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Losing the keys to happiness

Published March 6, 2005

What do people need to feel happy? In his new book on happiness, British economist Richard Layard posits some intriguing theories about what makes us feel content and live a more enjoyable life.

Standards of living in the United States have more than doubled in the past 50 years. We are healthier, own larger homes and enjoy many modern comforts like air conditioning that were out-of-reach luxuries or not invented decades ago, but Layard's book, Happiness: Lessons From a New Science, says we are not, as a whole, happier.

It turns out, according to the author, that people tend to measure success by looking at those around them. Keeping up with the Joneses is killing our inner peace. Even as we acquire luxury items, the other guy has more. Layard calls it a "hedonic treadmill."

But there are other forces at work beyond our own affluenza, including the government's approach to the people it serves. When a nation embraces a culture of community well-being over a "you're on your own" attitude, happiness gets spread around. "Our fundamental problem today is a lack of common feeling between people - the notion that life is essentially a competitive struggle," Layard says. He points to the Scandinavian countries as among the happiest because they "have the clearest concept of the common good."

Layard endorses the high tax rates of these nations as a way to reduce overwork, making it less valuable. It also has the added benefit of giving government the resources to provide a broad array of social services that tend to make people's lives more secure, such as universal health care. And, high taxes reduce income disparities, leading to a general sense of relative well-being. Layard says studies find that the more equally a nation's income is distributed, the higher the level of average happiness. He is not talking about communism but a shrinking of wealth disparities, the way estate taxes used to operate in this country before President Bush whacked them.

Layard's research and analysis confirm some of the worries I have about the direction of this nation. Two strong forces are tamping down our national happiness along the lines that Layard describes: The income divide is widening into a gaping chasm, and our working lives are feeling less dignified and secure. Both are a recipe for simmering resentment.

In 2003, the average worker took home $517 a week, while the average CEO enjoyed a weekly paycheck of $155,769. Is the executive really 300 times (that's 300 times!) better and more vital to the company than Joe Lunchbox? We talk about the humiliation of cultures in the Middle East as breeding a backlash of violence. But few people talk about the loss of dignity for workers in this country.

A new study by the Conference Board declares that "Americans are growing increasingly unhappy with their jobs." Only one-third of workers said their pay was satisfactory. The Arab street is always in the news, but here's the American street: People feel they are struggling too much and are increasingly uneasy about their financial security. One bad accident or one big medical bill can destroy a family's economic standing.

To this abiding worry, the response of Republican leaders in Congress is to consider bankruptcy reform that would shackle people to their debts without holding the credit card industry the least bit responsible for raining down limitless credit.

A large, thriving and optimistic middle class is the best ticket to social stability, but it feels as if no one is looking out for this group anymore.

Government and employers used to have a larger role to play in making American workers feel protected from the world's vicissitudes. Employment was for life. If you devoted your professional life to a place, employers rewarded you for it. Now, you're lucky if your company gives you a month's notice before outsourcing your job to China or India.

Before, if something went awry, government unemployment benefits were there as a cushion. In the 1970s, workers could count on 15 months of help; today it's down to six.

And the one program that has served Americans' peace of mind since the New Deal, Social Security, is being eyed as a place to shift financial risk from government to workers.

Taking a page from Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, humans must satisfy certain basics for themselves before feeling generous and charitable to others. As the media bombard us with images of our wealthy neighbors living it up while programs to protect the footing of those in the middle are being unraveled, our sense of relative need and insecurity grows. We become less charitable and generous in spirit, more protective of our own. We then elect politicians who share that sensibility, who in turn enact legislation that frays the social safety net even further.

It seems to me to be a vicious cycle and certainly no recipe for happiness.

[Last modified March 6, 2005, 00:14:20]

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