Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Putting the Chain Before the Ball?

That's probably not the most sensitive title to a post on marriage.... (I was thinking of "Putting the cart before the horse".) Um... anyway. David Brooks lectures,
Marital happiness is far more important than anything else in determining personal well-being. 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.
But Brooks' claim raises the question, is it truly the marriage that makes you happy and fulfilled, or is it that people who are happy and fulfilled tend to either enter into happier marriages, find their marriages to be happier and more fulfilling (whatever somebody else might think), or both? If people who are intrinsically happy enter into happier marriages, it would be no real surprise that they're also happier at work - it's their personality driving their happiness in both contexts. If your personality is such that you always want more, then you're apt to find your marriage and work unsatisfying.

I suspect that Brooks was inspired by this recent New Yorker article, which notes that things we expect to make us happy often don't.
Several theories have been offered to explain why the United States is, in effect, a nation of joyless lottery winners. One, the so-called “hedonic treadmill” hypothesis, holds that people rapidly adjust to improved situations; thus, as soon as they acquire some new delight—a second house, a third car, a fourth-generation iPhone—their expectations ramp upward, and they are left no happier than before. Another is that people are relativists; they are interested not so much in having more stuff as in having more than those around them. Hence, if Jack and Joe both blow their year-end bonuses on Maseratis, nothing has really changed and neither is any more satisfied.
Peripherally related to the subject of marriage,
Research that Graham has done in Afghanistan shows that, despite three decades of war and widespread destitution, Afghans are, on average, a pretty cheerful lot. (The most cheerful areas of the country tend to be those in which the Taliban’s influence is stronger.)
You might not get that impression from books like A Thousand Spendid Suns, but then I suspect that opinion polling in Taliban areas is heavily skewed toward reports from men who may be very happy with their marital relationships. I suspect that another factor ties into relativism - when your neighbors don't have much, it's easier to be content with what you have. When I was traveling in Southeast Asia, it was a pretty obvious takeaway that you can live a full, contented life with a minimum of "stuff", and that it's in fact easier to be happy once you clear away the clutter and focus on your needs instead of your wants. That's a message Madison Avenue would prefer you not hear.

I don't find the "hedonic treadmill" model to be incompatible with the "relativist" model of happiness. That is, while I think people can be more content when there's no competition to "keep up with the Joneses", whether by virtue of the financial realities of their society or by virtue of the recognition that they can choose to be happy with what they have, following triumph or tragedy most people will adjust back to their baseline level of contentment (or discontent). You can make society happier by disappointing Madison Avenue, educating people that having "more stuff" is not the key to happiness, but you can also focus on early childhood development. That, after all, is when a child's basic outlook on life - love, safety, security, whether or not basic needs will be fulfilled - is established.


  1. Didn't Abraham Lincoln say something about how people are about as happy as they make their minds up to be? If he didn't, then I just made it up and I'm going to be famous cuz it's a rockin' quote :)

    I'm generally a happy person who generally looks on the bright side of life (sing the Monty Python song if you wish) but I do find it difficult to not get envious of people with more of something. I think that's human nature. I don't begrudge most people but it does irk me that so many nasty ass people go to bed on large piles of money that they earned by doing bad things...that's just irritating. I guess the solution is to not think about it?

  2. This song?

    If it makes you feel better, a lot of nasty people inherited their money, so they didn't earn it from doing bad things so much as they got it because their ancestors did bad things. (More Monty Python.)

  3. Ah! Monty Python!! My husband loves them and I finally agreed to see the Holy Grail movie at the A2 summer fest a few years ago...LOVED IT! I really liked the bunny rabbit