Wednesday, August 18, 2004

WHAT MAKES A GOOD SOCIETY?

The Virtue of Happiness
By Dr. Joel Wade


There are things that an individual can do to improve his or her well being. There are things that couples and families can do to improve their relationships. Are there things that a country can do to improve the overall well being of its citizens?

There are.

Though there is much work left to be done, research is beginning to sketch a picture of the elements that contribute to a nation’s overall well being. Ed Diener and Martin Seligman in Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well Being (Psychological Science in the Public Interest, July, 2004) have reviewed the research that seeks to measure the well being of societies. Looking at their findings can give each of us a direction to aim for in our efforts to improve the country where we live.

Here is what they have found:

Countries with a high degree of well being are democracies, with high economic and political freedom, individualism, human rights, effective and stable governments, strong economies, with low rates of unemployment and inflation, with a per-capita income above about $10,000; they are religious, and they have a high degree of social capital - which means that people trust each other, are mutually helpful, and tend to be members of organizations outside of work.

In the United States, we are fortunate to have most of these elements working for us - not that they are perfect, mind you, so we mustn’t get complacent about it. There is one area though that looks to have decreased, and that is in the degree of social capital. This may be one of the factors that have lead to the rise in depression over the past several decades.

People trust each other less; we are more mobile so it is more difficult to have a sense of neighborhood or community. Our government does more of the caretaking, and those of us who can afford it tend to hire people to do the work of caretaking, so that this quality of caring for your neighbor in times of trouble is much less common than it once was, and this usually takes a big disaster to mobilize.

If you live in a country other than the U.S., you can look to the above list and wonder what might be done to move your country more in the direction suggested by these findings. This may mean working toward establishing a freer society, or arguing in favor of greater individualism.

But there is something more to consider, beyond the well being of a country. What sort of a country tends to foster greatness? From what sort of societies has a Michelangelo, an Isaac Newton, or a Beethoven arisen?

In his fascinating book Human Achievement, Charles Murray has explored the elements that have brought forth such creative genius. What he found might sound simple, but it holds a deep insight into the nurturing of genius.

These cultures all value truth, beauty, and goodness.

Sadly, these are not qualities that are generally affirmed today, in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. Take a look at our politically biased scientists, the angst and darkness of much of modern art, and the cynicism of much of the political and social commentary.

If we could begin to move these qualities toward the direction of truth, beauty, and goodness, it would be a contribution well worth the effort.

Consider this as your civics homework for this week. Is there anything you could do to move the ball towards greater trust and helpfulness - one person to another? Have you been putting off joining an organization that you think would contribute to furthering your values? And is there anything that you can do in your work or private life that might nudge our society a bit more in the direction of truth, beauty, or goodness?

The really fun thing is, as you consider these questions, and as you begin to take action from them, you will find that this sort of involvement will also improve your personal happiness. And as I have already discussed in earlier columns, as you create a happier life for yourself, you will also have a more benevolent influence on others. That’s what I call a benevolent cycle.

And that’s the Virtue of Happiness.


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