Freedom, he says, makes people happier. Perceiving oneself or others to be victims of circumstances we cannot control is a recipe for national unhappiness.
But in a seeming paradox, Brooks also points out that another opposite factor also influences personal happiness: "moral constraint." Moral traditionalists -- who accept that right and wrong impose strong constraints on their own actions -- are far happier than those who believe anything goes. Even after controlling for age, income, education, race and marital status, people who believe in abortion on demand are 9 percentage points less likely to be very happy than those who think abortion is at least sometimes wrong. "Premarital sex, drug use, you name it -- the moral traditionalists have it all over the moral modernists when it comes to happiness," concludes Brooks.
Two things (and this is my reading of Brooks' data) make people happy: freedom and community. People are happier when they feel their actions and choices matter -- to themselves and to other people. Conservatives are more likely to feel connected to projects larger than themselves, such as God, family, religion and morality. Of course many liberals, especially religious liberals, share this sense of connection to larger goals and feel efficacious in bringing them about. (Hence there are about 17 million very happy liberals in this country, Brooks estimates).
Hell is not other people. Hell is that horrible place where nothing you do can matter anymore.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.