Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wickedness Never Was Happiness

When Alma first told Corianton that he should stay away from the harlot Isabel because "wickedness never was happiness" (Alma 41:10), he offered spiritual counsel to a wayward son without any sort of external proof. He asked Corianton to believe that the enticing pleasures obviously associated with many forms of wickedness bring no lasting satisfaction. Now, 2,100 years later, I bring you empirical proof that "wickedness never was happiness."

In his book, Gross National Happiness, Arthur C. Brooks calls attention to Thomas Jefferson's claim in the Declaration of Independence that all men are entitled to "certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." If the United States is a nation dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, Brooks asks, what are the public policy goals that will make our individual pursuit of happiness more successful?

Using 30 years of survey data and a variety of experiments, Brooks concludes that the following things make people very happy: personal freedoms, marriage, a belief in God, friendships, holding conservative political views, work, volunteering and charitable giving. Most of the items on this list are things I would guess are almost universally thought of as being things that contribute to happiness (with the possible exception of the conservative politics bit). More importantly, at least for the purposes of this forum, all of these things (again, with the possible exception of conservative politics) are inherently righteous. God wants us to have agency, to be married, to worship Him, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to work, to serve others and to give our substance to the poor. In effect, Brooks simply proves Lehi's point that "if there be no righteousness there be no happiness" (2 Ne. 2:13). In that respect, what Brooks advocates is a nation dedicated to righteous policies (my words, not his--I think Brooks does a great job of writing from a politically and religiously neutral position), and he does so in a very entertaining way.

Brooks also takes a good look at what makes people unhappy--and that is wickedness. Brooks separates the aforementioned category of personal freedoms into several subsections: economic, political, religious and moral freedoms. Personal economic, political and religious freedoms are all strongly correlated with happiness: the ability to choose how to spend our money, who we should vote for and what church (if any) we should attend makes us very happy. But moral freedom--freedom from moral or social restraints--makes individuals very unhappy:

"Unlike economic, political, and religious freedom, moral freedom has not brought happiness. We can see this vividly by comparing people who favor various moral and social freedoms to those who do not. Do you think a woman should be able to have an abortion for any reason? Even correcting for your age, income, education, race, and marital status [things that might otherwise affect your happiness], you are 9 percentage points less likely to be very happy than those who do not believe in abortion on demand. Do you hate the church's moral strictures and think religion brings more conflict than peace? You are significantly less likely than religion's supporters to say you are very happy. Premarital sex, drug use, you name it--the moral traditionalists have it all over the moral modernists when it comes to happiness" (94-95).

For me, this is nothing new; I think Alma explained things very well 2,100 years ago. Still, it's nice to have empirical proof, and Brooks' book presents some fantastic insights into how we can live "after the manner of happiness" (2 Ne. 5:27) at a national level today.

Let me offer three more excerpts from the book which I found thought-provoking.

1. Brooks' argues--and his data prove--that while marriage makes people happier, having kids does not (this is actually a bit reductive; he suggests that kids make most of us unhappy but that kids make the people who have large families happy--or at least less unhappy). My favorite quote from this section: "None of this is to say that people with kids are unhappy people. There are many things in a parent's life that bring great joy. For example, spending time away from their children" (p. 66).

On a more serious note, Brooks defends the practice of raising kids (and lots of them) as a practice that will increase happiness at the national level because being part of a family is what makes kids most happy--as reported by none other than MTV, in conjunction with the Associated Press. Brooks concludes:

"And here lies the great irony of parenthood. Parents always talk about the joy they get from their kids, while kids complain about their parents. But in fact, there is strong evidence that parents make children much happier, while children make parents slightly less happy. So procreating may in fact contribute to our gross national happiness--just not in the ways we might have always believed. We should think of parenthood as a charitable act, by which parents invest some of their own happiness to create that much more for the next generation. This may be the greatest happiness-related reason of all for having children" (p. 72).

Brooks' words reminded me of another observation from Lehi, on a position relatively (but not wholly) unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints--that "Adam fell that man might be, and men are that they might have joy" (2 Ne. 2:25). Think about the ways in which Brooks' conclusions on the impact of children on happiness might be relevant to the case of Adam and Eve. Both undoubtedly would have been happier--at least by our standards--remaining in Eden than they were after the Fall. But they sacrificed their own personal happiness in order to bring about an tremendous increase in aggregate happiness by allowing each of us to come to earth and receive a body. I think Brooks has uncovered more truth than he knew.

2. Another interesting finding Brooks makes comes from "a survey of almost 15,000 twins born in Virginia between 1915 and 1971 [in which] researchers found no evidence that religious affiliation--the actual religion or denomination that one belonged to--had a genetic component to it. They did find, however, that between 25 and 42 percent of the variability in how often people attended their houses of worship could be explained genetically. Happy people of faith, it seems, beget happy people of faith" (p. 47). This particular finding is interesting to me because of the strong emphasis in the Judeo-Christian tradition on a familial religion. For most of history, most religions in this tradition have been family affairs, whether we are talking about Abraham, Muhammad (Islam certainly springs out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whether or not it is commonly recognized as such or not) or Joseph Smith. The Puritans came to the New World because they believed that the unregenerate or ungodly should be restricted from church membership, but they established what was called "The Half-Way Covenant" in 1662, allowing the children of church members to receive communion even if they were not godly, because they believed that God was more likely to send an "elect" spirit to an "elect" family. Apparently, the Puritans may have been right.

3. My favorite quote from the whole book isn't actually from Brooks. He quotes Newt Gingrich, who reminded American citizens that "the Declaration of Independence asserts that we deserve 'not happiness stamps; not a department of happiness; not therapy for happiness. Pursuit'" (p. 32)

So go pursue! (But only after you read Wickedness Never Was Happiness, Part 2.)


Becky said...

"there is strong evidence that parents make children much happier, while children make parents slightly less happy"

Somedays this is true...but I always love being a mom and wouldn't trade it for the world.

Hey...change my address on your sidebar. it's :

Jenny said...

the irony of parenthood. Ahh, yes.
i'm on board with that paragraph.
Your writing blows me away.
(In a good way)
Love you, bro. Better have more kids to increase your happiness meter! Me? I couldn't get any happier. All done.

Schenewarks said...

One of your best posts, have to say it's from all your happy tummy cells after visiting my house. Eating great food has a lasting or semi-lasting affect on one's ability to think and write clearly. Love you! Amy Jo

Becky said...

hey...i'm all done moving. all my boxes are unpacked and we've settled. now...could you make note of that??? :) love you!

The Coopers said...

Once again you astound right beautifully, (in a manly way:) I very much enjoyed this excerpt, so true in many ways!

The Royal Buffington's said...

What an interesting study...thanks for sharing!!

itzy said...

WOW! I have been quoting Arthur C. Brooks at work for the last month and also placing some quotes on my FB...this study/analogy is wonderful, insightful and very accurate...Great job! THANKS!!!!