The Legatum Institute was delighted to host a breakfast conversation with Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He discussed AEI's upcoming programme on 'Human Flourishing: Expanding Opportunity for All by Strengthening Free Enterprise', which explores the question of what do we know about the true sources of happiness?
In explaining his response to this question, and citing academic theory alongside US survey data on happiness, Brooks outlined the three drivers of happiness:
The first is good parents. Brooks argues that genetics account for 48% of our happiness. By studying identical twins separated at birth and adopted by different families, academics have been able to explore the way in which genetics determines human behaviour. They have found, for example, that genetics goes a long way to determining factors such as the way a person votes, their religious preferences, as well as a number of other core behaviours.
Circumstances also have bearing on our happiness. A good example of this is the weather. Brooks cited the example of people who move to new locations in order to benefit from a sunnier climate. Data reveals that these people experience a bump in their levels of happiness but this only lasts for six months before returning to the original ‘base line’ levels. In total, Brooks argues, 40% of our happiness is determined by our circumstances.
The third determining factor that accounts for the remaining 12% of our happiness is the decisions we make. These decisions can be broken down into four key areas: faith, family, community, and work. Community includes two main areas: the first is social capital (encompassing community engagement, charity, and volunteerism) and the second is friendship. Brooks explains that the issue of friendship throws-up some interesting results because data shows that men are worse at making friends than women. Put another way, men “de-skill” at friendship as they go through life. To make the point Brooks offers a remarkable statistic: when asked who their best friend is, 60% of men aged 60+ say it is their wife whereas when asked the same question only 30% of women the same age say their husband.
Brooks explains how, to thrive, a culture needs to celebrate “earned success” but prevent “learned helplessness”. This has a profound effect on public policy: “Given the choice” he argues, “no one says they would rather take a welfare cheque than a pay cheque.” He claims that the type of job a person has does not significantly affect the level of happiness achieved through working: “There are no dead-end jobs; a job is a blessed, sanctifying force.”
Can public policy increase human happiness? Brooks’ passionate and convincing answer to this question is yes, by enabling free enterprise: when an individual can choose their own road, they flourish.