How can we, as Americans, achieve greater happiness?
Is happiness achieved by simply collecting more things, or is it about something deeper and more uniquely human? It’s an interesting philosophical question, of course, but it’s also a practical one that has become central to today’s economic debate.
On one side of that argument is President Obama. He has quite clearly staked out his position with those who think that happiness is all about materialism and accumulating more “stuff.” That is why he has focused so intensely on what he likes to call “fairness” – in other words, some have more money than others, and the government needs to redistribute some of that money to those who don’t have as much. It is a belief the president seems to hold sincerely, but I do not believe it is a way to actually make Americans happier.
Indeed, even though America has become a much wealthier country over the last few decades, studies show that happiness levels have remained nearly unchanged. That’s because the key determinant of lasting happiness and satisfaction is not simply about acquiring more “stuff” or a higher income; rather, it is what American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks calls “earned success” – the idea that people are happiest when they have earned their income, whatever the level.
When the government tries to take all the trouble out of life by taking care of our every need, it makes earned success that much harder to achieve. As Brooks notes, the significance in what we do is more important to achieving personal fulfillment and happiness than the “mere pursuit or pleasure of money.” That is why the act of earning success is so important.
Earned success can also be attained, for instance, through raising children, or by donating time to charitable or religious causes. That’s why successful parents and more religious people tend to be very happy. The earned success that comes from working also explains why self-made millionaires continue to work hard after earning their fortunes. They continue to be driven by the satisfaction that comes from creating, innovating, and solving problems.
The importance of earned success also explains why people who win the lottery usually wind up depressed when they discover that the excitement of being rich and buying things wears off fast. The same is true of recipients of other sources of unearned income. Studies show that receiving welfare does not make people happier. An effective safety net is important, of course, but not to the extent it creates a culture of dependency that undermines the dignity of hard work.
So, if earned success is the path to happiness, then public policies should obviously be geared toward promoting opportunity and freedom for everyone – and no economic system does that better than free-market capitalism.
In a true free-market society, everyone is guaranteed equal rights and opportunities and the government acts primarily as a neutral umpire, not as a redistributor of income. Property rights are upheld, contracts are enforced, and hard work is rewarded. Moreover, this is the only economic system that addresses the root causes of poverty by enlarging the economic pie, rather than allowing government officials and bureaucrats to decide how to slice the existing one.
As a result, free-market capitalism is the fairest system in the world – and the most moral. It’s people buying and selling, satisfying both the needs of the buyer and seller better than any government-controlled system.
Ultimately, it will be up to Americans to decide the proper role of government in promoting happiness in our country – by redistributing more wealth or by preserving opportunities for each of us to achieve our true potential.
Let the debate begin.
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