Enough work has been done in the field of “happiness” to award it with an academic designation as an enigmatic new field of study. The Journal of Happiness Studies, (Springer Netherlands), was recently created (2000) and includes recent peer-reviewed articles such as “Gratitude and the Reduced Costs of Materialism in Adolescents ” and “Europeans Work to Live and Americans Live to Work (Who is Happy to Work More: Americans or Europeans?) ”
Recent studies emerging from social psychology demonstrate that lottery winners aren’t always ‘happier’ after winning a lot of money, and that mothers rate jogging or napping as happier experiences than the act of “caring” for their children. New Yorker magazine staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert  references these studies when she reviews new books from the field, including former Harvard president Derek Bok’s The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being (Princeton).
Bok’s book contains provocative and -- some reviewers  suggest -- questionable ideas related to studies that identify higher happiness quotients with lower income populations than with upper income groups. Bok suggests that governments should not work so hard on increasing GDP, nor on erasing financial inequalities (since the wealthy are often unhappy), but should rather concentrate tax dollars on other known happiness factors, such as stimulating jobs or reeducating the unemployed.
Studies also identify financial donations or active participation in civic engagement and community service work as increasing happiness self-assessments. Sheryl WuDunn reported this fact when she spoke at my university this week, summarizing observations contained in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the book she co-wrote with husband, New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof. After outlining in graphic detail the horrors that hundreds of thousands of women around the globe experience on a regular basis — starvation, sex trafficking, 21st century forms of slavery — WuDunn details the low costs (e.g. $65, a goat) and simple solutions (more education, microfinancing) for changing what she describes as this century’s biggest social issue—the oppression of women.
Recently, I’ve gotten my teenagers more involved in community service experiences. Many high schools now offer “credit” to track community service efforts on transcripts, since colleges look upon consistent service work favorably — perhaps not the most ethical way to get students involved in service, but civic engagement experiences often prove to be transformative, regardless of why they were initiated. I have periodically involved my kids in taking meals to the elderly, feeding the homeless, or handing out gifts to the underprivileged. They have always seemed a little ‘lighter’ at the end of these encounters.
The conclusions to WuDunn’s talk on civic engagement are simple:
-- You will be happier if you help someone else out.
--You don’t need to give a lot of money or time to make a difference.
--You will help out women AND men by increasing equality between the sexes.
Students had some interesting responses to WuDunn. Several brought up issues of “capitalism” and questioned whether market systems would finally help to alleviate the poverty in rural or uneducated populations. One student mentioned the fact that WuDunn had worked for Goldman Sachs and wondered at the ethical implications of capitalism in this global context. WuDunn responded by giving the example of her Chinese grandmother, whose feet had been bound and suffered debilitating and disabling pain as a result. But the feet of WuDunn’s mother were not bound, thanks, in part, to the cultural and social changes that swept through China after the entry of market forces.
The student who introduced WuDunn, Nicole Paprocki, seemed to feel more positively about the economic implications of Half the Sky. Nicole served as the student ambassador for Americans for UNFPA, the United Nations agency that works for women and girls in 150 countries worldwide. Nicole described working in DC and discovering that she and Illinois representative Jan Schakowsky were both reading Half the Sky at the same time. Three other representatives also mentioned the book to Nicole—a sign for her that the book contains valuable lessons and recommendations for policy makers. Nicole is a junior Biology major headed for medical school, an Honors fellow in gender studies, and she still finds the time as a busy undergraduate to engage in civic issues and community service work.
She sure seemed happy to me…