Arthur Brooks – President, American Enterprise Institute
If I do my job in the next few minutes, I’m going to give you the secret to happiness so that when you go home tonight you can start living a happier life and you can start sharing with more people, so that they can have a happier life too, So let’s start with what we know about happiness.
There have been hundreds, literally hundreds, of studies by economists and social scientists and psychologists about happiness, hundreds over the past thirty and forty years. And basically they all start by asking the question: who’s happy?
In the United States we know that all the way back to the 1970s a very stable proportion of the population is very happy. About a third of Americans say anonymously and in accurate tests an accurate surveys that they’re very happy people. Okay, we have no reason to doubt that this is true. A little over 50% say they’re somewhat happy, about 10% to 15% of the population is chronically depressed and say they’re not very happy.
Okay now, that’s actually not the most interesting question. The most interesting question is what brings happiness. And we know the answer to that too. It’s three things; three things bring happiness: genetics, big life events, and choices. And I’m going to tell you about all three, starting with genetics.
Now, a few years ago social scientists at the University of Minnesota constructed a wonderful database that included 75 pairs of identical twins born between the mid-1930s and the mid 1950s. Now they were separated at birth and adopted by separate families. It’s like a social scientist’s dream; it’s almost as if the government had done this.
And at age 40, they were reunited and they were given a personality test, so they were asked about the things that were going on their lives and the way that they viewed their lives. This is really interesting because you’ve got DNA carbon copies of each other and they have different upbringings so you can net out the parts that are nature and the parts that are nurture, statistically.
And what did they find? They found that 48% of their happiness is genetic. As a matter of fact they found that more of their personality was genetic than they ever understood before. 40% of how you vote is genetic; 40% of how you worship is genetic, so this explains some things. Do you have someone in your life who is chronically happy? Do you have a coworker who’s happy all the time? It’s very irritating, by the way, and so sometimes you wonder, that person is just happy all the time.
What are they doing right? What’s their secret? Their secret is their DNA. Are you a grumpy person, are you dark and brooding? It’s your DNA; it’s not your fault, you have lousy parents is basically what it comes down to.
So if that’s the case, does it really matter what we do? The answer is yeah, because if half of it is taken away from you you better get the other half right. Now 40% is genetic but there are other innate qualities, other innate characteristics that are really important, the most interesting of which is gender.
Who’s happier, men or women? The answer is women. Most studies, the overwhelming majority of studies, find that women are happier than men and always have been. Okay, I mean it’s too bad guys but I studied this myself and I find the same thing. I’ve looked at the happiness of men and women by marital status and what do we find? Married women are happier than married men, single women are happier than single men, widowed women are way happier than widowed men. What’s so funny about that? I told that one to my wife and she says, “Oh, no kidding.” In general women are happier than men.
Here’s another interesting mystery: what’s the average unhappiest age in a man’s life? I’d heard about this phenomenon forever, so have you, this is the male mid-life crisis, right? When do you think it is? 70, 17. That doesn’t count, only grown ups 45, 45; it’s 45 that is exactly right. 45 is the average unhappiest age in a man’s life. And it goes something like this: the trajectory of life for men is interesting and sometimes a little sad.
See, when you’re in your twenties and thirties the life recipe is actually kind of simple. Life is like a super highway when you’re in your twenties and thirties. If you want to get ahead and you want to have a better life and you want to be happier and more successful just hit the gas. Just look for more money and look for a better career and look for more promotions and it’s simple.
The problem is on the superhighway guys get to age 45 and a bunch of them stop and they say “I think I’m on the road. I don’t want to be on the superhighway, but I can’t stop because I’ve got the house payment and I’ve got all this stuff; It’s hard, I’ll get hit or get in an accident if I stop, it’ll be bad if I stop, a whole lot of guys find.
Now, OK, next question: what do they want? Staying on the same metaphor, what they want is to be on another road that they picked themselves they want to be on a little dirt road with a motorcycle on it where the driver is not wearing a helmet. That’s what they want, so who’s the guy on the motorcycle because the secret to happiness is being the guy on a motorcycle without the helmet. So I want to know who he is. Tell me about it. I know who he is.
He is me. And I’ll tell you how it works. When I was 19, I dropped out of college. Dropped out, kicked out, splitting hairs I ran off to play music for a living. I was a French horn player, that was all I wanted to do. I wound up in the Barcelona symphony by my my late twenties. It was great, I love the music, I still love the music, it’s the best music ever written. Seems like a dream, right?
But I got a glimpse of my forty five year old self. I got to look in the crystal ball, it was all the guys working with me, who were usually 20-30 years older than me, who around 45 had kind of lost their happiness and now they were drinking a little too much and their marriages weren’t so good and they didn’t like the music so much.