THE POLITICS OF HAPPINESS
By: Derek Bok
Princeton Press, 212 pp.
You’d think with all the research on all the myriad subjects under the sun, that the most research of all would have been conducted on a subject of utmost importance to us all – human happiness.
But obviously, happiness isn’t the easiest thing to quantify, and its measurement, like pain, is highly subjective.
This subjectivity, however, may be precisely what is drawing researchers. After all, the subjectivity promises endless debate and thus, endless research opportunities for academics.
Some of what Bok offers here will surprise no one. That the most severe impacts to one’s happiness occur when a child dies, when a marriage ends or when one’s health is compromised.
But there are other findings that may startle. That, according to a study by Economist Richard Easterlin, “average levels of happiness in the United States have risen very little if at all over the past fifty years despite substantial growth in per capita incomes.”
As Bok writes, “When asked what would make the greatest positive difference in their lives, Americans are likely to reply: ‘more money.’ As previously noted, however, decades of increasing prosperity do not seem to have made people happier. Instead, Americans seem to be stuck on a hedonic treadmill. As incomes rise, people soon grow used to their higher standard of living and feel they need even more money to lead a good life.”
Ironically, Bok says the number of students entering college who say that making a lot of money is very important to them has nearly doubled over the past 50 years, from 40 percent of incoming freshmen to 75 percent. This despite much research which has shown that “people who set great store on becoming rich tend to be less happy than those who have other goals.”
Why? Well, first, you can fail at it, not realize your financial ambitions and become severely disappointed. That or you can succeed, but research shows that “those who succeed may become so preoccupied with money that they neglect the human relationships that affect their happiness.”
What Bok suggests is that perhaps, just perhaps, lawmakers need to rethink their priorities. If economic growth doesn’t necessarily make people any happier, why should that be the driving force of public policy?
In his introduction, Bok points to the tiny Buddhist nation of Bhutan, which has a longstanding policy of using “Gross National Happiness” (as opposed to Gross National Product) to measure the success of its political leadership.
The four “pillars” upon which GNH is based are quite similar to the “three-legged stool” of which Mammoth Lakes Planning Commission Chair Elizabeth Tenney speaks so fondly.
As Tenney wrote in a April 17 letter to The Sheet: “The sweet spot on a healthy community’s three-legged stool of natural, social and economic capital is the center of the seat. When the three legs of the stool are balanced and solidly on the ground, the seat is stable and a community is sitting pretty, guaranteed to thrive.”
So natural, social and economic capital.
In Bhutan, the pillars are good governance and democratization, stable and equitable socioeconomic development, environmental protection and cultural preservation.
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW
By: Anthony Trollope
Norilana Books, 736 p.
So you may ask yourself why I will spend valuable column space waxing philosophic about a book first published 135 years ago. Well, it’s a 736-page novel and seeing as I’m not part of a book club … you’re my book club.
I hadn’t planned to read Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now.” Not at all. Seemed more like the type of book they’d make into an interminable period-drama miniseries for public television than any book I’d read.
But then, one day this past fall, I’m sitting in on yet another interminable period drama right here in Mammoth (an MUSD school board meeting) when I decide to peruse Mammoth Library’s magazine rack. Lo and behold, there’s an article in Newsweek entitled “50 Books For Our Times.” The #1 ranked book? You guessed it.
Is it a book for our times? Well, yes. Parallels abound. Young men want to play cards, booze, and marry rich. As Sir Felix Carbury comments about his wooing of a very rich girl he has little interest in, “It’s weary work.”
The young women have slightly more character, but then, they don’t exactly turn a blind eye to the dollar, either.
Locals might find a parallel between any high-flying business start-up and the grand business scheme at the heart of the novel, the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, which was to run south from Salt Lake City and … come out on the gulf at the port of Vera Cruz.
“The object was not to make a railway but to float a company … Fisker seemed to be indifferent whether the railway should ever be constructed … if brilliantly printed programs might avail anything, with gorgeous maps, and beautiful little pictures of trains running into tunnels beneath snowy mountains …
The idea was to get a concession from the U.S. Congress so that land was free and the railway would be granted 1,000 acres around every station, 25 miles apart.
Fisker’s partner in the venture was Melmotte, whom everyone bowed down to because they thought he was insanely rich, though there was no proof of it outside of his profligate spending.
Melmotte, by far the most interesting character in the novel, is the embodiment of t he 19th century version of Bernie Madoff.
“Fraud and dishonesty had been the very principle of his life, and had so become a part of his blood and bones that even in this extremity of his misery he made no question within himself as to his right judgment in regard to them. Not to cheat, not to be a scoundrel, not to live more luxuriously than others by cheating more brilliantly was a condition of things to which his mind had never turned itself.”
The local newspaper hypes Melmotte as a political hero, “preaching with reference to his commercial transactions the grand doctrine that magnitude in affairs is a valid defense for certain irregularities.”
But tragically for Melmotte, he overreaches, and when he’s faced with a cash-flow problem, the sharks quickly circle. Really, he’s done in by the money he spends in an ostentatious effort to win a seat in the House of Commons. Done in by politics. Local candidates take note.
Short of technology, Trollope shows in this timeless novel that human evolution has apparently stalled.