Raising three kids in suburban Ohio, my parents taught us that happiness is not about our subjective feelings, but rooted in our choices to consistently do the right things. Mom and Dad certainly never read aloud the Nicomachean Ethics when they tucked us into bed at night. But they still pretty much embodied Aristotle’s definition of happiness: an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.
Arthur Brooks, the French-hornist-turned-economist and now president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), recently spoke on “the secret of happiness” and fleshed out what those “right and virtuous things” are that ensure both individual and national happiness.
Intriguing, right? When I told one of my 5th graders that I attended a lecture in DC on the topic of happiness, he scoffed: “What?! Happiness doesn’t exist in DC!”
Well, come to find, happiness just might be possible in DC after all. I won’t divulge all of Brooks’ elegantly simple “secrets” and “steps to finding happiness,” though I highly encourage you to look up the YouTube video, but I will share a few reflections on the intersection of happiness and charity.
Brooks says that we humans make choices and form habits that contribute to or detract from happiness. He maintains that we should make good choices and form good habits regarding family, church, and local community, for these three most ensure human happiness. Brooks bases this argument on a wide range of social, economic, and statistical research.
In short, participating in a vibrant civil society (family, church, local community) is statistically proven to contribute significantly to individual and national happiness.
The problem is that we try to measure happiness, both personally and nationally, with what is easily measured: money and material goods. So we quickly become a nation primed for consumption and the never-ending quest to satiate unlimited desires. The government ends up encouraging materialism and the assumption that money (or entitlements) can buy happiness. Alas, time and again, the stats clearly demonstrate that money just doesn’t buy elusive happiness.
Again, for an individual or society to be happy, statistically speaking, it should invest in its civil society, and one way of the best ways to do that is through charity. But to be effectively charitable, you need to have a system in place that most allows charities to flourish. An “entitlement” society does not always allow us to be charitable. It also takes away the opportunity for us to “earn” success or work personally and creatively for the common good of others, another point Brooks makes.
For Brooks and AEI, the free market and enterprise system provides the paradigm most “in accord with virtue” that allows for flourishing civil societies. In contrast, the entitlement-driven progressive agenda puts up bureaucratic barriers that often hamstring civil society (family, church, and local community).
Essentially, AEI is making the conservative/libertarian argument that their commitment to the free market is not just about economics and “better off-ness,” but about happiness and virtue and the transcendental things. Thus Brooks stresses that service to community is fundamentally assumed in the free market platform.
If you’re going to be a conservative, free-market type, then you better give to smart charities and churches since you believe that the government should scale back its entitlement and welfare programs.
And if you don’t really care about being conservative or liberal—and who could blame you?—but you just want to be happy, start by investing in your local church and supporting local charities. The statistics simply bear out that this will make you happy in the long run. And hopefully you have a political and economic system in place that allows for those free acts of faith and service.
Last question: if the happiness question is so simple, why do individuals and governments sometimes get it wrong? A good friend suggested to me that the attraction to flawed notions of human good and happiness is not merely a matter of ignorance—but often the outcome of the human soul’s fundamentally bent nature that tends towards desiring wrongly. We may always have unhappy progressive tendencies in and among us.
Happiness and gratitude are beautiful. Envy and consumerism tend to uglify. It is more blessed to give than to receive. And thankfully, the statistics seem to be bearing this out.
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