Maybe they don’t want to be happy

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, March 31, 2010 15:04 EDT
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Matt notices part of David Brooks’ stat-spewing on what affects happiness, a statistic that should actually give people pause.

The daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others. The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting.

To this, Matt notes:

Brooks doesn’t pivot from this into any real policy specifics.

To which I say, of course he doesn’t. Because the lede in that story, and the subtle implication throughout, is that women having careers is bad for them, because they need to spend all their time at home catering to and probably monitoring their husbands to keep them from cheating. Because even a man who wears Nazi gear is the sort of catch you need to hang on to, lest you become a crazy old spinster. Picky ladies are lonely ladies, after all!

But while Brooks sees all happiness studies as a tool to bash independent women, Matt’s actually willing to think about policy implications. Since traffic not only makes global warming worse and eats up productivity, but it also makes people so unhappy, we should really work on reducing it through increased public transportation, telecommuting, and of course, congestion pricing. All great points, but to my mind, this unsurprising statistic about how traffic makes people so unhappy should be a reminder not to overrate the importance of happiness to people making decisions.

Focusing on what makes people happy is a big trend right now, and I generally applaud it because it has the potential to open people’s eyes and get them to look at mundane issues in new ways. But I don’t think it’s useful to assume that whatever increases people’s happiness is what they’re going to want. People often choose duty over joy, and with a lot of conservatives especially I’ve noticed a tendency to feel self-righteous because they don’t have as much happiness as others. People will marry people they don’t like, have children they don’t want, take jobs that make them hate their lives because they’re high status, or otherwise prioritize other desires over the desire to be happy. Many, many people choose living in fear over living with joy. I don’t think these people are stupid, and would necessarily prefer happiness if they were educated to the fact that it’s an option. Again, they may even see happiness as suspect, a sign you’re doing something wrong. (For example.)

You see this with the traffic situation. Exploding commute times are the result of suburban sprawl. And even though there’s always people getting defensive and saying they moved to the suburbs for the right reasons in these threads, the extent of suburban sprawl owes a lot to both fear and status-seeking. Urban centers are painted as scary (with racial diversity being used to raise the stakes with much of the audience for this), dirty, crowded, and low status in terms of private amenities. People are willing and able to give away the joy of not sitting in traffic in order to avoid living in smaller apartments that seem less impressive than some of the big suburban homes, and they’re willing to take on the much higher chance of dying in a car accident to avoid the possibility of being mugged walking down the sidewalk. You can educate them until you’re blue in the face on the statistics, but there are levels of meaning that are simply more important to people than happiness or even realistic risk assessment.

Until you understand this, the outrage over health care reform will never make sense. From the rational actor/happiness project perspective, there is no reason for your average middle class tea bagger to be up in arms over this health care reform package. It won’t do anything to hurt them, and for a lot of them, it will have substantial benefits. The simple reduction in fear of being unemployed alone should argue for it, as should the ability of middle class people to continue doing what they already do, which is extending young adulthood for their children until their mid-20s so those kids can situate themselves into more lucrative and stable careers. I could go on, but seriously, the package has a ton of goodies for these folks. And yet they freak out. Don’t they want to be happy?

Well, maybe, but it’s certainly less important to them than maintaining their sense of superiority to other people. They don’t want the rising tide to lift all boats, if their neighbor’s boat lifts up. Just as many people will give up 2 hours of their precious day sitting in traffic instead of having to dirty themselves by being neighborly or, god forbid, living in a smaller place in the city, so they’ll give up reliable health care in order to make sure that others they deem lesser don’t have a share in it. It’s not just traffic, either. The other studies Brooks noted about how being a social person involved in your community increase happiness? I think a lot of people get that, too, but look at how the suburbs that have gone up in the past 20 years have moved more and more towards visual symbolism of shutting yourself off from the world. No sidewalks, no front porches, and increasingly, no front yards. For whatever reason, this has been a big trend in the U.S., and shows that people will often put other considerations before happiness, even ones that make no sense at all.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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