Happy people make the world better

Posted: Nov 08, 2005 12:05 AM

When you think about a Muslim suicide terrorist, is "happy" the first word you think of to describe him?

 When you think about Nazis or Communists or Klansmen or child molesters, do you immediately think, "Now there are some happy people"?

 Of course not.

 It only takes a moment's thought to realize that while most unhappy people don't engage in evil, most evil is done by unhappy people. This is true on both the macro and the micro levels. We all know how much more likely we are to lash out at others when we are unhappy and how much we desire to make others feel good when we feel happy.

 Given this association of evil with unhappy people, it is quite remarkable how little attention is paid to happiness as a moral, rather than only a personal psychological issue. Too often the pursuit of happiness (not the pursuit of fun or excitement) is regarded as a selfish pursuit, when in fact it is one of the best things a person can do for everyone in his life and for the world at large. The Founders of America were brilliant in many ways, not more so than by enshrining that pursuit alongside the pursuit of life and liberty.

 It is therefore worth noticing how little thought is given to the question of happiness in attempting to understand the roots of evil and in seeking ways to improve the world.

 Those on the left are far more likely to inquire about the economic state of those individuals and groups involved in anti-social behavior ("poverty causes crime"). And those on the right are more concerned with determining the moral and ethical values held by people engaged in bad behavior.

 In my view, values are more determinative than economics. But few people have values that are so strong that those values will always overcome the individual's unhappiness and lead him to act according to those values.

 Moreover, happy people with weak characters or who possess an underdeveloped code of values are still not likely to engage in cruel behavior or join evil movements. But unhappy people who lack strong character or who have not adopted a code of moral values are very likely to act out their unhappiness in anti-social ways.

 This is particularly true in the personal realm where unhappiness can be so powerful that it regularly overwhelms a person's value system. I suspect that most readers of this column know someone with generally good values and good character who nevertheless acts indecently toward some member(s) of his/her family: a parent, a child, a spouse, a sibling.

 One of the sadder revelations as one gets older is seeing how often psychological problems determine behavior.

 When my book on happiness first came out in 1999, I was interviewed on dozens of talk shows. In almost every case, the interviewer asked me, "So you write that we have a moral obligation to be happy -- what do you mean?"

 The notion that happiness (or at least acting happy) is a debt we owe to all those in our lives and even to society at large is foreign to the vast majority of people. Yet, the more time I have devoted to writing and lecturing on this issue, the more I have come to realize that this is indeed the case. Ask anyone who was raised by an unhappy parent; ask anyone married to a chronically unhappy person; ask any worker whose co-worker is moody what their life is like and you will readily understand the moral obligation to be as happy as one can be.

 Polls consistently show Republicans and religiously active Jews and Christians to be happier than Democrats and secular Americans. In light of the above, what does the preceding tell us about the good each group is likely to achieve?