’s life, a statistician at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Willford Isbell King published a fascinating retrospective entitled The Wealth and Income of the People of the United States.

In part, Dr. King analyzed statistics available in 1913.  This was the year after the “anti-trust-enforcing” President lost a third-party bid to regain the White House.  It was the latter part of what we now call The Progressive Era.

It was also in the wake of the Gilded Age of super-rich such as Rockefeller, Mellon, Carnegie, Flagler, Rogers, Morgan, Vanderbilt , Astor and Duke.  It also marked the end of a 60 year period of natural devastation in America including two-thirds of the deforestation that has taken place over the last 400 years.

Dr. King computed back then that the richest 1 percent accounted for 18 percent of the nation's income. Today, the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation's income, according to Timothy Noah, author of The Great Divergence.

Noah and Matt Yglesias have conducted a insightful multi-part virtual dialogue this week on Slate about why we should care about the divergence.

I’m intrigued by why we seemed happier in the 1950s according to scientific measures.  Coming out of the Great Depression and WWII, we shared a sense of common purpose and we didn’t mind paying higher taxes in exchange for the common good and policies not for the wealth and big business as they do today but out of determination to grow the middle class.

I get that. I also understand and agree with the TED speech Tuesday by Harvard conducted that reveal that money per se doesn’t bring happiness but it is closely associated with using it to help others.

We seem to have replaced the incessant debate about “nature” or “nurture” that was so prevalent back when I went to college in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s with one today about whether growing gaps in equality between groups are driven by “economics” or a break-down of “culture.”

It is hard to argue with author Richard Heinberg, who wrote The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality when he blogged about Bok’s book, wondering why our overall happiness has declined while:

“During the past 35 years, per capita income has grown almost 60 percent, the average new home has become 50 percent larger, the number of cars has ballooned by 120 million, and the proportion of families owning personal computers has gone from zero to 80 percent.”

I also understand and accept in part the premise of Charles Murray’s recent book Coming Apart which points to cultural issues.

But these two choices are far too blunt to provide a lens through which to understand what we do going forward.  I became a devote of the late  James Q. Wilson when asked in the mid-1990s by the Durham Crime Cabinet to  report on his then well-proven Broken Windows approach to reducing and curbing criminal behavior.

Today, nearly every community dabbles at an aspect or two of the Broken Windows theory, as Durham does, but those who have adopted it as an overarching strategy understand what Wilson grasped, that some social ills, such as crime, are not just individual choices but what columnist David Brooks terms as part of a “social psychology.”

I highly recommend a reading of Wilson’s 1985 14-page essay The Rediscovery of Character: Private Virtue and Public Policy.  Viewed through the retrospective of someone like Wilson who had passionately advocated for pieces of our social safety net provides a much clearer view that the solution is probably both/and not either/or.

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