Posts tagged with: happiness

Brian Fikkert, a Professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College and the Executive Director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, takes a look at Arthur Brooks’ The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise in this week’s edition of CPJ’s Capital Commentary.

I think it’s a pretty balanced review, and Fikkert rightly highlights some of the important strength’s of Brooks’ work. But he also highlights some specifically theological concerns that have animated my own engagement with “happiness” research:

At a fundamental level, Christians must reject Brooks’ ethical standard: human happiness as defined by autonomous human beings. Brooks’ ethics are rooted in Enlightenment humanism rather than the transcendent standards of God’s moral decrees. To determine if the free enterprise system is moral, Christians must determine if it satisfies biblical standards of justice, not autonomous humans’ notions of happiness.

It’s important to note, of course, that as the head of AEI Brooks is making a case to a much more heterogeneous audience than simply like-minded Christians. And he’s trained as a social scientist, not as a theologian. But I think it would be interesting to hear how Brooks would address some of these challenges not firstly as the president of the American Enterprise Institute but as a professing Christian.

The answer Arthur Brooks gave to Josh Good of Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) at Dr. Brooks’ plenary at the most recent Acton University is a great place to start:

EcclesiastesThe Preacher says that God “has set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This is within the broader context of his discussion of the paradox of exploring the wonder of God’s creation and the vanity of human striving in a fallen world.

But the more immediate context is a discussion of work. In verse 9 he asks, “What do workers gain from their toil?” A bit earlier he discusses the meaningless of work, but concludes that “a person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.”

The entire book of Ecclesiastes is an excellent primer on relating human happiness to material and spiritual goods. These sections on work and satisfaction are some of the most significant along these lines. For as the Preacher continues, such “satisfaction” in work “is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”

So work is both significant for our satisfaction but no substitute for eternal things. This resonates quite well with the picture of work we get in Lester DeKoster’s book on the subject. It also brings to mind some of Arthur Brooks’ work on the social science of happiness and “earned success.” One caveat, or at least necessary frame of reference for the discussion of earned success, it seems to me, is this idea that our enjoyment of things on this earth is to be properly oriented to and subjoined under the higher things of God.

If, as Augustine put it, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord,” then whatever happiness we derive from work, earned success, and everything else “under the sun” must be appreciated as the gifts of God that they are and properly valued as such. Such a perspective helps keep us from confusing heaven and earth, so to speak, and turning work, happiness, or anything else in the created order into an idol.

Last week, in a reflection about American freedom and Christianity, I contended that the shift from emphasis on the pursuit of “property” to the pursuit of “happiness” illustrated the spiritual insight of the American founders. And today, Joe passed along a piece related to the economic climate in America at the end of the eighteenth century, which suggests that as “America had a thriving middle class,” the United States might have been designed especially to institutionalize, protect, and promote the materially-acquisitive ethos of the time.

That, at least, is the suggestion made by Brad Gregory in his book, The Unintended Reformation. In a chapter on “Manufacturing the Goods Life,” Gregory contends that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the broader vision of social life articulated by the founders was uniquely oriented toward merely material prosperity:

The substantive emptiness of the nation’s founding documents was possible not only because Americans were strongly shaped by Christian moral assumptions, but also because so many of them had simultaneously departed in practice from the traditional Christian condemnation of avarice.

A corollary of this is that America is uniquely anti-Christian:

If Christianity is among other things a discipline of selflessness in charitable service to others, then the United States’ legally protected ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness, culturally reinforced at every turn, would seem to be its antithesis.

You might guess what this means for our evaluation of Europe, however, which ends up looking rather more Christ-like by comparison:

But, ironically, more than is true of federal or state institutions in the church-going United States, secularized Europeans’ welfare states since World War II have more in common with the social concerns and the moral commitments of the Christianity that made the Continent and Britain, because they at least seek to meet the most basic needs of every citizen.

It’s true, admits Gregory, that American freedom includes the ability to be spiritually responsible. But even the value of this is doubtful:

So too, it is obvious that he advent of modern capitalism and market-governed societies has facilitated the potential for human flourishing and the possibility of living meaningful human lives for hundreds of millions of people, which considered as such is also a very good thing. But those who are devoted to their families, demonstrate care for others, make charitable donations, and practice self-restraint do so within a world dominated by wall-to-Walmart capitalism and consumerism, with all that this implies.

