RE­LA­TION­SHIPS, NOT MONEY, STILL THE KEY TO HAP­PI­NESS

The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - OPINION - DAVID BROOKS

Two things hap­pened to San­dra Bul­lock this month. She won an Academy Award for best ac­tress. Then came the news re­ports that her hus­band was an adul­ter­ous jerk. So the philo­sophic ques­tion of the day is: Would you take that as a deal? Would you ex­change pro­fes­sional tri­umph for per­sonal tragedy? On the one hand, an Academy Award is noth­ing to sneeze at. Bul­lock has earned the ad­mi­ra­tion of her peers in a way very few ex­pe­ri­ence. She’ll make more money for years to come. She may even live longer. Re­search by Don­ald Redelmeier and Shel­don Singh has found that, on av­er­age, Os­car win­ners live nearly four years longer than nom­i­nees who don’t win. None­the­less, if you had to take more than three sec­onds to think about this ques­tion, you are ab­so­lutely crazy. Mar­i­tal hap­pi­ness is far more im­por­tant than any­thing else in de­ter­min­ing per­sonal well­be­ing. If you have a suc­cess­ful mar­riage, it doesn’t mat­ter how many pro­fes­sional set­backs you en­dure, you will be rea­son­ably happy. If you have an un­suc­cess­ful mar­riage, it doesn’t mat­ter how many ca­reer tri­umphs you record, you will re­main sig­nif­i­cantly un­ful­filled. This isn’t just ser­mo­niz­ing. This is the age of re­search, so there are data to back this up. Over the past few decades, teams of re­searchers have been study­ing hap­pi­ness. Their work, which seemed flimsy at first, has de­vel­oped an im­pres­sive rigor, and one of the key find­ings is that worldly suc­cess has shal­low roots while in­ter­per­sonal bonds per­me­ate through and through. For ex­am­ple, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween hap­pi­ness and in­come is com­pli­cated and, af­ter a point, ten­u­ous. It is true that poor na­tions be­come hap­pier as they be­come mid­dle-class na­tions. But once the ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties have been achieved, fu­ture in­come is lightly con­nected to well­be­ing. Grow­ing coun­tries are slightly less happy than coun­tries with slower growth rates, ac­cord­ing to Carol Gra­ham of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and Ed­uardo Lora. The U.S. is much richer than it was 50 years ago, but this has pro­duced no mea­sur­able in­crease in over­all hap­pi­ness. On a per­sonal scale, winning the lot­tery doesn’t seem to pro­duce last­ing gains in well­be­ing. Peo­ple aren’t hap­pi­est dur­ing the years when they are winning the most pro­mo­tions. In­stead, peo­ple are happy in their 20s, dip in mid­dle age and then, on av­er­age, hit peak hap­pi­ness just af­ter re­tire­ment at age 65. If the re­la­tion­ship be­tween money and well-be­ing is com­pli­cated, the cor­re­spon­dence be­tween per­sonal re­la­tion­ships and hap­pi­ness is not. The daily ac­tiv­i­ties most as­soci- ated with hap­pi­ness are sex, so­cial­iz­ing af­ter work and hav­ing din­ner with oth­ers. The daily ac­tiv­ity most in­ju­ri­ous to hap­pi­ness is com­mut­ing. Ac­cord­ing to one study, join­ing a group that meets even just once a month pro­duces the same hap­pi­ness gain as dou­bling your in­come. Ac­cord­ing to an­other, be­ing mar­ried pro­duces a psy­chic gain equal to more than $100,000 a year. If you want to find a good place to live, just ask peo­ple whether they trust their neigh­bors. So­cial trust varies enor­mously, but coun­tries with high so­cial trust have hap­pier peo­ple, bet­ter health, more ef­fi­cient gov­ern­ment, more eco­nomic growth and less fear of crime (re­gard­less of whether ac­tual crime rates are in­creas­ing or de­creas­ing). The im­pres­sion from this re­search is that eco­nomic and pro­fes­sional suc­cess ex­ists on the sur­face of life, and such suc­cess emerges out of in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, which are much deeper and more im­por­tant. The sec­ond im­pres­sion is that most of us pay at­ten­tion to the wrong things. Most peo­ple vastly over­es­ti­mate the ex­tent to which more money would im­prove our lives. Most schools spend too much time pre­par­ing stu­dents for ca­reers and not enough pre­par­ing them to make so­cial de­ci­sions. Most gov­ern­ments release a ton of data on eco­nomic trends but not enough on trust and other so­cial con­di­tions. In short, mod­ern so­ci­eties have de­vel­oped vast in­sti­tu­tions around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that mat­ter most. This may be chang­ing. There is a rash of com­pelling books — in­clud­ing “The Hid­den Wealth of Na­tions” by David Halpern and “The Pol­i­tics of Hap­pi­ness” by Derek Bok — that ar­gue that pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions should pay at­ten­tion to well­be­ing and not just ma­te­rial growth nar­rowly con­ceived. Gov­ern­ments keep ini­ti­at­ing poli­cies they think will pro­duce pros­per­ity, only to get sacked, time and again, from their spir­i­tual blind side.

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