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Follow Your Bliss, but Don’t Expect It

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

– Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina”

WASHINGTON – We ought to leave “happiness” to novelists and philosophers – and rescue it from the economists and psychologists who think it can be distilled into a “science” and translated into pro-happiness policies. Fat chance. Government can often mitigate sources of unhappiness – starvation, unemployment, disease – but happiness is more than the absence of misery. If we could manufacture happiness, we could repeal the “human condition.”

Somehow this has escaped the social scientists who want to make happiness the goal of government. They argue that economic output (gross domestic product) doesn’t measure everything that’s important in life – family, friends or religion, for example. True, but it doesn’t follow that “happiness” can be targeted as an alternative. No matter. Their latest brief is the “World Happiness Report,” which ranks countries by their “subjective well-being” – the technical label for happiness – as recorded by public opinion surveys.

On the most comprehensive list, the United States ranks 11th out of 156 countries. Here are the top 10 and their populations: Denmark, 5.6 million; Finland, 5.4 million; Norway, 5 million; Netherlands, 16.7 million; Canada, 34.8 million; Switzerland, 7.9 million; Sweden, 9.5 million; New Zealand, 4.4 million; Australia, 22.9 million; and Ireland, 4.6 million.

All these countries share a common characteristic: They’re small in population and, except Canada and Australia, land mass. Small countries are more likely to have homogeneous populations with fewer ethnic, religious and geographic conflicts. This minimizes a potentially large source of unhappiness. Among big countries, the United States ranks first.

The irony is that Europe, where the happiness movement is strongest, generally registers lower happiness. On the same ranking, the United Kingdom (18) is the leading large European nation, followed by Spain (22), France (23), Italy (28) and Germany (30).

The high U.S. ranking may reflect national character. “A person who smiles a lot is either a fool or an American,” says a Russian adage cited by historian Peter N. Stearns of George Mason University in the Harvard Business Review. Only in the mid-1700s – the Enlightenment – did happiness become socially acceptable, Stearns notes. Before that, religious dogma encouraged austere rectitude. European cultures formed before the change; America’s didn’t.

The relationship between economic growth and happiness is controversial. In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin of the University of Southern California published a study arguing that (a) within countries, the middle class and rich reported being happier than the poor; but (b) as countries became richer, reported happiness didn’t increase. This was dubbed the “Easterlin Paradox.” One theory is that people grow accustomed to higher incomes and compare themselves to those around them. If everyone gets richer, people at the bottom remain less happy.

Well, if economic growth doesn’t make people happier, what’s the point? The happiness movement is often anti-growth. Yes, the poorest countries need growth to relieve misery. But otherwise, “the lifestyles of the rich imperil the survival of the poor,” writes Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs. “Climate change is already hitting the poorest regions.”

This sounds reasonable but isn’t. There are two flaws. First, the Easterlin Paradox may be untrue. A recent study by economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania found that higher economic growth does raise happiness in most countries. Second, even if the Easterlin Paradox survives (economists are quarreling), growth is essential to maintaining existing happiness.

Creating an impossible goal – universal happiness – also condemns government to failure. Happiness depends on too much that is uncontrollable. For starters, personality. We all know people who seem blessed – stable marriage, healthy children, successful job – who are restless, grumpy and sometimes depressed. Meanwhile, others plagued by misfortune – sickness, shaky finances, family disappointment – persevere and remain upbeat.

Contradictions abound. Freedom, the ability to choose, is also essential to well-being, says the report. But freedom permits people to do self-destructive things that shrink happiness.

The “pursuit of happiness” may be a “right,” as the Declaration of Independence says. But the achievement of happiness is not an entitlement. The happiness movement is at best utopian; at worst, it’s silly and oppressive.

Copyright, Washington Post Writers Group.