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In Review :: Secrets of Happiness

People who are kind and caring score higher on all sorts of measures like happiness, health, longevity, self-esteem, and creativity

Photo by Sergey Kogun/IS
Photo by Sergey Kogun/IS

 

Why Good Things Happen to Good People
by Stephen Post and Jill Neimark

Broadway, 2007, 320 pages, $23.95

Buy the book

 

Once in a while, along comes some research that could really make a difference.

In the last few years, psychologists have begun to explore the subject of happiness. It seems ironic that we need “research” to tell us how to be happy, but we don't seem to be doing too well on our own—over the last several years, happiness has been on the decline and depression has spiked.

The theme of this new research is this: After a certain point, money and material things don't increase happiness. What does? Caring relationships with other people.

This is incredibly important research. Too many of us believe that if we're rich, we'll be happy. It's a belief system that is responsible not only for personal unhappiness, but for corruption in society and devastation of the planet. In a system with no limit on profit, some will do anything, no matter what the consequences, to get rich.

There's another fascinating group of studies that focuses on the health of populations. These studies find that the biggest predictor of the health of a nation, as measured in terms of longevity, is the gap between the rich and the poor. Study after study has found that when this gap widens, longevity goes down. Thus, in the 1950s when we had a broad middle class, the United States was at the top of the list of developed countries for health and longevity. Now, as the wealth divide continues to widen, we're at the bottom.

It's not just a case of the poor bringing down the average. No, the wealth divide also hurts the rich. A rich person in the U.S. has a shorter life expectancy than someone in a place like the Netherlands where the wealth divide is smaller.

This last finding is puzzling. The rich can afford health care, so what's going on? It appears that it's not just health care, but the experiences in our daily lives that affect us. A cutthroat culture with extreme competitiveness and an egregious struggle for status turns out to be bad for everyone.

To help us understand this puzzle, we can turn to a new book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People. Author Stephen Post, professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine and president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, writes about the growing body of research that shows that kindness, caring, and generosity are good for your health, happiness and longevity. As he puts it in his final chapter: “Give and be happier. Give and be healthier. Give and live longer.” Over and over the studies show that “good” behavior not only helps the recipient, but the giver. People who are kind and caring score higher on all sorts of measures like happiness, health, longevity, self-esteem, and creativity.

So the research on wealth distribution and longevity makes sense. In a country with a huge gap between the rich and the poor, social trust and social cohesion break down, and Post finds that trust and caring are crucial to health and happiness. Post's book isn't pop psychology that just tells us to smile and think happy thoughts. He shows the complexity of “good” behavior by exploring a variety of “ways” one can contribute: The Ways of Generativity, of Forgiveness, of Courage, of Humor, of Respect, of Compassion, of Loyalty, of Listening, and of Creativity.

The book is fascinating and readable, and this research is important. But we also need to consider the institutional and policy changes that encourage “good” behavior. Erich Fromm, one of our most important American philosophers, said that people are capable of both “good” behavior and “bad” behavior, and it is societal institutions and policies that determine which will flourish.

For instance, Post recommends volunteering, joining groups, or getting involved with the arts. But who has the time anymore? He shows how important it is to take time to listen to people, to pay attention, to appreciate, to empathize, to care. But who does this when they're rushing to an appointment or exhausted after long hours at work? In a highly competitive and unequal society where people are forced to work long hours, they will focus on money, status, winning, and “getting ahead.” They will have less time, energy, and motivation for “good” behavior. In societies like so many of today's European countries, where government policies have created a large middle class and shorter work hours, people focus on things other than the race for success and the fight for more.

Ultimately, we need movements that bring about policy changes that create a society that enables “good” behavior. This is not to say that we don't also need personal change, because personal change can motivate people to work for social change, and Post shows how important personal change is for individual health and happiness. Further, policy changes are long in coming, and Post shows how we can make positive personal changes today. (Waiting for the “revolution” can take a while.)

Neither personal nor policy changes will be easy. How many of us have been dismissed as “do-gooders,” naive innocents who fail to recognize that it's a dog- eat-dog world and that you'd better get the other guy before he gets you. This is the belief system that supports the corporate consumer society and is destroying the well-being of people and the planet. Post's work shows us our true human nature and helps us remember what's really important.


Cecile Andrews is the author of Slow is Beautiful: New Visions of Community, Leisure, and Joie de Vivre (2006) and Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life (1997).


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