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The Progressive Politics of Happiness

John de Graaf

The following is adapted from a speech John de Graaf delivered to the annual gala of the Northwest Progressive Institute on Mercer Island, Washington, June 9, 2010.

You may have noticed that the subject of happiness is hot right now. In the past year and a half, more than 27,000 books and articles have been written on the subject. But the interest in happiness is not entirely new.

Once upon a time, in a far-off land of green valleys and soaring mountains, a boy of 16 was crowned King—and began in a quiet way to change the world. The year was 1972—not so long ago. The faraway land was a tiny Himalayan Kingdom called Bhutan, thought of by many as the model for Shangri-La. And the 16-year-old king was Jigme Wangchuck, who, when asked what he would do to increase Bhutan’s Gross National Product, replied that, as far as he was concerned, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” And Gross National Happiness would be the goal of his reign.

Now if any leader, young or old, had made those remarks here in the United States, he or she would have received a few polite chuckles perhaps, then a collective yawn, and an exhortation to get real and get back to making money. But the people of Bhutan take their kings very seriously, and slowly over the next 38 years, they began to put a little meat on the concept of Gross National Happiness. They wanted to figure out how to measure it, how to enhance it through government and social policies, and how to educate themselves about the behaviors that lead to greater joy. So they invited leading “happiness scientists” to their once isolated land—psychologists and economists and ecologists and philosophers and sociologists and experts in health and in the creation of scientific surveys.

In time, they began to measure nine domains that affect happiness:

Psychological well-being or mental health

Physical health

Time or Work-life balance


Cultural vitality and expression

Social connection and relationships

Environmental quality and access to nature

Quality of governance…

And finally…finally…

Material well-being.

It’s telling that “material well-being” (translation: stuff), the near-obsessive goal of American economics, is only one of the dimensions Bhutan uses to analyze economic decisions. That’s because research has shown that stuff only makes us happier up to a point.

For poor nations, happiness tends to rise quickly as purchasing power and standard of living increases. But past a certain level of income, the curve of increased satisfaction flattens and eventually becomes a straight line. It may even begin to decline. So, for instance, in the United States, surveys of self-reported life satisfaction show a slight downward trend over the past half century, despite a near-tripling of average incomes.

It is true that in virtually all societies, rich people are happier than poor people, a phenomenon that reflects status and power differences and the psychological fact that we tend to judge our success, and therefore, rate our satisfaction, in comparison to others. But as an entire society’s income rises past a minimum of modest comfort, overall levels of happiness do not rise with it.

This finding leads former Harvard University president Derek Bok, author of the new book, THE POLITICS OF HAPPINESS, to a sensible observation:

If it turns out to be true that rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier, as much of the recent research suggests, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?

    What is the point, indeed?

    But what, you might ask, has this to do with progressive politics?

    Well, some of the world’s leading happiness experts created surveys for Bhutan to use in measuring its people’s life satisfaction. And policy makers in Bhutan are using the results to guide its economic, social and environmental policies. They’ve even used it to decide NOT to join the WTO!

    In the past decade, Bhutan has taken its message of happiness to the world. In fact, Bhutan’s Secretary of Happiness was in the United States recently. He spoke at the first Gross National Happiness Conference in Burlington, Vermont, and then traveled to Seattle to address the Green Festival, the Environmental Protection Agency, and members of the Seattle City Council.

    The happiness surveys developed for Bhutan have been used in Brazil and Canada and other countries—in cities, in universities and even in corporations. In the city of Victoria, BC, civic organizations formed a Happiness Partnership and conducted a scientific sampling of the nine domains of happiness in their city. You can take the survey yourself:

    We are now hoping to create a similar partnership in Seattle. In fact, it seems we may have a little friendly “happiness” competition among Northwest cities—Victoria, Vancouver, Bellingham, Seattle, Olympia and Portland. You may want to think about it in your own town.

