As if the “war on Christmas” was not enough to darken the season, psychologists have just released data that should really make you want to spike your eggnog. A new study on happiness seems to point to the conclusion that life is inherently unfair.
The study turns conventional wisdom on its head by concluding that success, rather than being the means to our happiness, is rather the result of it. That is, the happier you are, the more likely you will be successful in your work and in your relationships.
Moreover, according to James Maddox of George Mason University, the research concludes “that between 50 to 70 percent of the variation in people as to their level of happiness over time is genetically determined.”
The lead researcher of this work, Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, cautions that this doesn’t mean happiness and success are exclusively genetically determined. However, according to the professor, genes make it easier.
In other words, we now find out, several hundred years after Thomas Jefferson wrote that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are among the unalienable rights with which we are endowed by our creator, that the dice are loaded. Our creator may have endowed us all with the right to pursue happiness, but the happy genes were distributed unequally, so the pursuit by some is a more formidable task than for others.
To think that we blacks thought that once the race thing was straightened out, the playing field would be leveled.
Even before the arrival of this sobering news about genetically predetermined happiness, questions were arising about the rigor of the American dream of pursuing happiness.
In a book published last year, “The Progress Paradox,” New Republic columnist Greg Easterbrook reported that despite notable material progress on every front _ economic well being, health, and environment _ surveys indicate that Americans are no happier today than 50 years ago. Indeed, according to Easterbrook’s data, the percentage of Americans reporting that they are “very happy” actually declined slightly over the last half century.
A series of unrelated articles that appeared in the Wall Street Journal over the last week seems to verify the state of affairs described by Easterbrook.
In an op-ed column entitled the “Great American Dream Machine,” economists Stephen Moore and Lincoln Anderson take data from new Census Bureau and Federal Reserve Board reports on the well-being of American families and conclude that, over the past 30 years, “the vast majority of families have experienced a rapid growth in their income and wealth.”
And, according to the column, “… it’s not just the rich that are getting richer. Virtually every income group has been lifted by the tide of growth in recent decades.” The percentage of American families earning less than $50,000 has dropped by almost 30 percent, and the number of families earning more than $75,000 has tripled.
Yet, despite the “dream machine,” the headline of another nearby column laments “Americans Feel More Isolated Less Empowered, Poll Shows.” According to the “Alienation index” constructed by the Harris Poll and monitored by them since the 1960s, more than half of Americans today, by measure of this index, are “alienated.” This compares with 29 percent in 1966 when they started the survey.
But, don’t quit your job yet. There’s more to consider here.
Although there seems to be little correlation between material improvement and increased happiness, there are other factors that do correlate with feeling happier.
Easterbrook reports that behavior associated with forgiveness, gratitude and altruism increases an individual sense of happiness.
Psychological studies, reported by Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University, conclude that people “who donate to charity are 40percent more likely to say they are ‘very happy’ than nondonors.” In fact, these studies show that donors of charity benefit more in well-being than the recipients.
So, Jefferson did not delude us by canonizing the pursuit of happiness as a pillar of American culture. Restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo are key to improving our lives and the world. An element of unhappiness drives us forward.
But happiness comes when the object of our pursuit goes beyond ourselves.
So, amid our annual holiday bantering and bickering, a truth does indeed emerge. It’s in the giving and not in the getting. The bounty of heaven is there for those who serve their fellow man.
We Americans have so much for which to be grateful and so much to give. Let’s keep our perspective on this.
That’s the “reason for the season.”
A Happy New Year to all.
Star Parker is president of CURE, Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education (www.urbancure.org) and author of “Uncle Sam’s Plantation”