What all this has to do with the Reformation is something that has to be explored within the larger argument of the book. I’m currently drafting a review of it, but it has already been reviewed and engaged in a number of significant places, like Books & Culture, the Wall Street Journal, and First Things. At this point I can recommend Gregory’s book if you want to see what the Reformation and global climate change have to do with one another (hint: the main link is the American “ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness” outlined above).

In light of Joe Carter’s post on the meaning of the pursuit of happiness earlier today, I thought it would be interesting to bring up the important distinctions between pleasure and happiness. Over in the New Republic, economic historian, Deirdre N. McCloskey writes about the philosophical and economic differences:

The knock-down argument against the 1-2-3 studies of happiness comes from the philosopher’s (and the physicist’s) toolbox: a thought experiment. “Happiness” viewed as a self-reported mood is surely not the purpose of a fully human life, because, if you were given, in some brave new world, a drug like Aldous Huxley’s imagined “soma,” you would report a happiness of 3.0 to the researcher every time. Dopamine, an aptly named neurotransmitter in the brain, makes one “happy.” Get more of it, right? Something is deeply awry.

Decades ago, I was in Paris alone and decided to indulge myself with a good meal, which, you know, is rather easy to do in Paris. The dessert was something resembling crème brulée, but much, much better. I thought, “I shall give up my professorships at the University of Iowa in economics and history, retire to this neighborhood on whatever scraps of income I can assemble, and devote every waking moment to eating this dessert.” It seemed like a good idea at the time. It deserved a 3.0.

The whole thing is here. It’s certainly a long read, but a very interesting one.  The confusion of happiness and pleasure has far reaching consequences, including for those attempting to use welfare economics as a basis for crafting government interventions into market processes.

Blog author: jcarter
posted by on Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Robert J. Samuelson on why getting the government involved in the happiness movement will make us all miserable:

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My ongoing reflection on the Hunger Games trilogy from Suzanne Collins continues with today’s Acton Commentary, “Bread First, Then Ethics.” This piece serves as a sort of follow-up to an earlier commentary, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games,’” as well as an essay over at First Things I wrote with Todd Steen, “Hope in the Hunger Games.”

In this week’s commentary, I examine the dynamic of what might be understood to reflect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as depicted in the Hunger Games (HT to Hunter Baker for his reference to Maslow). In general, “Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.” Or more succinctly: bread first, then ethics.
Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsThis dynamic is captured nicely in a brief dialogue in the film between Katniss and Peeta. Peeta expresses his frustration at their situation: “I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.”

To this Katniss responds bluntly: “I just can’t afford to think like that.” Survival first, then she can worry about making ethical stands or moral gestures. Bread first, then ethics.

In today’s piece, I conclude that “the pagan answer to the question of hope focuses on bread first, and only afterwards (and perhaps never) on spiritual or moral matters.” The situation is a bit more complex than this, however. What we should understand by “first” in this sense is not necessarily temporal, but rather a priority of purpose or significance.

There’s a certain element of truth to something like Maslow’s hierarchy, even if one might quibble with the details. As Bertolt Brecht famously put it, “Erst kommt das Fressen / Dann kommt die Moral,” or “First comes eating, then comes morality.” A church teaching that ignores the physical needs of people, or only on the life to come, is truncated and flawed. Scot McKnight’s recent book The King Jesus Gospel makes this point quite well.

Indeed, as the Puritan Richard Baxter observed,

If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul.

So seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added as well. Do not allow for material goods to become a distraction, or even an idol, that steals attention away from our focus on “pardon and spiritual blessings.” But don’t let our focus on “spirituality” become otherworldly and disembodied.

The gospel is good news for the whole person, body and soul. What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 23, 2012

One of the conclusions from last week’s commentary was that the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting a particular vision of the good life in America. That’s not to say that the government doesn’t have some role in promoting the common good or making some normative judgments about the good life. But it shouldn’t get anywhere near the level of specificity of promising a family, home, college education, and retirement for all.

In part this is because while moral good is objective, happiness is, by definition, subjective. The technical gloss on happiness in the scholarly literature is “subjective well-being.” This subjective element gets at why there can be such paradoxical disparity, say, between objective standards of rising affluence and static or even declining levels of happiness. Happiness has much more to do with how people assess their own levels of satisfaction and well-being than with simply objective measures.

Becky Hsu explores this over at the Black, White and Gray blog by observing the irreducible diversity and subjectivity of defining happiness: “The trick is in how people define happiness to begin with.”

The delicate balance that results from these considerations is that people must be free to define happiness for themselves within the boundaries of the moral order. And the role of the civil government and positive law in promoting that connection between liberty and happiness is definitive for good government. As Jefferson put it, “the freedom and happiness of man” are the “main objects of all science,” and such concerns help to “keep ever in view the sole objects of all legitimate government.”