    Imagine taking seriously what Thomas Jefferson wrote about governments being instituted to promote “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He didn’t say “property,” or “maximum incomes” or the “grossest national product”; he said “happiness.”

    Imagine asking a simple question: What’s our economy for, anyway?, and then concluding, with Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the Forest Service, that its purpose is “the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run.” In other words, Gross National Happiness with justice and sustainability.

    How might this affect our politics?

    Well, interestingly, only 6% of Victoria residents said they thought they’d be happier if they had more possessions. Ranking their material satisfaction, they gave it a score of 92 on a scale of 100. You can find the results here.

    They were far less happy with their environmental quality, giving it a score of only 63, and even unhappier with their financial security, scoring it 53.

    But the lowest score of all was for “time balance”—a score of only 46 out of 100. According to the Victoria survey, “Stress and problems of time-balance were the most important factors in limiting well-being across the regional population.”

    I suspect that our surveys in Seattle and other American cities will produce similar results, but with scores for time balance and economic security even lower than in Victoria. And I would suggest that this has some implications for our politics that progressives have not taken seriously.

    For example, in a recent article in the Huffington Post, Roger Hickey, the organizer of the America’s Future Now conference held this week in Washington D.C., wrote:

    “Every progressive completely agrees that we must restore the kind of supercharged economic growth we had in the 1950s and 1960s if we are to end unemployment and reduce the deficit.”

      Whoa! Now I don’t know about you, but every progressive I know completely agrees that such a development would be ecological suicide. Our ecological footprint is already five times what is sustainable. If everyone in the world consumed as we do, we’d need five planets. We’d look back at the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis as a picnic.

      What we need now is not supercharged economic growth, but an economy that is less consumptive, kinder to the earth, more local and with less of our time committed to the market, so that we have more time for our communities, for our families, for our health and to be good environmental stewards. That’s the kind of economy Juliet Schor advocates in her new book, PLENITUDE.

      Green, alternative technologies can help us to transition there, but they can never perpetuate a consumer lifestyle that knows no limits on a planet already stretched to the limit. Mr. Hickey needs to seriously rethink this. Progressives need to re-think this.

      And if we do, it will suggest a different strategy—a strategy centered on time instead of growth.

      Here of some examples of the kind of policies we should promote:

      Paid family leave. Only the United States, Swaziland, Liberia and Papua New Guinea don’t guarantee at least paid maternity leave. Most wealthy countries also offer paid leave for fathers.

      Paid sick days. Only a handful of desperately poor countries and the United States, don’t guaranteed paid leave when you’re sick. 86 percent of food service workers get no paid sick days and they come to work sick and get you sick—they can be fired if they don’t.

      Paid vacation time. Only the United States, Guyana, Suriname, Nepal and Burma don’t guarantee at least some paid vacation time. Every European gets at least four weeks off with pay a year. We should support the Paid Vacation Act of 2009, sponsored in Congress by a true progressive, Representative Alan Grayson of Florida. It’s a very modest proposal, but a step in the right direction.

      Here’s another idea: the choice of shorter work-time. In the Netherlands and some other European countries, workers have a legal right to reduce their hours without losing their jobs. They keep the same hourly pay, pro-rated benefits and full health care. This is an enormous expansion of personal freedom—the right to choose time over money, to select shorter hours of work without losing one’s livelihood.

      Each of these policy reforms is essential to good health. Indeed, our lack of these rights is part of the reason Americans have the worst health in the industrial world, despite paying twice as much as everyone else does for healthcare. We are almost twice as likely to suffer chronic illness in old age as Europeans are, for example. Workplace stress in America is a killer, the “new tobacco” in the words of one cardiologist.

      Such ideas should have been part of the health care debate. Progressives should have insisted that they be part of the health care debate. If we enact these policies, we can become healthier and ultimately, at far less cost.