I would argue that the best conceptions of happiness are those that intimately connect the subjective sense of well-being with the objective moral order, the source of which is God. The Christian doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation can go a long way in explaining why there is so often this disparity between objective material well-being and subjective well-being in human life.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” confesses Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Or as the Teacher puts it, God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This life is the beginning of the story.

Dr. Arthur C. Brooks spoke about “happiness” at an Acton Lecture Series event last week. Dr. Brooks, a professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University and a visiting scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, presented evidence which suggests that religion is the greatest factor in general human happiness in the United States. Religion, argues Dr. Brooks, is essential to human flourishing in the United States and public secularism should be strongly guarded against by everyone – religious or not.

He is the author of, most recently, Gross National Happiness (2008) and Who Really Cares? (2006) published by Basic Books.

We were able to interview Dr. Brooks about happiness – watch it now and see what you think!

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Dr. Brooks’ lecture on happiness is also available for your viewing pleasure.

As a brief follow-up to this week’s installment of Radio Free Acton, here are some of the direct quotes from Augustine on happiness.

First, he says,

A joy there is that is not granted to the godless, but to those only who worship you without looking for reward, because you yourself are their joy. This is the happy life and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else. Whoever thinks there can be some other is chasing a joy that is not the true one; yet such a person’s will has not turned away from all notion of joy.

This passage has some relevance to a recent Acton Commentary I wrote on tithing. The reason that a godless person’s will “has not turned away from all notion of joy” is because it is an ineradicable purpose of human nature to seek fulfillment and happiness (joy) in God, whether or not a person is conscious that it is actually God that is being sought. So when the “godless” seek joy in the created things of the world, they are actually seeking him in a corrupted and perverse way. It is a futile search for fulfillment apart from God, for “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?”

And so Augustine also wonders of the godless, “Why are they not happy? Because they are more immediately engrossed in other things which more surely make them miserable than that other reality, so faintly remembered, can make them happy.” That “faintly remembered” reality is the divine being corresponding to the God-shaped hole at the center of the fallen human being.

This entire conceptual structure is built upon Augustine’s distinction between “use” and “enjoyment” or uti and frui. Here’s how he lays it out in De Doctrina Christiana:

So then, there are some thing which are meant to be enjoyed, others which are meant to be used, yet others which do both the enjoying and the using. Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness, providing us, so to say, with crutches and props for reaching the things that will make us happy, and enabling us to keep them.

In his latest book about personal finance and responsibility, Dave Ramsey relates a story about how he had always wanted to own a Jaguar. When his priorities were disordered and his life was a spiritual and financial mess, Dave did everything he could to keep the car, even though he was behind on payments and he really couldn’t afford it. Eventually he was forced to give the car up. Only years later, when having a status car wasn’t so important to Dave, did God provide him the opportunity to own one again, this time with his love for it properly reined in.

We are enfleshed souls, and so we have recreative and sustaining needs. Created goods, especially essentials like food, water, and shelter, but also other things like cars, are necessary but not sufficient conditions for being happy in an ultimate and final sense. That’s what Augustine means when he calls such things “crutches and props.” For more on this, see Aquinas’ answers to questions like:

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, August 3, 2007

Chuck Colson locates the perennial problem of human unhappiness with the inability to perceive where happiness truly comes from. There’s the economic argument that while “increased prosperity can’t make you happy, it can, ironically, contribute to unhappiness,” an argument which Colson says, “doesn’t tell us anything about what makes people happy in the first place. Thus, it can’t tell us why increased prosperity doesn’t translate into increased happiness.”

As I’ve noted before, the economic argument is helpful for locating a source of our unhappiness: our fallen, selfish nature. Colson is addressing the ontological question of where happiness comes from. The economic argument is addressing the epistemological question of where humans think happiness comes from. The two answers are related and complementary.

And Colson is ultimately right. As long as humans look only to material concerns for the questions of happiness, we’re doomed to miss the mark. A new monograph from the IEA, Happiness, Economics and Public Policy, underscores this, concluding that “measured happiness does not appear to be related to public spending, violent crime, property crime, sexual equality, disability, life expectancy or unemployment.”

“The stark fact is that, as Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod demonstrate, the difficulties in measuring society’s happiness are insurmountable, and policymakers should not claim that they can control and increase happiness through public policy decisions.”

For more on happiness (subjective well-being) research, check out the World Database of Happiness (HT: the evangelical outpost).