      Right now, Americans work 200 to 400 hours more each year than Europeans do. We need to work less so all can work. We can reduce unemployment by sharing the work, as progressive economist Dean Baker has pointed out clearly. Most Americans don’t need more stuff in their lives. But they desperately need more time, and more opportunity to work and work reasonable hours.

      Such changes will make our families and communities stronger. And they will reduce our impact on the environment. With more time, people walk more, bicycle more, and use public transit more frequently. With longer working hours, they choose the fastest, most energy-intensive, form of transport. This is not rocket science and many studies confirm it.

      A politics of time is also a politics of happiness. Gallup does an annual poll, measuring levels of well-being in 140 countries. Even Forbes magazine confirmed that the United States in nowhere in the top ten. The four happiest countries are Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden. Forbes explained what they have in common. They are among the world’s most egalitarian nations and they pay the greatest attention to work-life balance. Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett added one more commonality they share. They pay among the highest taxes in the world. Obviously, they get something for their money.

      A politics of happiness and of time balance has profoundly progressive implications.

      If we don’t understand this, leading conservatives do, and they want to nip this in the bud. Their think tanks and scholars are already at work to hijack happiness. Consider two new books by Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute. One is called GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS. The other is called THE BATTLE, and is endorsed by Carl Rove and Dick Cheney as a “must read for conservatives who want our movement to dominate the intellectual and policy debates of America’s coming vital decades.”

      These books are to the science of happiness what the shills for BP are to the science of climate change. Contrary to what virtually every happiness study has found, Brooks contends that the happiest countries are those with the least government and lowest taxes.

      Happiness researchers have found pretty much the opposite. To the Danes, Swedes, Finns and Dutch, Brooks’ findings must read like a joke book.

      Brooks does agree that after a certain point more money doesn’t make people happier.

      Then he uses it to argue that, therefore, in America, inequality doesn’t matter. And he even argues that reducing American working hours would make workers unhappier. Brooks says that Americans don’t work long hours because they have to; they do it because they love to work so much. Vacations would make them completely miserable!

      Well, I’ve got news for Mr. Brooks. Gallup’s daily survey finds that Americans are 20 percent happier on weekends than on workdays—what a surprise! They are 30 to 40 percent happier on holidays. And when they rank the happiness their daily activities bring, working ends up second from the bottom, more pleasurable only than that mother of all downers, the morning commute. By contrast, socializing after work ranks second from the top!

      Now, I’m not knocking work. A good job with a living wage that contributes to society and provides for one’s family is central to a happy life. We need to be sure that every American has the opportunity to have such a job. But more is not always better and 50 hours a week is not better than 40 or 32, especially when we are sacrificing our health and social connection.

      Arthur Brooks’ conclusions may be laughable to happiness researchers. But the fact that the President of the American Enterprise Institute devotes not one, but two, books to the politics of happiness, tells us just how dangerous he feels this subject is for the Right and just how necessary he—and the big conservative money that feeds him—feel it is to reframe and hijack this dialogue before it begins.

      We can’t let them do that. And we can’t let this moment pass without action. The politics of happiness are progressive at their core. They call for policies that go deeper than economic growth, to the core values of family and community, health and stewardship, a balanced life on a sustainable planet. And they are part of our progressive tradition.

      Nearly a hundred years ago, when thousands of women left the dismal textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, to demand a better life, they carried banners which read:

      WE WANT BREAD AND ROSES TOO. Bread and roses were the twin goals of the old labor movement; higher wages to buy the bread; shorter working hours to smell the roses.

      Somehow we’ve come to focus solely on the bread and we’ve left the roses to wither. It’s time to water them again.


      Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
      John de Graaf

      John de Graaf

      John de Graaf, Outreach Director of The Happiness Initiative, has produced more than fifteen national PBS documentary specials and is the co-author of "Affluenza: How Overconsumption Is Killing Us—And How to Fight Back" (2014). He has taught at Evergreen State College and serves on the board of Earth Island Institute. His new initiative is the Make America Beautiful Again campaign.  He can be reached through his website:

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